Girls’ niqab assassinates their childhood, forces them toward early womanhood [Archives:2008/1184/Reportage]

August 25 2008
Because of tradition, many girls start wearing veils right from their teenage years.
Because of tradition, many girls start wearing veils right from their teenage years.
Yemen Times Staff
Taiz Bureau

Little Muslim girls often are obliged to enter the world of female veiling due to societal traditions and/or family oppression.

But how do they view the world through this black-colored niqab (a thin cloth worn over the head and face)? And what is society's view regarding such a phenomenon? Is it sympathetic toward their childhood or are girls in Yemeni society obliged to look like adults as early as possible in order to experience early marriage? This report seeks to answer these questions.

Eleven-year-old Ruba plays on the streets and alleys with her peers, whose clean, adorned hair flows uncovered down their backs while she wears her black school clothes (an abaya) and covers both her hair and face with a niqab.

Asked why she's dressed this way, she replies, “My father oppresses me and obliges me to wear the niqab, which gives me a continuous headache and difficulty breathing when I'm studying in class.”

Ruba admits that she sometimes must remove it in class, but then she must put it on again as soon as she leaves school for fear of her father because, as she explains, “My father won't allow me to go to school unless I wear it.”

Nine-year-old Hajar likewise is forced to wear the niqab by her father, who's considered a conservative and religious man. He says he must do this out of worry for others' opinion about his daughter.

Hajar says she hates to go out wearing the niqab. “People wonder when they see me walking on the street with my face and hair covered. Moreover, I like to play and be free, but I feel suffocated when I wear the niqab.”

Although she says she hates it, she must wear the niqab or her parents will punish her if she removes it. “I'm no longer able to play like I used to in the past. I even have to wear it when I leave my house to buy candy.”

She adds, “I hate everything black because black is the color of the niqab that my parents force me to wear, telling me that it's shameful to go outside unveiled.

“My teachers also talk a lot about my parents' wrongdoing against me. At school, I take it off only in class. When I return home, my father asks me if I removed it. I say 'No' in order to escape his punishment.”

Hajar also maintains that because of the niqab, she fears people. Additionally, she's concerned about her future, particularly as her father has told her that she'll soon be married to her cousin, although she doesn't want to marry and stop her studies.

Despite the fact that wearing the niqab is traditional in Yemen's conservative society, many Yemenis believe that forcing young girls to wear it goes against their childhood innocence.

University student A'ala, whose mother is Egyptian, notes that she's worn a niqab since high school, but she doesn't see that as a problem because she's an adult. “I wear the niqab because it's part of Yemeni tradition, just as some non-Yemenis living here also like to do.”

However, she says, “What concerns me is when parents order their young girls to wear it, with no regard for the fact that they're still children. This violates their childhood and thus, imprisons them within the niqab tradition.”

A'ala further maintains that young girls should have sufficient opportunity to enjoy their childhood, free from the societal constraints imposed upon adult females. She adds that some young girls wear a niqab in order to beg on the streets and in markets without being recognized by their relatives.

Um Suha believes that forcing young girls to wear the niqab indicates a family's backwardness. “Those who impose the niqab on their young daughters really mistreat them under the pretext of societal tradition, although such traditions have nothing to do with religion,” she maintains.

She adds that while the entire world stresses the importance of children's rights, families themselves often violate those rights. She points out that society as a whole and families in particular should be shelters for young girls where they can enjoy their innocence.

According to teacher Iqbal, young girls who wear the niqab are more likely to experience sexual harassment and poor educational performance. She confirms that many young girls forced to wear the niqab perform poorly in school because it prevents their clear vision in class and makes them feel imprisoned.

Further, she clarifies that according to Islam, only mature girls must cover their hair – not children. She adds that even with regard to covering the hands and face, Islamic teachings stipulate that this isn't obligatory and mature girls may leave their hands and face uncovered if they want to.

“Islam doesn't tell us to impose the niqab on girl children like people in Yemeni society do under the pretext of modesty and virtue,” Iqbal says, adding, “Girls who wear a niqab are subjected to sexual harassment because they attract attention from people, who then view them as adults rather than children.”

According to psychologist Manal Al-Selwi, imposing the niqab on girl children is a wrong traditional inheritance bequeathed from a former generation to modern Yemeni society. She alleges that the niqab contradicts such girls' nature because they don't realize what's going on around them.

“Yemeni fathers have a leadership complex, believing they should impose their views upon the other family members, including their young daughters,” Al-Selwi explains.

“Some fathers are enthusiastic about abiding by religious teachings and this is a good thing. However, what's wrong is misusing such teachings and imposing them on all other family members, including children,” she points out, further proposing that, “Human rights organizations should educate society about the wrongdoing committed against girl children regarding the niqab.”