FATEMA’S JOURNEY TO HER OWN LIFE
She shouldn’t really show herself without her veil. The fact that she does so, as an Emirati woman, is salvation for Fatema Abdulla Aleghfeli. And she is no longer alone.
“Why shouldn’t a male hairdresser comb my hair?”, asked Fatema Abdula Hadroom Aleghfeli and commits sacrilege as she does every Thursday. The Lebanese salon owner brushes her black long hair smooth with extravagant sweeps of the brush and it is as if he strips away the old Fatema with each stroke. It was impressed upon Fatema when she was still a child that ‘the seduction devil is hidden in the hair of a woman and a man is not permitted to see or touch it.” Her mother, her sisters but above all her brothers cannot know that she sits here like this.
There is a lot which Fatema’s family cannot know about her new life in Dubai: she no longer wears the ‘shayla’, the black veil nor the ‘abaya’, the long black robe: she lives alone in her own apartment and also travels alone, even abroad: she meets female and even male friends. And there is one thing in particular which shames her mother, brother and sisters: at 32 Fatema is still not married and has no children. Only one thing makes them all proud: Fatema is a finance manager for a French company.
Fatema looks at herself in the mirror, pleased. Even as a child she always wanted to have her head uncovered – because she very early on had an independent spirit. She was always asking, “Why is a man better than a woman?. Why can he do everything and a woman nothing? Why do only Muslims get to Paradise?” And every time she got the reply, “It’s tradition, it’s religion”. She searched for answers in books but reading only generated even more questions, “Why does a woman have to wear the shayla?”. As a twelve year-old she would always allow the veil to slip down – until one morning her teacher humiliated her in front of the whole school by slapping her in the face at the morning flag ceremony.
It was another 14 years before Fatema was able to escape from the black cocoon. At 23 she wore the shayla and abaya more loosely and casually. At 25 she took them both off every evening after work. At 26 she finally discarded her covering. That morning she tried on each of the two dozen trouser suits which she had bought for her new life. Then she closed the apartment door behind her and ran the gauntlet. The men in the firm paid her compliments. The women said nothing. But their eyes spoke volumes – irritated, judging, disparaging, agreeing, envious, alienated. Looks which Fatema still feels as soon as people know that she is not a foreigner. “Although the old dress code was practical”, jokes Fatema. “If your hair is a mess or you have put on three pounds or overslept in the morning – you are saved under the disguise!”
EVEN THE YOUNG MEN HIDE THEIR WIVES AWAY.
Her high-heeled sandals click on the marble flooring in the Mall of the Emirates. In jeans and a silk top, Fatema weaves through a surging mass of black robes. Even the young girls who gather in front of the Cinestar cinema and flirt with boys over the blue tooth function in their mobile phones have thrown on an abaya – as a fashion accessory, from under which see-through blouses or even combat boots are visible. As a pure ‘Bedu’ – a descendant of Bedouins from the father’s as well as the mother’s line – Fatema is one of very few locals who defy the dress code.
Is it a matter of education? Not at all. 64% of high school graduates in the Emirates are women. Discrimination in public life? Not really. Women make up almost half of all civil servants and a third of bank employees. The serve in the police force and the army, apply for over 2500 business licences in a year, are more and more likely to be company bosses and as of recently have a vote. Even two ministries are led by women. However, most Emiratis defend the black covering vehemently. “The shayla and abaya are not a constraint but a protection”, says 26 year-old Muna Ahmad, chief reporter of the ‘Emirates Today’ newspaper in an interview. “I would feel ashamed without them because for us arms and hair are like breasts. That is our tradition.”
“Self-protection?” More like self-mortification and self-deception,” complains Fatema, “Which of these self-confident women is willing to admit that she is giving in to the pressures of the family and that it is easier to have a career covered up?” Fatema glides in her pine-green BMW 530 to the new Dubai Marina where a sort of Venice in sky-scrapers is being developed. Dozens of cranes are extended over area of torn-up earth, Fatema loves this exploding Dubai. Sometimes at night she thinks she can hear the city growing. She stops in front of one of the huge crevasses and enthuses. “50 floors, 150 metres tall” Somewhere up there in the tower she will soon be setting up a 140 square metre luxury apartment. “Amazing”, she whispers.
