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Meanwhile: Why Arab women wear the veil in Israel

International Herald Tribune – 20 November 2003

Sally Azzam, 23, a student from the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel, tells me fondly of a recent holiday to neighboring Jordan. A highlight was being able to smoke a nargilleh, or water pipe, in cafés and restaurants, anonymous among the local women who do the same. Smoking for unmarried women, at least in the Jordanian capital Amman, is chic. But for Azzam it represents a small feminist victory for Jordanian women, one of the battles she fears is being lost back home.

In Israel, a country in which Jewish women take for granted most Western freedoms, young Arab women are facing a resurgence of social and moral controls that even their mothers might have balked at. And in this, maybe there is a lesson for those who believe that the West can impose its values unthinkingly on other civilizations.

Azzam shows me pictures of her own mother in Nazareth from the early 1970s that could have been taken on the streets of any European or American city of the time: flares everywhere, as well as wide-collared floral print shirts for men and short skirts for women, including even the odd mini. Single men and women appear to mix freely, with women even drinking alcohol in public.

Modern Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s one million Arab citizens, looks very conservative in comparison. To be sure, Jewish Israeli fashions have partly penetrated the street scene. Tight jeans and tops are still preferred by Christian and secular Arab women of all ages. But the apparent brashness hides a deeper trend.

All flesh is out. The clothes may be suggestive but never revealing: it is haram (forbidden) to have shoulders, legs and especially navels on view. The standards are set by women whose dress codes are more rigidly enforced, either by themselves or their families. In Nazareth, the Islamic headscarf or hijab, once a rare sight, is now common. It is a pattern being repeated across the Middle East.

“All of us are afraid of the ultimate insult, being called sharmouta – a prostitute,” says Azzam, a Christian Arab. “Not only are we frightened, but so are our families. No father wants his daughter labeled like this. How can she ever find a husband once the society decides she is a prostitute?”

Azzam herself is not afraid to risk social opprobrium. She works for a rape crisis center and a women’s refuge and has broken another great local taboo by getting engaged to a foreigner – me. Although Israeli Arab men occasionally marry foreigners, usually after trips to Europe, the same privileges are rarely afforded local women.

The strange hierarchy of prohibitions in the Arab world is particularly confusing for unmarried Arab women in Israel. Israeli television nightly parades images of barely dressed women in ads and shows that are popular with the country’s Arab citizens. Lebanese television, with its more “liberal” attitudes, is also widely watched.

Nevertheless, single Arab women in Israel appear to understand intimately the complex codes of acceptable behavior – even when they think they make no sense. Being seen unaccompanied with men who are not close relatives is haram. And smoking cigarettes or drinking in public is considered a sure sign of being a prostitute, says Muna, a friend of Azzam’s.

As the two sit in a city center tent erected for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, they watch enviously as older married women puff on their nargillehs at an evening concert. “Cigarette smoking in public is always out,” Azzam says, “but nargilleh is possible once you’re married. The society assumes your husband approves.”

Why do they think things are harsher for them than their mothers? It’s a backlash, both agree. “The West promised modernity for the Arabs and my parents’ generation was suckered into thinking things would improve,” Muna says. “But you offered them the dream and not the reality. Now because they are disillusioned they are reasserting what they think are traditional values.”

Azzam says the trend among the Arab minority in Israel is particularly strong. “We need to mark ourselves out as different from the Jewish majority. How can we disapprove of the values of Israeli society, including the occupation, if we look and sound just like them?”

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