I've had my share of culture shock as I traipsed through Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, but nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter with a burqua-clad woman on a flight from Rome to Beirut. Not pictures, not books, not stories--nothing could have prepared me for the searing image of the ghostly apparition.
A fastidiously groomed man in a Savile Row Suit, Gucci loafers and a Rolex guided the ethereal shroud to its seat. Swathed head to ankle in a voluminous black cover replete with a plastic Darth Vader-like screen masking its face, it seemed like a character in Night of the Living Dead.
When the meal was served, her gloved hands flipped part of her veil forward creating a mini-tent under which she ate. Except for her feet, you would never have known it was a person--no arms nor legs, no skin, no voice.
I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed; though I'm not sure which part of the scene prompted my visceral reaction. After all, growing up with nuns exposed me to some very unusual attire, and the religion I was steeped in routinely vilified women as "occasions of sin" so it wasn't as though misogyny was exactly foreign to me.
Maybe it was the proud, pristine peacock steering the faceless, formless figure down the aisle. Maybe it was the beautiful faces of their children who accept that, at puberty, boys become men and girls disappear. Maybe it was the realization that a change in geography could make any woman, myself included, an erasable nonentity. Maybe it was the neon-bright jelly slippers that flashed from beneath the capacious black robe. Whatever it was, it overwhelmed my heart.
In Beirut, I shared the encounter with my Egyptian friend, Mohsen. "Ah, yes," he explained, "Our culture respects virtuous women, that is why we require the burqua."
Oh. My. God.
Years later, my daughter told me about helping to plan a Take Back the Night rally on campus.
"Hundreds of students," she explained, "will protest violence against women. We're going to chant 'Yes means yes, and no means no! However we dress, wherever we go!' It's about victimization," she declared, "about empowerment, too. But really, Mom, I think it's about respect, don't you?"
"Yes, Lia, it is about respect," I replied, flashing back to the image tattooed to my soul so long ago. "We Americans don’t always get it right, but we do keep trying."