November 6, 2010
Posted: 1141 GMT
CNN Producer Gena Somra on a recent reporting trip to Yemen (Dane Kenny/CNN)
I've always been curious what life must be like for women who live behind the veil.
But I never thought I'd be in a position to experience it first hand.
As our team ventured out of Seiyun, Yemen, on our way to Tarim, I found myself pulling out my newly purchased niqab, and looking for help from my bewildered male teammates as to the proper way to adorn this thin and delicate piece of cloth.
After several unsuccessful tries to assemble it myself, our local fixer stepped in to assist. Soon I was looking at the world from a new (and somewhat uncomfortable) perspective.
September in this dry and dusty desert valley is scorching hot.... and being covered from head to toe in all black with only a tiny space for my eyes to glean the sun, seemed to draw the rays directly into me and intensify the already sapping heat that was bearing down on all of us.
The fabric was stretched and tied so tight that it cut across my lower eyelids and when I would blink I would feel its chiffon gently scratching my lashes. And even though I could breathe just fine, somehow this fabric over my nose and mouth made it feel like I could not. It was an unusual sensation to say the least.
But beyond the immediate physical discomfort that I had in some way anticipated, suddenly my senses were bombarded with things I had not.
I immediately wondered just how I would be able to do my job. How can I run if I need to, alongside my cameraman and reporter if I can't even see properly? How can I interview people if one of the main tools of conducting that interview is obscured and hidden from view?
How can I connect with people and make them feel at ease so they will be willing to share a piece of themselves with us and our camera, if no one even sees my facial expressions?
Even more basic and rudimentary thoughts flooded my mind... Am I wearing this right? Will I offend the local residents if I am not?
Will I be accepted by local residents in this deeply conservative part of the Hadramout valley?
As we neared our destination, I had no idea just how separate and distant I could feel in a car sandwiched so close between two people I have worked with for years. That suddenly the lines that divide male and female would glare at me and isolate me simply because of this piece of cloth.
I struggled inside my own mind to get comfortable with my new attire. After all, I'd chosen to dress this way, a choice I was making to convey respect for the conservative Muslim culture I was about to step into.
Could I have dressed in my everyday western attire, or merely worn a hijab? Most likely, yes. But I have found there is an all-too-common misconception of westerners when we travel: we expect everyone else to accommodate our needs, our way of life, and our points of view, instead of trying to adapt to theirs...a misconception I wanted no hand in continuing to perpetuate.
Ironically, the story we had planned to cover here was also about also clearing up misconceptions. The town of Tarim, known in Yemen as the spiritual heartland of Islam, professes to have more descendants of Prophet Mohammed than anywhere else in the world.
But with Yemen so prominently in the news because of reports of a resurgent al Qaeda, the fear in this town is of something quite different. Locals worry that the efforts to foster understanding about Islam here will be overshadowed by the more attention grabbing headline that the region is also the ancestral home of the bin Laden Family.
This particular morning, the final day of Eid, we had arrived at daybreak, to film the march of the faithful to the local mosque as the call to prayer rang out, and the sun rose from behind the mountains.
As I stepped out of the car, one of our police escorts, who had been with us since we arrived in Seiyun, gave me a thumbs up sign, as he smiled at my new look.
I smiled back, grateful for this gesture of kindness.... and then it dawned on me: the only smiling anyone would see from me would be the hint of happiness flashing in my eyes.
We began our day of shooting, looking for the right shots, the right characters, and overall the right way to tell the story of this town.
Mostly, we found a warm reception, and a people as curious about us as we were about them.
And while intellectually I understood why some of the responses I would receive were simply cultural and not personal; that the overall belief in this conservative part of Yemen was that for a man to avert his gaze from a woman was actually a sign of respect, and was considered his duty to do so; that to not address me directly even though I would ask a question, was again intended as a form of respect. But the cumulative effect of this lack of human contact, however pure its intended motivations may have been, affected me, leaving me with a feeling of isolation.
I don't know what invisible feels like, but I imagine if it had a feeling, this would have been it.
I had never known what it was like to be standing two feet from someone, to be introduced to them by my colleague, and yet be treated as if I wasn't even standing there, as if I didn't even exist...
I had never spent the day asking people questions to gain insight and over and over seeing the answers to my questions be addressed to someone other than me, as if my voice had come from their lips and not mine.
Yet there were other moments that served as a welcome and equally surprising counterbalance to those feelings.
Like when the same police escort who had earlier signalled his approval of my new look, stepped in to adjust my niqab after it had become loose, a measure he took tentatively until he saw it had been met instinctively with my hand over my heart and a nod of gratitude.
Or when he offered, through our translator, to bring me some jewelry the following day from his wife, so that I could be, in his words, "a true Yemeni woman."
Or when one of our interview subjects told me he agreed to grant us the interview, in large part, " because of the lengths I had gone to, to respect his faith and his culture."
Or when our guards and driver invited me to share their lunch with them; a homemade stew that they were feasting on out of a single pot. A very high honor, a sign of earned respect, and apparently an almost unheard of gesture to offer to a woman.
All of these gentle and beautiful moments showed me that my initial fear of not being able to form a connection because I was veiled had been unfounded.
That what I thought would be a handicap had, in many ways, actually been an asset. That despite the fact my eyes were the only physical thing anyone around me could see, it didn't mean that my abilities, my personality, or my desire to understand others had vanished from view.
As our time in this eastern and somewhat remote part of Yemen was drawing to a close, I talked to a religious scholar from the town about how being hidden under this veil for almost a week had made me feel.
We talked about our views, how one culture's sign of respect, can be viewed by another's as a sign of inequality.
We laughed as we discussed how differently we saw the same gesture.
And we parted, I hope, with a greater understanding of our differences and a broader view of each other's perspective.
As I boarded the plane that would take our team onwards to Sana'a, I tucked away my now well-worn niqab into the bag where it would stay the remainder of our time in Yemen. And while I cannot say if I will ever choose to veil again, I know I will be forever grateful for a thin and delicate piece of cloth that helped me see with a new set of eyes.
Posted by: CNN Producer, Gena Somra
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