Uncovered Baklava

Ola’s mother wears a dark-colored veil. Her sister is also veiled. Getting used to an additional piece of cloth on the head was supposed to be simple. But, Ola could not process this change at all while growing up and handled things differently when it came to her own daughter.

27 September 2018

Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

This story is the outcome of cooperation between Radio Souriali and SyriaUntold. Our readers are invited to listen to this story in Arabic.

The sports teacher, a handsome young man in his late 20s, entered the second ninth grade class at Ahmad al-Sabbagh High School in Al-Muhajideen neighborhood in Damascus.

Ola and several other girls in class waited for the sports class from one week to the other. Ola was tall, fit and athletic with a thin waist. She would have preferred not to be veiled. The sports teacher would wait five minutes outside class for the students to put their veils on.

Ola (pseudonym, 16) wished the teacher would storm into the room one day, unannounced, to see her long chestnut hair, but he was quite disciplined!

She felt silly, wearing the veil and jumping to score a point in the basketball game while the teacher watched. Deep inside, she felt how ridiculous it was to wear a veil in this situation. With every jump, her breasts and bottom would shake, and more than once, her hair would drop to her back from under the veil. Her friends would react with silly panic and warn her to tie her hair back and cover it up. But, she would have never quit basketball even if that meant her clothes being ripped off, her bra being undone or her veil being misplaced. Oh how she wished the veil would break loose and fall to the ground!

She imagined that moment as if it were a movie scene. The veil would fall slowly to the ground, her silky hair would hang down, and the teacher would look at her in awe and admiration with his dreamy eyes. He would pick up the veil and give it to her, and perhaps he would help her cover her hair, but not completely. He would leave out some strands here and there, hanging on her face in an attractive way.

Ola would feel ashamed every time the stinking smell of sweat filled the classroom after the sports class. The teacher’s face would turn red while trying to take in some air from the window while gathering his things to leave the room. Ola tried, on several occasions, to come close to him so that he could breathe in her smell that was a mixture of soap and perfume to prove to him that she was not the source of that perspiration stench. She once claimed she wanted his opinion about a knee support and came very close. She made sure he could smell her, and he closed his eyes for a fraction of a second. He was certainly enjoying that sweet aroma amid the foul suffocating smell in the air.

She gave him the knee support, and his hand touched hers unintentionally. He quickly apologized, though. Perhaps he thought she minded.

Ola felt her heart beating quickly, and she could sense the butterflies in her stomach. That moment was enough to boost her mood for several days. She did not love the teacher. She only enjoyed exploring her interaction with the opposite sex. Shortly after, that teacher was replaced by a fat female substitute whose form showed she did not practice what she preached. Ola did not have to wear the veil in class, and she no longer had those sexual ideas masked with romance.

Ola had to attend religion classes every Wednesday with her mother, aunt and elder sister. Her deceased father would mock those classes.

To her, Al-Qubaysiyat group [a women’s group preaching Islam] session was always a horrible and obnoxious duty. She hated all those women she met who eyed her with awkward stares. They considered her a girl ready to be engaged. She had white skin, a ripe body and wore a veil. She was disciplined and religious and hailed from a relatively honorable Damascene family. Their disgusting way of checking her out from head to toe with their wide eyes made her feel naked. She would return home with a desperate need to wash up. She never had this feeling while flirting with the sports teacher in her dreams or when she approached him so that he could smell her, despite the class chatter from other girls about that being a huge sin matching adultery.

Ola could not forget that it was due to these sessions that she wore the veil. On one of these days, Ola was surprised to see blood on her panties. She worryingly called out to her mother who had never prepared her for puberty. When the mother saw the blood, she said nothing. She directly ran to the phone instead to make serious calls. Ola thought, “Could it be this dangerous? Could I be sick?” She broke out in tears. But, her elder sister laughed and told her, “Don’t be scared, silly! You have reached puberty!”

