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Scene at an Airport

March 13, 2015


As most of you know, Mrs. Chatterbox and I love to travel, and we’ve seen many interesting things. I try not to prejudge what I’ll see because it’s usually those unexpected or unanticipated experiences that have the deepest impact. The incident I’m going to describe didn’t happen overseas; it happened at New York’s Kennedy Airport, a simple scene but one that still lingers with me.


In the West, there’s much talk about how Arab women dress. To many of us, it seems cruel and atavistic for women to drape themselves from head to toe and walk about in a cocoon of obscurity. As I understand it, “wearing the veil” was a special honor afforded the wives of the prophet Mohammed—to distinguish them from all other women. Later, this morphed into traditional dress for most Arab women.


I’ve heard that it’s deemed proper for female hair to be completely covered because “hair” is considered sexual. Does this mean that Arab men turn into rutting animals without self-control if they see female hair? I seriously doubt it. Recently, at a local Subway shop, I saw a young Muslim woman with her head covered in a hijab, yet she was wearing a leotard so tight I could clearly see the definition of her female parts. I was struck by what seemed to be a contradiction.


In 2011, we were returning from Turkey where we’d only seen a few women completely covered in abayas. Our guide explained that, while Turkey was a predominantly Muslim country, its government was secular. Women were not required by the government or coerced by male family members to cover themselves when going out in public. Those who did, did so by personal choice. I never had an opportunity to interact with these women as they sailed through various market places.


On our return to Oregon, we changed planes in New York, with a lay-over of several hours. Tired of eating Turkish food, Mrs. Chatterbox and I found a KFC in the terminal and dug into our fried chicken with gusto. An Arab family sat at the table next to ours. The woman was completely covered in an abaya, with only her eyes exposed through a slit. Her husband, his short beard neatly trimmed, wore jeans, a polo short-sleeved shirt and Nikes; the boys were dressed similarly. The husband was wolfing down chicken and paying no attention to the children, while the wife helped the kids with their meal.


Every now and then the mother tried to eat some chicken. I didn’t want to stare, but I’d never considered the difficulty women would have eating in this garb. Each bite required that she lift her clothing with one hand, and with the other move the chicken up her body until it reached her mouth, where she carefully inserted the chicken without it touching the material covering her face. Since there were bones in the chicken, this took the skill of a surgeon.




Woman wearing an abaya


I try not to judge anyone else’s culture, but seeing the husband and male children eating chicken in comfortable western clothes while the woman struggled to consume a few morsels struck me in a very judgmental way. I’m all for tradition, but I’m more into fairness. Obviously, I didn’t know this woman and had no idea where she came from, but I hope she was wearing this outfit by choice and hadn’t been compelled to wear it by the man seated beside her, working on his fourth piece of chicken.  