Fatema often thinks about her father who still lived in a Bedouin tent. He was a barefoot camel driver who was illiterate but recited poems; a strong and gentle man whose grey beard she coloured black when she was a child. When he died she ran out of the house into the desert and hid herself away. She was 16 then. Shortly before that she had broken off her imminent marriage to a cousin which had been arranged by the family – her first major strike out for freedom
A single Emirati woman who lives alone like Fatema has a dubious reputation even in hyper-modern Dubai. If a man was to spend the night in her apartment she could be sentenced to between one month and three years in prison according to Sharia law. Similarly if the police were to catch her making love in a car or in a hotel room. And it wouldn’t bear thinking about if she were to become pregnant as a single woman! If she wanted to marry a foreigner, she would need the permission of the ‘Divan’, the state council.
Porsche Cayennes, Ferraris and Lamborghinis tear past her during one of the spontaneous night car races along the Sheikh Zayed motorway. “Frustrated testosterone drivers” mocks Fatema, “They see that we are getting ahead of them in the work place. That is our revenge. We are simply more motivated than the spoilt little boys who have everything and can do anything.
Fatema’s friends are waiting at the Cosmo Café under palm trees which have been cabled up to form cascades of light – her French-Lebanese colleague Manal, two Moroccan women and four local men. An after-work ritual. Fatema crosses her legs and takes a draught from the hookah – also a sin for women in the traditional world of the Emirates. Once again the conversation turns to the many foreign companies in which locals are seen as unmotivated and are therefore not taken on as employees.
One of the men’s telephone rings – his wife. “Doesn’t she want to come over?” the man pulls a face, “Here? She doesn’t go to places like this – I would also be against it.” His colleague Manal taunts him, “Oh, this is not for decent women then?” The man turns serious, “Her body is there just for me. Why should she expose herself to the looks of other men, even if she has no bad intentions? I admire you and I enjoy sharing a pipe with you, but…”, he grins, “I wouldn’t marry any of you, not even as a second or third wife!”
Fatema can also not imagine marrying a local and because of this she is in a dilemma. With a foreigner she would have her freedom but she would prefer to share her life with a man from a similar culture. She is therefore aligning herself with the rapidly growing group of educated women who do not marry. If a woman marries she normally secures contractually her right to work following marriage and motherhood – in the same way that housewives have for a long time documented details of their married life with a solicitor: the number of domestic workers in the house, drivers, cars and yearly holidays; amount of shopping budget; ban on the husband taking other wives and even ‘husband-free’ days.
In her apartment in the evening Fatema usually lies on her brown velour sofa next to her teddy bears and watches music videos. They all tell unhappy love stories – for example the story of the innocent party in a divorce who must now remain alone because she is no longer a virgin. On quiet work-free days Fatema avoids the sofa. She drives to a café and orders sushi or carpaccio. Sometimes then she imagines how her life would have been if she had not rebelled.
Fatema steers to the right, and pulls on her shayla and abaya. Then she re-applies her lipstick, puts on her Chanel sunglasses and accelerates. She turns on to the north-bound motorway. Mustard coloured dunes, now and then a herd of camels. Being descended from Bedouins gives Fatema a good feeling – from “people who managed to survive in the desert”. She turns the music up. Soon bare mountains emerge on the horizon: Ras al Khaimah, a small Emirate without great oil resources. At the edge of the desert: her parents’ house.
The metal heels of Fatema’s sandals dig into the sand. It’s as if she is being held back as she approaches the gilded iron gates. She says that she cannot stay longer than two or three days here. In this house she can’t banish the memories. A photo of her eldest brother hangs like a threat over the door.
As Fatema speaks, the pain she feels at his loss builds up – this only one year older brother to whom she was so close – until he became head of the family after the death of her father Until he restricted her with so many rules. Until he wanted to prevent her from learning to drive. Until he forbade her from accepting a job in a bank because it meant she would come into contact with other men. Until he punished her because she went to a café with a friend and the friend’s cousin. Until in the end, at 22, she suffered from panic attacks and hid herself away , her cousin soothed her by reading verses from the Koran.
It’s not only pain which builds up in Fatema when she talks about it. There is also fury. Fury which finally drove her to resist. It was only later that she understood that it was too much for her brother. “Mohamed was just as much a victim of tradition as I was”, she says, “but I still can’t forgive him”.
