From here, our system is not so pure

December 2, 2002

SANA’A, YEMEN – Life in Yemen is different. Still, a colleague surprised me not long ago when I invited some boys from the office for an afternoon getaway at a local recreation centre.

“How are you enjoying it?” I asked Ramzy, while he splashed away in its swimming pool, one of just a handful of pools in this city of one million.

“Oh, this is great,” he said, looking up with appreciation. “I’ve never seen naked women before.”

Ramzy, a 20ish Yemeni who will be married in a few days, meant he had never seen women, in this case Westerners, in swimsuits. That’s because in public, Yemeni women always wear baltos, black head-to-toe drapes.

Even when venturing into water, like some female friends did in the Red Sea with my wife and I once, they still keep their soggy head-wraps on. Why? Because maintaining honour is the highest virtue in Islamic culture. Family reputations have traditionally hinged on the purity of their women. What you can’t see, you can’t lust.

Which is why Muslims in Nigeria recently couldn’t accept hosting this year’s Miss World pageant. For them, you might as well host the Happy Hooker Show. There were 215 killed in riots over the morality of it all. Are we surprised? No.

By now we know about Muslim extremists. We know of, for example, honour killings, when Muslim women are killed by their own families for things like having a child out of wedlock. Yemen has about 400 such killings a year. Pakistan has more.

We also shouldn’t be surprised that despite best-laid plans to suppress sexuality, more than an ankle will inevitably show. In fact, when fixated on excessive covering, it takes only that ankle or wrist or set of pretty eyes from behind a veil to inflame passions all the more.

Just ask the 40 Arab sexologists who met at Oxford University in 2000. They talked about out-of-wedlock births, abortion and homosexuality in the Middle East, taboo topics for sure. They noted the religious rules versus what folks are actually doing.

Liberal Lebanon now even has a version of Dr. Ruth. Al Shater Yahki is a chat show with lively debate on things I won’t mention. Except for AIDS. A UN agency estimates 440,000 Arabs have it. Yemen, along with Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan, are the worst hit. The conclusion at Oxford was Arab eroticism is based on trying to get out from under an unrealistic ideal. Most of us would agree. Swimming with the drape on? Come on.

Too bad the West sets such a rotten example of anything better.

Living upstairs from my wife and I are the landlord and family, including 10-year-old Tasbeer, a bright, gregarious girl who might some day want to come to North America, where she’d be caught in a vicious culture war.

She’d see Pamela and Xena prance around half naked on TV. She’d see other shows and ads and end-to-end talk about sex: premarital, extramarital and barely imaginable, all targeted to titillate youngsters like her.

She’d find her school stocked with condoms and wonder why, in Canada, girls 15 to 19 have such a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases. She’d learn of a recent global survey that shows three in four teens say such diseases are their biggest life fears.

Finally she’d see our tide of marital breakdown and the pain in the eyes of her friends and wonder how this could happen in a place that knows so much about love. Yeah, swimming with the drape on is weird. But so is taking off your clothes for the world without blushing.

Which is why I don’t see the Muslim world as an enemy as much as a culture that’s marred by, among other things, the gender wars — a deeply wounded place, like ours, a scared part of Earth seeking eternity and Eden, like places in the West.

The truth is any culture has the potential for either madness or life to be written on its soul. We all need divine mending in our broken places.

While trying to figure out people here, especially in our post-9/11 world, let’s not forget to check the mirror.

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December 2, 2002 • Posted in ,
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