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That is really unfair. Everyone should've been dressed the same, not just the poor woman. I never thought about how they would eat, but that sounds like too much of a hassle.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on March 13, 2015
I always think how hot that black abaya must be, especially in those desert kingdoms. why don't they collapse from heat stroke? but yeah, the whole eating thing. they ought to be at least allowed to have a removable veil from the face so they can eat. but then, I guess if they really cared about making women's lives easier, they would have a different culture.
By: Ellen Abbott on March 13, 2015
I can speak with authority on this one. The man certainly hadn't coerced the woman to wear a hegab and full abaya. Any woman he'd marry would likely be chosen by his parents and so would she - and she'd have been fully covered to begin with, used to being that way as all the women in her family are. There are reasons 3rd world countries remain poor and culturally stunted - they don't like change. The women enforce dress standards as much or more than men do - the same way certain Moral Majority women in the US believe women shouldn't work, should be barefoot and pregnant, and definitely shouldn't be president. As to hair being sexy, men in 3rd world patriarchal societies (not just Arab ones) aren't ambitious or hard workers like in the developed world. They much prefer thinking about food, soccer matches, and sex, so anything is sexy to them.
By: Lexa Cain on March 13, 2015
The eternal question: We want to respect other people's culture, but how do we do it when it seems so cruel and unfair to us? I look at it from another point of view. I think people should do what they want in their own society; but also respect other people's customs. And in OUR country, covering your face means you're a robber or a bandit, or somehow up to no good. People in our society shouldn't cover their face. As for hair being sexy -- I vote yes -- so if that's the point of the head covering, then it makes sense to me.
By: Tom Sightings on March 13, 2015
Wow, Lexa; "Moral Majority" I have not heard that in forty years! I think it was a Nixon thing.
By: Cranky on March 13, 2015
Next time she should probably consider soup.
By: Al Penwasser on March 13, 2015
It also strikes me as cruel to wear black where it's very hot, while the men wear white. And I just want to say, I didn't mean to suggest religious war in my blog, just to let you know, thanks for commenting.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on March 13, 2015
oh, yeah. my independent streak bristled at the thought of this confinement.
By: TexWisGirl on March 13, 2015
I certainly hope it was her choice and not forced upon her. I also hope at home they can remove the garb and eat in comfort.
By: Akansas Patti on March 13, 2015
It is difficult to look at this dispassionately. If she wants to be veiled, good for her. If she doesn't, shame on him.
By: mimi on March 13, 2015
When I was in school, I had a muslim professor who frowned upon his wife interacting with North Americans. He was firm in his belief to the point that his position was non-negotiable. She had to obey... full stop. He added... our women know what is expected of them.
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 13, 2015
wow- interesting post- I think it's all how one is brought up- I am glad I live where I do not have to cover up and have difficulties eating in public. And not be afraid to be seen...frankly I think some cultures have twisted attitudes/minds when it comes to women and their rights. But then I was raised in a slightly more fair to women rights culture. We still have a long way to go. And I hope the Moral Majority aren't so much a "majority" any more.
By: Kathe W. on March 13, 2015
I thought of a couple of comments but decided discretion was the better part of valor.
By: Catalyst on March 13, 2015
I remember being a kid in the 60's and having to wear a cover (scarf, hat,) on your head in the Catholic Church. I get my fair share of whacks from the nuns for forgetting my beanie on First Fridays. Then the church got with the times and it was waived. I'm always baffled at the Muslim beliefs but to each his own.
By: Bouncin Barb on March 13, 2015
By: Val on March 13, 2015
The jury is still out on this issue with me. One side of me thinks about freedom of choice. the other side thinks about participating in western culture. You'd think there could be some middle ground.
By: red on March 13, 2015
I've always wondered about the all-black clothing...I can't even wear a black T-shirt without wilting. The thought of having to eat like that really bothers me. Maybe this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime event for her, usually staying close to home where she would be able to eat without all this garb?
By: Pixel Peeper on March 13, 2015
I hope she wore it by choice, but if she did, I don't understand the decision. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on March 13, 2015
In the old testament women were told to cover their heads, but even Christians realise that was just the culture at the time, along with many other things in the Bible, and Christians have moved with the times, but it seems muslims haven't so much.
By: LL Cool Joe on March 14, 2015
It certainly makes one wonder how these women manage all that they do and as to how they are treated by their husbands, hopefiully appreciated..........
By: John on March 14, 2015
it's part of their culture more than the religion itself. over many centuries of practice, i think they got both mixed up. it started as men and women covering their faces and body with long cloaks to protect themselves from the sun and sandstorms. that's when the arabs were still nomads. the desert can be harsh and unforgiving. i live in the mid-east. i see this often. some struggle to eat or even look for their driver in the dark but some women would just uncover the face to eat.
By: JJ on March 15, 2015
having said that, i was made to understand that covering up of the face is optional and it's really up to the individual. many here, in the UAE, don't cover their faces. it's mostly the Saudis.
By: JJ on March 15, 2015
Stephen: I am amazed by your travels. You could write a compelling book on the places your have visited!
By: Michael Manning on March 15, 2015
I've seen these women, but never considered how they would manage eating. It's an interesting world we live I . R
By: Rick Watson on March 15, 2015
I think it's very difficult for us to view and come close to comprehending another culture's beliefs and choices (providing it's by her own choice). We bristle at the idea of inequality but different cultures clearly have not evolved in the same way that ours is in the process of doing. It's only a matter of right or wrong because of our own beliefs. I also try not to judge but our conditioned response is to internalize what we see and react with what we feel. We humans are complex.
By: Hilary on March 17, 2015
Whether she was wearing it by choice based on misplaced indoctrination or by requirement, I think the whole thing is stupid. I do not judge the Muslim religion, but there treatment of women is on a par with cave man days. When men cover themselves as well it might make me understand.
By: Tabor on March 19, 2015

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