The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Archive for the ‘niqab’ Category

How American Drone Strikes are Devastating Yemen

Posted by vmsalama on April 14, 2014

Anyone who knows me, knows Yemen holds a special place in my heart. Its diverse landscape is breathtaking and its rich history is virtually untouched after centuries. But what I love most about Yemen is, hands down, its people (its food comes in a distant second!) They smile from inside, even though they face a great deal of adversity, militants roam freely by land and foreign drones hover above them. This report, from my latest visit to Yemen, explores that latter phenomenon — U.S. drones — and argues that the their existence alone is causing profound psychological detriment to a nation. (photos in the piece are also by me)

How American Drone Strikes are Devastating Yemen

On the ground in a country where unmanned missile attacks are a terrifyingly regular occurrence

By Vivian Salama
April 14, 2014


….As the sun began to set on that fateful winter day, the line of SUVs and pick-ups, decorated with simple ribbons and bows for the [wedding], set off for its 22-mile trip. But as the procession came to a standstill to wait on some lagging vehicles, some of the tribesmen claim the faint humming sound they typically heard from planes overhead fell silent.The emptiness was soon filled with the unthinkable. “Missiles showered on our heads,” Abdullah says, moving his hands frenetically. “I started to scream and shout for my cousins. Anyone who was still alive jumped out of their cars.”

Four hellfires, striking seconds apart, pierced the sky, tearing through the fourth vehicle in the procession. When it was over, 12 men were dead, Saleh among them. At least 15 others were wounded according to survivors and activists, including Warda, whose eye was grazed by shrapnel and whose wedding dress was torn to shreds.

The blast was so intense that it reverberated all the way to al-Abusereema, where the groom’s brother Aziz waited for the guests. “I called some people to ask what was that explosion and somebody told me it was the drone,” Aziz recalls. “It was the most awful feeling.”

“As we were driving to the site,” he continues, “I felt myself going deeper and deeper into darkness. That is the feeling of a person who sees his brothers, cousins, relatives and friends dead by one strike, without reason.”

“We are just poor Bedouins,” says Abdullah, now pounding his hands against his chest. “We know nothing about Al Qaeda. But the people are so scared now. Whenever they hear a car or truck, they think of the drones and the strike. They feel awful whenever they see a plane.”…. (Click here to read more)

The wedding of Abdullah Mabkhut al-Amri to Warda last December made headlines around the world after it ended in tragedy./By Vivian Salama

The wedding of Abdullah Mabkhut al-Amri to Warda last December made headlines around the world after it ended in tragedy./By Vivian Salama

Oum Salim sits in her home majlis in Khawlan holding a photo of her late son Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil, her daughter Asmaa, 7, by her side. /By Vivian Salama

Oum Salim sits in her home majlis in Khawlan holding a photo of her late son Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil, her daughter Asmaa, 7, by her side. /By Vivian Salama

Posted in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, American, Arab, Arab Spring, Awlaki, C.I.A., dictatorship, Drones, Economy, Education, Elections, Employment, Environment, Foreign Policy, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Insurgency, Intervention, Islam, Jihad, Middle East, military, niqab, Obama, Pakistan, Politics, Poverty, PTSD, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Signature Strikes, Social Media, Somalia, South Yemen, Terrorism, Warda, Yemen | 8 Comments »

Behind the Veil

Posted by vmsalama on June 19, 2007

An Egyptian court has ruled that universities can’t bar Islamic face-coverings. But that’s unlikely to stop the headdress attracting unwelcome attention on the streets of Cairo that universities can’t bar Islamic face-coverings. But that’s unlikely to stop the headdress attracting unwelcome attention on the streets of Cairo



June 19, 2007

By Vivian Salama



June 19, 2007 – It was a risky—and frightening—experiment.  Taxis refused to stop for me, but male drivers kept pulling over to compliment my eyes (the only part of my body on show) and inviting me into their vehicles. Others just stared.  Why the unwelcome attention? Because I was wearing a niqab, the full face veil, on the streets of Cairo. Egypt may be a Muslim country, but its government places numerous restrictions on those who make this religious commitment. That, however, may be about to change in the wake of a decision earlier this month by Egypt’s High Administrative Court.




A special chamber of the court ruled on June 9 that the American University in Cairo (AUC) could not bar a female scholar who wears the niqab from using university facilities.  That decision upheld a 2001 ruling by a lower court, which cited personal and religious freedom as the reason that Iman al-Zainy could not be barred from campus for wearing the garment. (Zainy was pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Egypt’s prestigious Islamic institution Al-Azhar University, but had enjoyed library privileges at the AUC for over a decade.)  She has since completed her doctorate, but her lawyers say she continued her legal battle as a matter of principle.


Egypt’s battle against the niqab has a long history. Authorities originally banned students from wearing it to school in 1994, saying that it violated security standards.  Dozens of pupils were suspended in the decade that followed.  In nearly all cases however, the court overturned the decision and allowed the girls to return to class. 