Ola did not understand. But, that night, she attended a religious meeting especially prepared for her to teach her the new social and religious duties, now that she had attained puberty. She returned home with a veil on her head. But, that was not uncommon for the family.

Ola’s mother (age) wears a dark-colored veil. Her sister is also veiled. Getting used to an additional piece of cloth on the head was supposed to be simple. But, Ola could not process this change at all. It was tough for her to learn how to fix the veil on her head. She would forget to put it on when opening the door, stepping out to the balcony or even when heading to school in the morning. Several times, she would forget about it and only remember it upon reaching the building entrance.

One time, she took two steps into the street before her mother screamed from the balcony to bring her back and slap her, while not believing her daughter had really forgotten her veil. With these repeated incidents, the mother and sister thought it best to discuss the matter with the women’s group.

They held a celebration for Ola and recited a complete reading of the Quran (khitma). The head of the group would meet with her repeatedly to enlighten her and bring satisfaction to her heart. But, it was all in vain. Ola was not convinced.

  • The veil protects women. Think about it. Isn’t a covered piece of baklava healthier than an uncovered one with all the flies hovering above it?
  • Why is it so important to cover one’s hair?
  • Hair is seductive…
  • Hair is seductive, but eyes aren’t? Lips aren’t?
  • You can wear the full cover (niqab) if you want.
  • Why would I cover myself from head to toe? So that men wouldn’t look?
  • Men and women are different by nature. Men can’t help themselves.
  • But, why are men judged then?
  • Darling, we wear the veil because God asked us to. End of story.
  • But, some people say it is not a duty.
  • Ola, if you do not put on the veil, people will talk. If you take it off, your family and their friends will stop talking to you. Your reputation will be tarnished. You will never get married, and no man will respect you. People will talk about your immorality. You will even ruin your sister’s chances of getting married. They will call your mother reckless because she did not raise you well. It’s your call.

This is how the head of the group closed the subject of Ola’s veil once and for all, by threatening her with social and familial punishment rather than divine one.

As the days and years went by, Ola’s emotional and sexual experience was limited to her dreams and thoughts as a teenager living in a conservative environment. All she heard about the opposite sex was from her friends, television and some sexual jokes that were too dirty that they distorted any notion of a harmonious relationship with a man. After some sessions, she would hear sexual conversations as she was no longer a child and was about to get married herself. Then, what she feared and expected happened. One of her mother’s friends who regularly attended the religious sessions got Ola engaged to her son. Ola was in 11th grade, and the man was 28. Ola was not fond of studying, but she did not prefer committing to a person she did not know. She wished she had lived a love story like in the movies. She told her sister about her feelings, but the latter had too much envy in her heart because her younger sister was getting married before her.

“Shut up and stop complaining. Appreciate what you have, Ola. Movies are not for people like us,” her sister retorted.

Ola expected to enjoy her first time having sex on her wedding night. But, it was painful and embarrassing. Her husband neither kissed her nor cuddled her. He was too mechanical and cold. Besides, he was not handsome like the sports teacher. The whole situation was devastating and shameful. She expected things to get better with time, but they only worsened. Once, Ola warned her husband about his bad breath. He told her mother, and her mother told the head of the group who advised Ola to bear with him. Otherwise, she would be considered a recalcitrant wife and would have to face reward or punishment. Ola sank in her thoughts. She loved to delve into the world of imagination and dreams. She wished she hadn’t worn the veil. She wished she had fled home instead of making compromises and acting nice. If only she had loved a man and had a sweet relationship with him, regardless of its end result. If only she had continued her education. She wished she hadn’t taken a decision that forced her to listen to a strange woman who thinks she is God’s messenger on earth; telling her to hold her nose so as not to smell her husband’s stinking breath during intercourse. He slept with her as though she were a hay-stuffed pillow.