On this day Mohamed has left the house early to keep out of her way. Children’s laughter can be heard in the house. In the inner court it smells of cardamom and incense. Trays with sesame cakes, dates, pomegranates and shoulder of lamb are spread out on the carpets. It is ‘Eid-al-Fitr’, the festival at the end of Ramadan. Everyone has come – even the cousin whom Fatema at 16 should have married and who, shortly after her refusal, took her sister Salma as his wife. The boy from that time has turned into a portly business man. He is watching football in the ‘men’s’ room with the other brothers-in-law and the younger brothers. Fatema and her four younger sisters eat the saffron rice with their fingers. They have gathered in a half-circle around their mother. She is wearing the silver leg jewellery and the golden burkha of the Bedouins. She never takes this off , even at home in the company of other women. Fatema has only seen her mother’s bare face a few times and then by accident. It is only for her sake that Fatema has worn the veil and robe today. Her conviction that Fatema will end up in hell because of her moral conduct is grief enough for her mother.
The sisters avoid asking Fatema about her life. The look up to her but at the same time offer her advice in order to save her from hell. The are much younger – between 22 and 28 – and already each have up to five children. Only one of them has a school leaving certificate. They obey their husbands, whom they married through arranged marriages, with the view that, “if he is happy, he will also make me happy”. They also agree that none of their daughters are ever allowed to travel alone or to come into contact with man in the work place. It’s fine to be a female teacher in a girls’ school. But not for example a doctor and definitely not a radiologists who x-rays male bodies. That would be absolutely taboo.
However, the obedience of the sisters has its limits. “Which button should I press?”, asks Moza and holds out a tape recorder. The sisters are sitting together on in the women’s room on the big bed like dolls – garishly made up with hair decorated with feathers and ribbons and hands and feet painted with henna. 24 year-old Moza presses the buttons on the gadget doubtfully. She wants to smuggle it into her husband’s car to record his conversations with his lover – for evidence in divorce proceedings. Since prostitutes from the Far East and Eastern Europe have filled the Tower of Dubai, it has become easy for men to be unfaithful.
The new sister-in-law Aula opens her wedding album. 150 photos. Garlands of lilies, sparkling foam baubles and pairs of butterflies are spread across the pages. It was the intuition of Fatema’s mother and sister Moza which led to this joyful day. In the search for a wife for the youngest son, they spent months asking neighbours, employers, even school teachers. Mother and daughter checked out half a dozen girls. But one was too tall, the next was asking for too high ‘bride money’ and another had bad skin. Only Aula met the required expectations: modest, with long hair, warm-hearted, not fat.
The sisters jump up. The voice of Hamad al Amary, the Julio Iglesias of the Emirates is coming from the television. The women stamp their feet rhythmically and circle their heads. Their long black hair whips through the air.
THE FAMILY IS PROUD OF FATEMA’s SUCCESS
Fatema’s mother pulls her black veil over her face. She presses Fatema. She wants to go with Fatema to a relation’s wedding but Fatema is reluctant. Arranged marriages are for her “the sacrifice of self in the name of the tribe”. However, in the end her small mother is sitting in the the bulky BMW’s upholstered seats. Although she cannot even remember the date of Fatema’s birthday, she is proud. Proud that her daughter drives a car like this; that in the high school they still say, “Who will do as well as Fatema Hadroom?” Proud that the Crown Prince of Ras Al Kaimah proposed Fatema for the electoral committee of the state council.
Garlands of light are stretched over the marriage house. Fatema doesn’t want to go in with her mother. Her mother slips through the women’s entrance into the hall where 140 women are sitting in front of sunflowers and water falls on a cardboard back-drop. Their husbands are celebrating in a separate wing of the restaurant. The bride waits in a room in the gallery surrounded by female cousins and school friends. They are clucking away discussing their fear at losing their virginity. The bride who is wapped in candy-pink lace sits with her doe-eyes wide open. She has only spent a few hours with the man with whom she will share her life and then with a chaperone.
The lights dim. First the incense-carriers come and wave incense around the women, then the perfume bottle carriers who spray them with perfume. Finally in waves of artificial mist, the bride totters down to the stage and stops in front of the eight-tier cake. From a side entrance, the groom then swaggers towards her. A flurry of camera flashes. At this moment Fatema comes in. Heads turn towards her and a murmur runs through the room. “You have lost weight,” chirps up a gold-adorned relative between two air kisses.
It is long after midnight and Fatema doesn’t want to stay any longer in Ras Al Khaimah. On the motorway she pushes the veil from her head and puts a cd on – Spanish guitar. All around her the dark desert. In front of her, in the distance, the illuminated city. She examines herself in the rear-view mirror and plucks at a couple of stray strands of hair. She hums.
Geo Special > Dubai, Emirate und Oman p.9