Culture the true measure of a nation’s soul

March 25, 2002

SANA’A, YEMEN – So where were you on the Sunday when Canada took back a piece of its soul? I heard you danced on that bright afternoon when our boys struck hockey gold for the first time in 50 years. Coast to snowy coast, 10 million of you including Parliament itself, waltzed in the afterglow.

And Yours Truly? The boy who would rise at dawn to play at the local rink in Thorold? The guy who brought a bunch of sticks here to teach the Arabs our game? At the beach, on the Red Sea, for a getaway with my wife and friends. While the Olympic Games ended with fireworks, I, lamentably, continued my education in all things Yemeni.

My lesson was that women here never (ever) remove their covers in public, beach or otherwise. I found this rather bizarre, especially when juxtaposed against our friend’s nine-year-old daughter Tasbeer. A knight, not a pawn, this gregarious girl ran freely with others in their fun summer attire while the older gals, neck-deep in water, worked ever so diligently to keep their soggy headgear straight.

“The balta will settle her down,” is the opinion of the girl’s mom.

It might do just that. That’s because here, what’s acceptable to the group is more important than any individual. Maintaining honour is the highest virtue imaginable, and family reputations have traditionally hinged on the purity of their women.

What you can’t see, you can’t lust.

A twenty-something single guy I know put it this way. “I prefer that women cover, because if they didn’t, we’d always gaze at their loveliness. When they’re covered, we don’t even notice them.” True. Especially since baltas in Yemen are black as night.

He said some women like the cover, because they know they’d never win any beauty pageants. Besides, he notes, it’s a fashion statement. Young university women in Sana’a prefer slim cuts with platform shoes. A sleek balta with veil, from Paris perhaps, apparently goes for $100 US, no small change in a developing country.

Other guys say they’re not so hung up on the issue. And, while as a foreign man I can’t talk much with local women, my hunch is they would tell me the only reason they may prefer the drape is because it gives a sense of safety. Some guys here wouldn’t bat an eye before pinching a gal, then blaming her for being so darn alluring.

With that said, Westerners need not see the balta as a flashpoint for everything wrong in the Muslim world. For centuries it’s been accepted in Islam that the sexes need to exist in their own universes. In addition to preserving modesty, the cover is a symbol of women’s private sanctuary in the home, where their role is to keep families stable.

The group has also traditionally accepted that men have more public positions, with accompanying social and political clout. Is this fair? Is it equal? I don’t know. Is a rose equal to a jasmine? Or do they simply each have their own unique shape and scent. That’s the traditional Muslim view. One may or may not think it’s very bright. But having a fixation on the veil actually distracts one from other gender inequities.

With World Women’s Day just passed, consider this. Yemeni women marry very young, usually by 20, always to older men. First-cousin marriages are preferred. Of course this is illegal in places like Canada, but the thinking here is that it strengthens families and protects financial resources. It also sets up all kinds of abusive dynamics.

Tradition also pressures women to produce sons. If they don’t, they may be relegated to Wife No. 2 or 3 in another family. Muslim men are allowed four wives, by the way, but generally stick to one for reasons of economics and other pragmatics you might imagine. Still, families are large. And in places like Yemen, where obstetrical care is very poor, thousands of moms subsequently die while giving birth.

Consider also the poor gal who, in response to instructions for taking her medicine, said, “Don’t tell me, tell my husband. I’m just a cow.” Can you imagine? Without the most basic of learning opportunities, women here are often left in prisons of ignorance. You’d cry if I told you the number of times a frail woman or child has stood at my car window asking for a handout. Meanwhile, we wring our hands over health and education in Canada.

Let’s return to the beach. Tasbeer likely will avoid such pain because she’s from a healthy and progressive home. This gregarious girl might even lead a life following inspirations of other strong Arab women. Egypt’s Hoda Sharawi, for example, sparked an Arab feminist movement 80 years ago after refusing to bow to custom and wear a veil.

Now women make up a good portion of the bureaucracy in that country.

But what if a girl like Tasbeer were to get to North America? In her teen years, amid plenty of liberty, she’d find herself caught in a rather vicious culture war. She’d turn on the TV to see the likes of Pamela and Xena prance half-naked. She’d see a variety of programs and ads, in fact, with end-to-end talk about sex: premarital, extramarital and other barely imaginable, all targeted to titillate youngsters like her.

She’d find her school stocked with condoms, but wonder why girls 15 to 19 in Canada still have the highest rate of STDs. She learn of global surveys that show 75 per cent of teens say HIV and sexual diseases are, in fact, their biggest fears in life. She’d see our tide of marital breakdown and pain in the eyes of her friends, and wonder how this could happen in a place that knows so much of about love.

Swimming with a drape on, I’d say, is rather weird. But so is taking off one’s clothes in public, without blushing. This is what the West is doing, now that technology sends our photos around the planet. Maclean’s magazine aptly notes in the last 25 years, “Our minds and bodies are better, but our souls, perhaps, are not.” It’s why Westerners are misunderstood, indeed hated by extremists, in these parts.

Now the Muslim world is being called The Last Remaining Giant of a new global order. I, frankly, don’t see such an enemy. I see a culture marred from, among other things, the gender wars: a place that’s deeply wounded, just like ours. It’s a scared part of Earth that, in the end, is looking for eternity and Eden, just like, somewhere deep down, the West is. The truth is any culture has the potential for both madness and life to be written on its soul.

To celebrate who they are, cultures have always played their own music. As Canadians, for example, we know a unique love of hockey and couldn’t imagine an identity without it. (For some reason, the paper I help edit here ran what’s likely its largest headline ever, about Canada’s gold.) But cultures also live within closed circles.

We don’t see how this binds us, and we’re not able to see our own need.

Ultimately, that need is for divine mending in our broken places. Indeed, this is at the heart of the current East-West conflict. And without such strong medicine, I’d like someone to tell me how anyone will ever have peace, either on the world stage or in their private lives.

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March 25, 2002 • Posted in ,
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