When you walk down any given street in our suburb, at least half of the women are veiled, probably more like three quarters. There’s a mix of ethnicities – Indian, Arabic and Tanzanian – and Muslim denominations, from the very conservative women in black with socks, gloves and eyes hidden, to the ladies in their colour coordinated dress and veil combos, through to the Ismaili in their jeans or skirts above the knee. And there’s a mix of ages. The Bohra school uniform has girls as young as 3 in long pants, a skirt and a headscarf.
And it breaks my heart.
Because the little girl who lives in the ground floor flat of our apartment building has, at 10, just started wearing a headscarf in the last 6 months. She loves to borrow Elliot’s bike and tear around on it, or climb on the trapeze we’ve set up. Because she’s just a little girl and she needs to move her body. But now she has to coordinate a headscarf at the same time, and it impedes her movement and her play.
Maybe the little girls who start wearing the headscarf at a much younger age will be more adept by the time they’re 10, and won’t have such trouble managing it. But what else are they learning, I wonder?
Are they learning that women’s bodies are dangerous? Or that men in the world are so boorish and uncontrollable that veiling is necessary to protect little girls? Or that boys have the freedom to run and play unhindered but they do not?
And aren’t they just hot? Maybe their bodies are used to it – I know how I’ve acclimatised during our time in Dar – but it’s not uncommon for these fully veiled women to be accompanied by a husband or other male family member who is wearing a t-shirt or even shorts!
There’s a darker side too. FGM is practiced in Tanzania, including in the Arabic and Indian communities, and when I see the outward control of girls’ bodies through veiling, I wonder about what is unseen too. (Though it’s important to say that not every family that veils also practices FGM – 40% of Tanzanian women veil, FGM only affects 18%, and FGM appears to move along cultural rather than religious lines.)
So I have this emotional reaction. My heart breaks.
But the rational side of me counters…
It reminds me that I’m an individualist, so I find it hard to accept these girls being taught to veil when they don’t have a choice. Yet choice is less prominent in collectivist cultures, and I acknowledge there’s no neutral way to bring kids up. After all, I teach my own children my religious beliefs and practices, and cultural values too, and that shapes them and their worldview.
It also calls to mind prominent feminists in other parts of the world who have argued that veiling is actually a sign of resistance rather than oppression. This is not a conversation I have had with the families I am judging when I see them on the road, so the meaning of their veiling is, well, veiled to me.
It brings up other images, for example of fully veiled mothers bossing their husbands around! The oppression narrative is not sufficient on its own.
Just like a narrative suggesting women and girls in the west are free from oppression would be similarly lacking as girls and women are sexualised in mainstream media, and male characters outnumber female ones in children’s literature and get to do the more exciting things. I might want to think our issues are a speck compared to their log, but that’s likely cultural bias speaking.
So I find myself having these intense emotional reactions, and also having to hold them loosely, because I don’t have anywhere near the full picture, or the right to judge.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.