I’m working in my office and a student, wearing nikab, a face veil that drapes in front of the face and covers everything except a woman’s eyes, which a friend who lives here affectionately calls a ‘ninja mask.’ (in case you need a photograph: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/niqab/).
A side note: many nikab clad women drive wearing these veils, despite the fact that the limit peripheral vision enormously. This is not just my un-hijabed opinion. When I was talking about this with another student, one who wears a shyla, a headscarf that covers hair, neck, and ears, she agreed and said this is an opinion that her father shares: women driving wearing nikab are not necessarily the safest (a whole new angle to women driving stereotypes).
But back to this particular day, she is wearing nikab and comes in to ask me to use my cell phone. She has to use my phone, she tells me, because her parents won’t let her have a phone. They think it’s “bad.” Yet, they think it’s okay for their daughter to walk into a stranger’s office (I have never seen this student before, expect on the first occasion that she came to use my phone) to ask to use the phone. This seems a discrepancy to the issue of modesty, which is what they seem concerned with, if her dress and lack of phone are any indication.
“You remember me?” She asked, as though surprised.
“No one else has asked to use my phone,” I respond. And it’s true. An area of the world where workers can SMS in to bosses that they aren’t coming to work, and people break up via mobile phones, not to mention use Bluetooth technology to make assignations with strangers in public, her not having a phone stand out.
At a mini-conference this week, I asked a few co-workers to help assist in taking microphones to audience members who had questions for panelists, I was confronted with the divide between acceptable forms of work and unacceptable forms of work. This is determined by status and image of course.
“Aren’t there any servants to do it?” One asked me.
Servants? Was work an extension of her home?
Let’s flash to the sight that greeted me as I got out of my car earlier this week: two women who work in the kitchen of our building, bringing tea and making copies, scurrying into the parking lot to get two grocery bags from staff in my building. The bas had the contents of the other women’s breakfast. They were items that could have been stuffed into my tote bag that was slung over my arm. I watched as the procession, the staff in front, and the tea ladies in back, proceeded into the building.
Back to the microphone handler search: Of course I had to start with the women because the men were too dignified to do this task.
Of the few I asked, most pointed to their long abayas, the hems of which were dragging on the floor, and said they couldn’t run because they would fall. This is how dress marks us in our everyday lives here; the thobes and abayas don’t allow for running, pushing, lifting, or any other semi-manual labor. They make for great gliding however, as women’s feet are hidden, and girls from a young age learn to walk in small, mincing steps, designer handbags dangling from the crook of their arms. There isn’t any sense of the egalitarian idea of shifting identities – I may be a plumber during the day but at night I can be whatever I want, all I have to do is change my clothes – you are what you wear, essentially.
There were two volunteers, eventually however, and this was even more interesting. One was sharp: the microphone was right there when someone needed it. She moved swiftly (even in her abaya) and stood to the side as the speaker said whatever was on his/her mind. The other was much more timid. And although she stood against the wall and made to approach several speakers near her, she never did actually hand the microphone to anyone. She was shy and the distances too far for her to travel.
“I might meet my husband,” one person said, as I asked her why she didn’t want to help us out (it was a long day and these handlers were on their feet for an hour at a time).
In the end she turned me down; I guess he’ll just have to wait until another day.