More recently, Cairo University, with the highest enrollment in Egypt, has allowed students to attend wearing the niqab. However, the American University stayed firm, refusing to permit even the niqab-wearing mothers of graduates to attend the commencement ceremony, according to some students. (A more lenient attitude is taken toward the hijab, which covers the hair but leaves the face visible.) The university says the decision is not a religious one, but was made “because all members of the AUC community have a basic right to know with whom they are dealing, whether in class, labs or anywhere else on campus.” 


Certainly, the concerns run the gamut from women using the face veil to cheat in exams—be it by stashing away crib sheets or trading places with other students—to young men using it as a disguise to sneak into the girls’ dormitory.  Then there are the political concerns; across the region, the increasing influence of Islamic parties poses a viable threat to the old, Western- friendly boys’ club of Arab rulers.  In Egypt’s last parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood—which is officially banned—nonetheless earned 20 percent of the seats. Though party members are still subject to mass arrests and intense security protocol, bit by bit, its Islamic agenda is gaining ground, as is evident from decisions such as the niqab ruling.




Still, many activists caution, it is hasty to claim this particular ruling as an Islamist victory.  “The positive aspect of the decision is that the court refused to take a moral or religious position on the niqab and merely confined itself to upholding Muslim women’s right to personal liberty and nondiscrimination,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. 


Certainly, the decision is a sign of the times.  Just 30 years ago, young women attended Cairo University wearing miniskirts and the latest Paris fashions.  They strolled along the beaches of Alexandria in skimpy swimsuits.  The hijab was often perceived as a social-status indicator; women of the upper and middle classes rarely veiled at a young age and those who did usually observed more fashionable interpretations of the religious head-covering. 


All of that changed along with the politics of the region.  The Iranian Islamic revolution caused a religious shakeup that leaked into the Arab countries to its west. Government crackdowns on Islamic parties grew fierce as the country’s poor turned more to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood for support.  Recently, the war in Iraq set off a tidal wave of anti-Western sentiment across the region, causing millions to embrace their own traditions and beliefs more proudly than ever before.


Ironically, despite the conservative trend that has engulfed the nation, the face veil is viewed by many Muslims as an “un-Egyptian” tradition and in many places, the practice is shunned.  In fact, one of the stereotypes that exist among some communities is an association between the niqab and prostitution.  “Prostitution is certainly one of the stereotypes for both hijab and niqab—as though these women hide behind it,” says Pakinam Amer, a Cairo-based journalist.  “However, many also associate it with extremism, as well as terrorism, even here in Egypt.”


That was certainly my experience. I had decided to experiment with wearing the niqab after an upscale Cairo restaurant tried to keep out a colleague wearing only the hijab. (We were eventually seated, though my party was cooped up in a dark corner where they hoped no one would see us.)  After just a single day, I discovered how unpleasant and terrifying it could be. Aside from all the unwelcome attention, I also had to take into account the fact that my action could have been interpreted as a mockery or blasphemy—and the repercussions could have been severe. 


Despite the obstacles and harassment, any casual observer on Egyptian streets can see that the number of women wear the niqab is growing. Nor does it seem to be confined to specific social classes or ages.  Some women insist that it is nothing more than an “outfit.”  One even suggested to me that if young women in the West can mimic the fashions of pop icons “like Britney Spears,” she too should be able to dress like her icon—the wife of the Prophet Mohammed.  “We are not coming from a repressed household or a repressed society,” says Sarah El-Meshad, a graduate of the American University in Cairo who took on the face veil after graduation.  “This is just a little something extra I am doing for my religion, but I am no different from any other girl.” For now, though, that’s not an argument the Egyptian government seems willing to accept.

To read a similar story on the struggle of Muslim women in Europe, check out Fareena Alam’s Beyond the Veil

And click here to see my original story on niqab life in Cairo.

Posted in Middle East, Newsweek, niqab, Politics | 3 Comments »

Unveiling the truth behind a life in Niqab

Posted by vmsalama on February 21, 2006

by Vivian Salama
21 February 2006
Daily Star Egypt
CAIRO – There are many names for it depending where you are in the world, but the objective is the same. Whether you call it niqab, burga, purdah, abaya or whatever, the face veil – to those who believe in it – represents the ultimate act of superficial modesty as written in the Qur’an.

My interest first began when I was politely asked to leave an upscale Cairo restaurant because I was accompanied by a friend of mine – a young, educated, elegant, outgoing journalist – who happens to wear higab (head scarf). In a country where the majority of women cover their hair out of religious or cultural obligation, it struck me as absurd that any place would abide by such a restriction. The reason, they told us, was that her presence may irritate the other patrons. After a heated debate, they let us stay, but moved us to a dark corner. If women wearing higab experience such inequality, I wondered, than how can anyone do anything wearing niqab?


