Friday, April 19, 2013

Modesty, Covering and Haya

Haya (حياة)  means life.  It's also a way of life. (حياء):

Qatari Teacher's eyebrows are drawn thick, smooth and black in the local style.  A bright smile transforms her face.
She's lived and traveled all over the world and connects easily to her class of multinational female students.  She effortlessly translates Modern Standard Arabic into Qatari dialect into English into French.  She is intelligent, knowledgeable, interesting, fun and funny.  She is energy.  Sparkle.  She is warm, bright, entertaining, smart and professional too.
As a child her favorite author was Roald Dahl.  She's named for her mother.  Earned a bachelor's degree in Computer Programming.  She admits she hates dates and dislikes tea and the best way to avoid eating undesired foods in a Middle Eastern setting is to claim allergy to it.
She is an experienced speaker, a popular unofficial ambassador to the masses of expatriate women living in this tiny country.  What do Qataris eat?  How do Qataris live?  What's a Qatari wedding like?  She regularly speaks to women's groups about local family life, education, naming traditions, summer activities, food and hospitality.
It's easy to see beyond the abaya that cloaks her, skims the floor and shields her dark penny-loafers.  Or the sheyla she wraps and rewraps over her head, neck and chest in the way another might absentmindedly chew a fingernail or tuck hair behind ears. Her energy lights the room, fills corners, taps at windows.  She is engaging, interesting, enlightening, animated, dynamic, enthusiastic.
There is a knock at the classroom door.  A pair of dark eyes in an otherwise shielded face peek through the opening.  Black fabric moves and rapid Arabic escapes.
Qatari Teacher's brows crease.  "Laysh!" she exclaims.  Why!  It's not a question.
She rewraps her sheyla, adjusts her abaya.  Pulls fabric over her face.  Moves to the back of the classroom and sits down.
completely covered
In a finger snap, all light in the room disappears under a mountain of black. 
No one speaks.  No one moves. Qatari Teacher is still and silent.
Three men enter.  They tinker on the computer, push buttons on a projector. Their eyes do not stray.  They focus only on the equipment, the task-at-hand.  When they're done, they gather their tools and leave.
Qatari Teacher flips her veil to the back of her head and returns to the front of the room.
Later, I ask her:  "Why did you…?"
She wraps and rewraps her sheyla.  Creases her brows.  Hesitates.  Says:  "I didn't want to draw attention to myself."
Haya is a kind of modesty that assures one's submission to commitments, responsibility, rules...especially when it comes to the tenets of Islamic faith:
"Haya may be translated as modesty, shyness, self-respect, bashfulness, shame, honour, humility, etc. The original meaning of Haya according to a believer's nature, refers to a bad and uneasy feeling accompanied by embarrassment, caused by one's fear of being exposed or censured for some unworthy or indecent conduct…They are shy of the opposite gender in this society because of what they might experience if strange men look at them…Abdullah ibn Umar (ra) narrated that the Prophet (saw) said: 'Indeed haya (modesty) and Iman (faith) are Companions. When one of them is lifted, the other leaves as well.'"
Haya is the voice in one's head that compels her to do-the-right-thing.   Men are subject to Haya too.
An important aspect of Haya for Islamic women is to keep themselves hidden from all men lawful to them in marriage:
  1. Around her husband, a woman can dress how she wants, because there is no restriction on what a husband can see or touch.
  2. Around children, other women, and her close male relatives, a woman must cover her "private parts" which is the region from her upper chest to her knees.
  3. Around non-related men, a woman must cover everything but her face and her hands. This includes a headscarf that covers her hair, ears, neck, and upper chest; clothes that cover her to throat, wrist and ankle and that obscure her figure; and socks and shoes to cover her feet.
  4. Outdoors, a woman must wear a long coat or similar outergarment that covers her fully.

Some women (and men) are more conservative in the expression of Haya than others.


Charles Hedrick said...

Later you say you asked he a question: "Why did you. . . .
What was the question that she understood you to be asking but that I do not know??

Lucinda H. Kennaley said...

What would you have asked? Why did you...stop talking/disappear so fully/hide yourself? Why did you...cover completely (ie, shield your face too)/sit in the back?

By not giving MY question, I was trying to point out that the answer to each question is the same. And a reflection of her personal response to Haya. :)

akaButch said...

Nicely written with empathy Cindy, but.... deeply sad. I hesitate to critique local customs, but some conventions are universally annoying.

Peggy S. Hedrick said...

per aka Butch...again, deeply sad.