Vixens, veils and vows
Naomi Prior, 23, is studying Arabic in Yemen for the next 12 to 18 months. Here, she tells us what life is like for an English woman in the intriguing Middle Eastern country.
Naomi witnesses cat-calling, flesh-baring and hip wiggling to the sounds of Shakira at a Yemeni wedding.
"Well, so much for meeting my future husband at a wedding," I muttered as I glanced round the Yemeni wedding I had attended with a friend. It was full of women! Not a man in sight. Even the all-male live band was situated behind a wall in another room so you couldn't see them (their music was piped through a PA system). I've been told that it's very rare for men and women to mix at any point during the wedding celebrations, which can last up to five days. The absence of men enabled the women to enjoy freedoms unavailable to them during daily life and the transformation was quite extreme. I'm used to seeing women either completely covered up in black abayas, their faces out of bounds, or at least their hair covered and the form of their bodies indistinguishable under their flowing abayas. And I don't see that many women here anyway - they're definitely out-numbered by men on the street and they're especially harder to spot when they're wearing black and sitting inside cars.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I entered this wedding and felt like I'd stumbled into what seemed to be a cross between a fashion show and the Miss Yemen 2006 finals. Not only were there more women than I had seen so far in Yemen - around 250 - but they were dressed up to the nines. Fancy dresses of every colour imaginable, with sequins, glitter and pearls. Their owners were decorated in layers of make up and jewels. And I was shocked by how much flesh some of the younger women were revealing - many were wearing low-cut tops, short skirts and backless dresses. It was also a complete change for me to see long hair worn down, often in tumbling curls after hours spent in the hairdressers.
The freedom of the wedding not only enabled the women to present themselves differently but it also gave them the space to behave differently. I didn't only plunge into a world of colour, flesh, curls and make up - I was immersed in what seemed like the female stand at a football match. It was so noisy! The women were singing, shouting, giggling, clapping, cat-calling and dancing. In the middle of this spacious hall was a stage for the bride and groom and in front of it a dance floor packed with girls and women having a great time. They even played Shakira (I've since learned that Shakira has Lebanese roots, hence her popularity in the Middle East). Around the side of the hall women sat on low-cushioned seats (the Arabic-style lounge that everybody has in their houses here), chatting, tucking into goodie bags of cakes and soft drinks or watching the spectacle. I later learned this was no innocent viewing but a search for prospective brides for their sons and brothers. As the wedding went on, women went up to other guests and asked about their marital status, education, family and made offers. So it looks like I could have found a husband after all! Although I think my disco moves to Shakira probably scared them off.
I should point out that there was one woman who wasn't enjoying the party - the bride. She wasn't there. We arrived at 7pm and she didn't join her own party until about 9pm. And what an entrance she made! At the far end of the hall began a catwalk runway, decorated with fake flowers. The curtains at the end of the hall opened onto the runway - through them, the bride entered. Again I was greeted with an alien sight - a Yemeni woman in a low cut, western style white wedding dress, long curls, make up and her body covered in henna decorations. Incidentally, it's no surprise that the black abaya shops create a striking juxtaposition next door to the white western-style wedding shops in Sana'a.
"I realised the wave of black was moving in parallel with the bride - and the video recorder."
The bride gracefully glided down the runway accompanied by little girls scattering wedding petals and a friend videoing her entrance. And it was a long video because it took her no less than 30 minutes to travel the 30 metre runway. She was probably thinking "Hurry up, I just want to wiggle to Shakira." As she advanced I suddenly noticed lots of the women putting their black abayas back on. Maybe they were leaving early? Maybe they'd suddenly become self-conscious of their new freedom? Then I realised the wave of black was moving in parallel with the bride - and the video recorder. The women were covering up to ensure they weren't caught on camera and later viewed by men who weren't from their own families. It was visually striking - a Mexican wave of black moving from right to left through the rainbow-coloured dresses.
Having reached the end of the runway, the poor bride had to go all the way back again to meet her husband at 10pm. I assumed the women would need to tone down their behaviour and clothing when a man entered the room. Indeed all the women of late teens and above disappeared into their black abayas - the beginning of this transformation was a helpful sign that the groom was on his way. However, there was no toning down the excitement - when the groom arrived and began leading his bride up the runway, the women just shrieked even louder. There were now about 50 of them on the main stage moving like a Mexican wave and ululating, that incredible high-pitched, continuous sound. A 10 year-old girl I had befriended told me this man was her uncle. I asked her whether he was a good man and she shrugged and rocked her hand from side to side to indicate "so-so". "Don't do it!" I wanted to shout at the bride. "Even his niece doesn't rate your new man!" Fortunately I learned that this wasn't her husband but the man giving her away. Unfortunately, that meant she had to go all the way back down the runway again with him to meet her husband.
A few of the groom's male relatives then entered and they all went back to the stage. I was interested that it was clearly acceptable for the male relatives of her husband's family to see the bride exposing flesh and letting her hair down. Indeed many photographs were taken which I assume would only be seen by family members. I admit I was somewhat taken aback by all the kissing by the groom of his male relatives in contrast to the number of kisses he bestowed on his new wife. I also thought that entering a hall full of shrieking, cat-calling women must be one of the few times a Yemeni man feels intimidated by women in his country.
It was a privilege to experience this hidden world. And hidden it will always remain, because cameras were banned for all guests. It was also a lot of fun to dance and chat with the women who were all so warm and welcoming towards me. In the end, we left the wedding before the bride and groom did. Even my Yemeni friend had clearly seen enough runway action for one night and wasn't prepared to wait another 30 minutes for the bride and groom to walk back and out the door! Neither were half of the guests, it seemed...