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Pondering Hijab

Caitlin Myles

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Caitlin Myles  is completing a nine-month CIDA-funded internship in International Development Management with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC), part of the larger Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). She will be working with the NGO Resource Centre (NGORC) in Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania, from mid-July 2007 to the end of February 2008.  She graduated from McGill University (in Montreal, Quebec, Canada) in May 2007 with a Bachelor of Science, Major in Physics, and an Honours Concentration in International Development Studies.


Hijab really just means to cover or screen in Arabic, so it refers to modesty by any definition, though in the West is often used to refer to the headscarf worn by some Muslim women. I'm still trying to get a hold of the modesty situation here in Zanzibar, which is about 97% Muslim. Of course modesty is most evident in women's dress, though men here generally don't show their knees or shoulders. There is a male equivalent for the headscarf and other robes: many men wear the kufi (a small cap), and a few wear a long, traditional white robe, especially on Friday (the Muslim day of prayer). However, this seems to be largely optional, though most men wear traditional clothing to pray at the mosque (from what I've seen and heard, women simply aren't allowed into the mosques here in Zanzibar...). The dress code is much stricter for women, of course, and I'm not a fan of the double standard.

Just about all women and girls cover their heads, but uncovered forearms and half calves (especially while sitting down) seem to be acceptable. Moreover, young girls will often wear a headscarf, but have a knee-length skirt and completely bare arms under their veil. Also, many girls run around with their dresses undone in the back (I don't know whether it's because the clasp is broken because the dress has been worn by so many different girls, or because it's more comfortable). The headscarf is part of the school uniform for girls starting in preschool (and the kufi and white robe is the uniform at some schools for boys, which is REALLY cute on a four-year-old). Outside of school, girls up to the age of ten or so sometimes play in the streets without their heads covered.

Especially in rural areas, most Zanzibari women wear colourful kangas over their heads and wrapped around their waist over a skirt. Perhaps the strangest site I've seen with regards to hijab was a woman with her head covered and wearing the jilbab (a long, black, sort of jacket worn over the clothing in public by some women - the woman pictured in the Wiki picture I've linked to is in Stone Town!). Meanwhile, her daughter, perhaps four years old, was wearing a tiny mini skirt and a halter top, which I think is inappropriate for a child that age.

Perhaps 10% of women cover their faces with a niqab while in the street, though many will uncover their faces when in a restaurant, at work, outside on their doorstep at home, or in a dala dala, even if men are present. Male presence doesn't seem to be the determining factor for how much women cover, it seems to be more of a public-private thing. This reminds me of the traditional casa-calle (house-street) divide in Latin America, relegating women to the private sphere (casa), and largely keeping them out of the public sphere (calle - though this has changed significantly in many parts of Latin America).

Because Stone Town is so culturally diverse, people are quite tolerant with regards to dress. Indian women wear traditional saris, which sometimes bear the midriff, and they don't cover their heads. African Christian women dress just like they do in Dar es Salaam: usually knee-length to long pants or skirts, and tops that range in modesty from blouses to halter tops. The Maasai wear their traditional robes, and tourists can get away with just about anything, though most make an effort to be somewhat culturally sensitive (however there are a loutish few who walk around Stone Town dressed like itís a beach resort).

Personally, I usually make sure to cover my shoulders and knees, though I could probably cover less and still feel comfortable. I also sometimes wear a scarf around my neck or shoulders when I wear a shirt that's more low-cut (I found before I left that it's actually quite difficult to find women's shirts in Canada which are both not low-cut and which cover a good part of the shoulders and upper arm). As it is, I never feel uncomfortable in town with my head uncovered, and when I go to the rural areas on project visits with work, I seem to be considered appropriately dressed with a long skirt and my elbows covered.

This may change in the following weeks, since Ramadan starts today. Apparently everyone dresses more modestly during the Holy Month (though I haven't noticed this yet). Tourists have already started thinning out as well (since the European vacation season is over), so I will start to stand out more in Stone Town. Rebecca and I will have to decide whether or not to change our clothing patterns during our walk to and from work (and our sprint to and from home to eat at lunch time!).

Walking to work this morning, all of the usual food stands were gone, and all of the stores were closed. A square that's usually buzzing with men having coffee in the morning was almost deserted. And Christina and I spent an hour driving all around town this morning trying to find open stores to buy refreshments for a meeting at work. Iím excited about Ramadan, it's going to be very interesting, and I will probably be blogging a lot over the next four weeks...

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