I tried it. I purchased a niqab from a Cairo department store and wore it. I was afraid. I worried that I would be discovered – that people would interpret my actions as a mockery, not research. The experience, however, revealed to me a new Cairo – where taxis snub you; men harass you, think the worst of you; people call you the most offensive names; and waiters refuse to serve you.
As the Arab world struggles to maintain its authenticity amid the overpowering reaches of globalization, how can anyone sustain this unwavering commitment to their faith when they are treated unequally even in their own country?
“People call us ninjas. They always say to us ‘what beautiful eyes you have,’” tells Sarah El-Meshad, 24, a graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC) who wears niqab. “The hard part was dealing with acquaintances. They treat you like crap even though they know who you are and they’ve known you for a long time.”
El-Meshad and friends, Ebada Mostafa and Rola Sameh sat with me to discuss a range of subjects, from freedom of choice, to religious obligation, employment and education. The three were educated in American schools and are university graduates. Their parents are professionals. None of their mothers wear niqab. The three believe niqab, according to the Qur’an, is a sun’na, or “extra credit,” as they called it, as opposed to practices that are fard, or obligatory.
As we talked, waiters stared and pointed – probably because it struck them as unusual that a western-dressed woman with no veil would sit chatting in English with three women in niqab. Sameh would eventually call them out on their stares.
“Is there a problem?” she said firmly but politely. The waiters scattered. She laughed and continued. “Sometimes I feel that a girl who wears the niqab is at war –war with her family, war with her friends,” she says. “People refuse you, they mock you. We are religious people who chose this extra something we want to do for our religion and it’s nobody’s business.”
Historians argue, the desert-dwelling Bedouins covered their faces as a social practice long before the advent of Islam. Even European noblewomen were often depicted shielded their faces as an act of humility, particularly when mingling with lower classes. The practice of covering the face first grew popular in the Muslim world through the teachings of the Wahabbi and Salafi sects of the Arab Gulf. Viewed by those people as the ultimate act of modesty, niqab is viewed as a woman’s obligation as written in the Qur’an, equal to its teachings that men are obligated to “lower their gaze.”
“Before, whenever I saw Sandra Bullock or Brittney Spears wearing a certain style, I’d run out and buy the exact same style,” recalls Mostafa, 23, a bubbly graduate of communications from the school of Modern Science and Arts (MSA). “It occurred to me after a while that all we are doing is copying foreigners. Well, what’s the problem is I copy my ancestors? I am imitating the Prophet’s wife.”
All three women confess their burning desire to work. They acknowledge, however, that they have made a major sacrifice for this religious commitment since no jobs in Egypt are willing to hire niqab women. It is not illegal for niqab women to work, however, most employers, particularly those in the private sector, confess openly that a woman covering her face exudes an uninviting air – and that is bad for business.
“I haven’t seen a case of a professional covering her face seeking employment in the private sector,” says Sherif Samy, chairman of Skill-Link, an internet-based job search and career advice provider. “You would find them in some government offices because usually government offices attract a lower caliber of professionals, less ambitious than those who work in private sector. As for those who don’t choose to hire, it’s very personal. It’s never written, and people have the right. I can’t blame them for it.”
“I am dying to work of course but only if they genuinely respected our ideas and our abilities,” says Mostafa. “But they think we can’t talk and we are introverted. Many people don’t even want to give us a chance because of what we wear.”
“The issue is non-verbal expression,” explains Mushira El-Bardai, executive director for Human Resources at AUC. “Non-verbal communication is important too. I can’t communicate with you non-verbally if I can’t see your face. That’s in the workplace or classroom.”
Education, particularly at liberal, private institutions such as AUC has been a subject of on-going debate as many believe a ruling banning niqab women from taking classes stifles religious freedoms. In 2001, the university issued a formal prohibition on students wearing niqab. Administrators cited a 1994 decree issued by then-Minister of Education Hussein Kamal Bahaaeddin banning the face-veil in schools, saying the matter violates security standards set by the institution. Dozens of schoolgirls have been suspended since the decree was issued, though in most cases, the courts overrule the decision and permit the girls to return to class.
Sameh was in her last year at Cairo University when, as she describes, she showed up one day suddenly dressed in niqab.
“They freaked out,” she recalls, laughing. “I was the only person in niqab in all four grades. No one knew how to handle it.”
“People have this very negative image of women in niqab – that they are low class and uneducated,” adds El-Meshad. “One of the reasons why I wore it was the people take a better idea of the niqab. To me it was like, I am educated, I know how to talk, I am social, and I wear niqab. I make it a point to go and talk to people for that reason.”
Above all other preconceptions regarding niqab women, these young women – all of whom are married, two of them, already mothers – want to make one thing clear to the outside world. Their decision to wear niqab, they say, was in no way influenced by any man in their life, be it their husbands or fathers.
“I use to sit with my husband, before we got married, without the niqab,” admits Sameh. “Some people yell at me and say ‘no, that’s not right, you are niqab.’ It’s none of their business. I am free to do whatever I want. It’s my right, and the right of the man I was going to marry that we get use to each other and he gets to know me without the niqab.”
“When I wore the niqab, I had been engaged for 6 months,” recalls El-Meshad. “My parents were afraid that my husband influenced me. But it wasn’t like that at all. The first thing I did before I wore it is I asked my mom and dad. My mom said, ‘I can’t tell you not to do something that is good for you.’ My dad actually got me my first niqab. So, you see, I chose this.”

(For this story, I received the 2006 Eliav Sartawi Award for Middle East Conflict Reporting)

Posted in Arab, Education, Egypt, Employment, niqab | 1 Comment »