Life Behind The Veil
CNN was showing a news clip about the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan. They showed the fighting, the burning buildings, the crowds. But those things were all overshadowed by something I saw that made me go back more than ten years. A woman looked toward the camera then turned and walked away. No one could see her face; it was hidden behind a burqa – a complete covering over a woman’s body that has only a screened opening around the face through which she can see.
Moments like that flood me with so many mixed feelings. Laughter and tears with Muslim women friends – and at the same time feeling like a “thing”, even a worthless “thing” around men. And much more. You see, I wore a burqa and for more than two years I daily wore a veil. It was an experience that changed my life forever.
My husband, Brian, and I arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan in the Fall of 1987. The war with Afghanistan was going on. Peshawar was only 20 miles or so from the Afghan border. With more than 1 million Afghan refugees flooding into Peshawar, things were a bit hectic in the city. Our time in ministry there was spent learning the language and developing relationships with individuals and then their families, eventually sharing the gospel with them. But that is not what I would like to share. Instead, I would like to share with you my experience as a woman living in a strong Muslim culture – how it affected me as a woman, a wife, and a mother.
Coming into a new culture, especially one so drastically different than one’s home culture, is quite a shock to the system. Thankfully, we had some excellent veteran global workers to lead us and cushion us through the process. They met us at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan, and we rested at a hotel for the night. I changed into a shalwar-camisse (the Pakistani outfit of ballooning drawstring pants under a knee-length long-sleeved top). Exhausted, I slept all the way on the flight to Peshawar and was awakened to see the city below covered by churning dark clouds. It was one of the periodic wind and dust storms which leaves everything covered in a thick coat of dust and debris. It was an ominous sign of things to come.
I had been well-prepared to not make eye-contact (especially with men) in public, so our arrival was otherwise uneventful. We greeted the men working at our friends’ home and they were kind and helpful and I was at peace. It did not take me long to realize most men in that culture did not leave me feeling that way. My past had left me quite confident as a person; I felt I could do anything. The Lord had given me a good mind and my family had taught me to work hard. But I soon found the Muslim culture in which I was living would not give me a chance. We were reminded that a woman was equal in value to a cow – that is, if she produced boys. Because I was a foreigner I did get a little respect – from some men. Still, I was left feeling like a lesser human being. It was a progressive downhill feeling that I didn’t know how to stop.
Something else was much more cruel and clear. Women in that city are expected to stay in unless they or a child are ill or they are going to a celebration. Many women never buy a thing for themselves in the market. When they go out, they must be accompanied by a man or at least an older woman. But what does a widow do? Or a woman like me who must go out to maintain sanity?
I went out on a weekly shopping trip with a dear friend and we watched out for one another. Still, we were touched, or more accurately at times, grabbed. I will never forget my first experience. A man walked up behind me (wearing my shalwar camisse, a thin dopata veil and thicker longer veil over that) and put his hand right between my legs. I was horrified and didn’t know what to do. But I turned to him, furious, and did what came naturally from childhood. I punched him really hard right in the stomach. He doubled over and the maze of shoppers looked on. Still, I did not know enough language to shame him or say anything before my friend wisely whisked me away and debriefed me. She soon taught me what to say (“Shame on you! Don’t you have a mother or sister?!”) and how to respond if I needed to (hit him with my shopping bag). After that we were often touched, usually just a glance on the bottom, but it deeply bothered me. We ended up carrying large, heavy, wooden spoons and hit any man coming near to us. Now I have to laugh – we must have been quite a sight carrying our spoons through the market!
Some men were honorable and wanted to protect us. One day two young men passed behind us in a tight area of the women’s market. One young man veered over and just grazed my bottom. I looked in disgust and anger in his direction and he met my look with a smirk that said “I can do anything I want!”. On impulse I ran up behind him and hit him over the head with my shopping basket. It turns out all the shopkeepers had seen what he had done and jumped over their booths to attack him. They beat him to a pulp before my eyes (breaking his glasses – an unusual sight meaning he was probably more affluent) and I was horrified. As they were beating him on the ground, I intervened and said “Enough!”. They soon stopped and looked at me strangely – why would I tell them to stop? I just could not handle someone being maimed or killed because of a touch of my bottom. I did not need guilt on top of my uneasiness in public. I can still remember his friend picking up his broken glasses, wiping blood from his face and helping him walk away.
My struggles did not stop outside the home. My husband, Brian, is my biggest fan and encourages me all the time. He also adapts amazing well to other cultures and is gifted in languages. That latter truth affected our relationship. Every day he was out visiting friends, talking in tea shops and basically thriving. Yet slowly, as he was adapting to the culture, he was changing in his attitude toward me. He did not notice it and still finds it difficult to admit – it was so gradual. He began to ask my opinion less and less, treated me less and less respectfully, began to assume or even expect things he once kindly requested, and joked with his friends about me or women. It all hurt deeply and put a ditch and then chasm between us. Thankfully, he had moments of showing his real self – like when he served tea to me and my women guests – that kept me hoping. Still, I am thankful we had a solid commitment to one another and our marriage. Love was definitely a daily decision for me.
That time ( and the year of adjusting back to the States after Pakistan) was the most difficult period of our 16 years of marriage and the most draining of my life. Add to this the birth of our first child, Caleb, in our second year of ministry in Peshawar. His birth in a hospital in the Himalaya Mountains was unforgettable and special beyond words. As we were covered in prayer, I never even doubted God’s faithfulness or protection. My trust in God would soon be challenged and grow as obviously sick and almost always dirty people would hold our baby, as they would take him for long periods of time to show the neighbors in the refugee camps or as they would give him drinks from the community glass filled with murky, filthy water. We would kindly thank people for the amulets or pieces of the Koran they tried to attach to his clothing and then return them saying that Jesus would protect him. (Then plead with God to do so.) And the Lord kept him healthy and strong. And for all of this I am thankful. I am a better person and Christian and woman and wife and mother because of it. I still have many flaws, without a doubt, but my life was enriched by those unbelievably difficult experiences.
What can be learned from them? A great deal.
First, women working in strong Muslim cultures need a great deal of encouragement and support and prayer from their friends and supporters. Pile it on them in heaps of love to counteract what they face in daily attitudes. Give them room to share and cry and question. Don’t judge. And if you are a woman in that situation, find a woman friend to share and pray with. You need each other.
Second, husbands absolutely need to check the culture at the door when it comes to attitudes toward women. They must listen to their wives and ask for their input more than ever. They need to remind themselves to treat their wives with more respect than before. And if their friends make jokes and comments about women or wives (and they most likely will), the husbands must bite their tongues at home and not join in the comments or laughter. The couple’s continuance in fruitful ministry depends on the wife feeling appreciated and respected and protected at least at home, because she often does not feel it in the culture.
Finally, as a mother, a woman needs to develop an utter dependence on God for her child’s welfare. To trust God to care for that child as He sees fit. We can do our best, but we cannot shield our children from the people and culture. Otherwise our witness will be compromised. God has sent not only us to the culture, but our children as well. For their best, they need to feel a part of it and know that we trust God to use them and protect them.
Thankfully, Brian and I are closer than ever and our marriage completely recovered from the strain of those few years. Yet, each day I find I have more to learn. How I thank God for the things that He has taught me and the experiences He has trusted me with. Now maybe they will be a help to you.