YEMEN: A young woman explains why she wears the niqab, the all-covering veil
When 20-year-old university student Layla Asda decided to wear the face-covering veil niqab, her father went ballistic. A relatively secular artist, he told her that the black cloak made her look like an old woman.
Still she continued to wear it, even though her family opposed it.
As the burka controversy rages on in Europe, some women in the Middle East feel inclined to speak out about why they choose to wear the all-covering veil.
From under the black garment that covers everything on her face except for her brown, almond-shaped eyes, Asda, who is an English major at Sana University and is an intern at a Yemeni English-language newspaper, told Babylon & Beyond that wearing the veil makes her feel like she fits in. Not only does the niqab serve as protection on the bustling streets of the Yemeni capital, but it also allows her to be comfortably incognito.
Ironically, she said in a recent interview, it makes her feel more free.
When did you start wearing the niqab?
I've worn it for four years now. I started wearing it after high school because it's more of an open community at university. I freaked out a bit. I really wanted to wear the veil because all my friends at school started to wear it. Their families didn’t push them. They were excited to wear it. So I went to my family and asked them "What if I wear the niqab?"
And what did they say?
My father was against it. He called me ajouza [old woman]. He was laughing tremendously when I wore it for the first time. He hated it in the beginning. He used to say that if he were president, he would fine women who wear the niqab. One of my aunts was also really against it and became upset with me.
How do you feel when you wear the niqab?
I feel very happy. I feel more comfortable. People won't stare at me. No one will look at me if I'm walking down the street with a friend laughing loudly, talking, or eating. Nobody will focus on me at school where I feel professors are mainly focusing on unveiled women. If an unveiled student does something in class, she would be recognized immediately. But if you wear the veil, nobody will know what you are doing. I feel more respected in Yemen wearing it. The niqab is a protection for me.
So you are saying that it's good to wear the veil if you want to be incognito?
Yes, it's very good if you want to hide your feelings. If you get embarrassed you can hide it fast under the niqab. When I get embarrassed, for example, I make funny movements with my face and I don't want anyone to see it. So I wear the niqab because I am shy.
There was this mean professor once who got angry at me when my phone made a noise in class. He went off, starting to lecture the students about respect and things… I knew it was directed at me. So I was crying the whole time in class. Thank God I was wearing the veil. Otherwise the male students would have made fun of me. You can do whatever you want in a veil. You can eat, talk, laugh, chew… well, you can't really eat pasta. Lucky me, I hate pasta.
What happens when you go to cafes and restaurants where there are other men?
We usually go to the women's section, but if there is none I'll take off the niqab before I go in. If I take it off in this way no one in the restaurant will stare at me like they would do if I were to walk in and lift up the veil in front of them. It's like screaming "look at me."
Does the niqab protect against street harassment?
Most men treat women differently here if she wears the veil. If she’s veiled, they think she is very strict. They see an unveiled woman and think she must be open-minded. I am actually open-minded, but because this is how men think here I wear the veil.
Half of my friends wear the niqab. Most of them put it on when they were 17 or 18 on because they are beautiful and get harassed. When they wear the niqab they look awful and you can’t tell in the street if they're beautiful or not.
But you don't wear the niqab here at work. How come?
I am basically the only one who is fully veiled at the paper, so I feel more comfortable without it. People actually became more open with me here when I took it off.
So what would you do if you traveled to Europe where anti-niqab sentiment is running high in some countries? Would you still wear it there?
No, I would not wear the veil outside Yemen. People would stare at me and this is what I don't want happening to me. I would feel awkward in it because people are not used to it. They would think I am an alien or something.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Sana, Yemen
Photos: Layla Asda, 20, wears a niqab because she says the all-covering veil makes her feel comfortable and gives her protection in her society. Credit: Alexandra Sandels / Los Angeles Times