Ola got pregnant and had a girl. She vowed that she would not let her daughter live anything similar to her current experience. The baby liberated her from all her fears, but her biggest concern was that her daughter would relive the same experience when she grew up. It was not hard for Ola to push her husband to divorce her. She only had to bring out the books for her high school diploma. She spent her time studying. She no longer cooked or cleaned the house. Every move was well-calculated and intentional. She did not ask for divorce because she knew that he would hold on tighter if she did.

A few months later, following interventions, fights and mediation, the divorce happened. Ola returned home with her daughter to live with her mother and sister. Ola enrolled in a session to improve her knowledge of the baccalaureate curriculum and to overcome the challenges of resuming studying after a long break. She chose an environment different from her old one. She sat with liberal women and men from different religious and social backgrounds. When she talked about her experience, some avoided her while others respected her. She wanted to break free from fear and social caution. But, the only thing she did not dare do was take off the veil. She was not afraid of others’ judgment of her. But, she was concerned about her daughter and did not want her to be mistreated.

Taking off the veil would worsen the family situation from coldness to complete boycott. Ola got a fair average in the scientific baccalaureate exams and enrolled in the Faculty of Journalism. She experienced different stages of mental, social and knowledge-oriented maturity.

She fell in love several times and deepened her sexual experience. Neither the veil nor her religious legacy stood in her way. Her experience also helped her understand many of men’s sexual complexes resulting from frustration and isolation from women. Ola graduated and received a scholarship to study at an English university. She decided to take her daughter and try to find a place in England. She was bent on taking off the veil the moment she stepped on European soil. But, the Syrian law [link and article of the law] obstructed her, as it forbids taking the daughter without her father’s consent. Her ex-husband did not facilitate her life. He was watching from afar the developments of her life which changed completely after he left.

Ola could not get his consent. So, she decided to stay in Syria and put off the moment of freedom until the circumstances became suitable. But, she continued to work as a freelancer in several magazines and news websites.

In 2011, the Syrian revolution broke out. Ola was 29, and her daughter Maya had turned 11. Ola participated in the protests, and she dreamt of the day personal status laws would change. She was convinced that the political demands were rightful, but calling for eradicating the personal status law and putting a new one instead meant more to her. She soon realized that injustice is one and the same, as is freedom despite its different aspects. She ran away from security men, witnessed exchange of fire and the arrest and insult of protesters.

One time, she was almost arrested, while a security officer pulled her from the veil. But, she simply undid its tie around her neck and ran away. One of the veiled escapees looked at her disgustingly while running. Ola did not care. She felt so strong. Somebody tried to provoke her by bringing up this sensitive issue, but he failed because he misinterpreted the reality. Ola kept running, her breasts dancing and her bottom, which had grown a bit bigger, shaking. She remembered basketball class, and the memory boosted her excitement and speed.

On a scorching summer day in 2014, Ola looked at her face in the mirror. She saw wrinkles around her eyes. She could not wait any longer. She took off the veil. Her daughter was 14— old enough to speak for herself. Of course, the family did not take things lying down. Hell broke loose at home. Her ex-husband tried to take Maya away from her unchaste mother. But, the girl insisted on staying with her mother.

Due to Ola’s relief work, her name was reported, and orders were given to arrest her. She was not going to stay a hostage to fear for another day. She was not willing to tolerate being detained for one second. She always sought freedom, and she was not going to be obstructed. Her resolve was stronger than ever.  She escaped with her daughter to the north, but she had to cover her head with the veil she hated to pass through the radical areas. She also forced her daughter to wear the veil temporarily. How absurd! How important this silly detail was for many— that a woman had to wear a piece of cloth on her head to spare her God’s torture and to protect her from sin and from men’s harassment. That she had to admit to the authority holders their power and to confess her religious identity, which was not accurate because women across all religions had to wear the veil before the Islamic Brigades’ militants. What was in the veil? Why is the duty of wearing it one of the utmost forms of religious power over women?

In fact, the veil did not protect small girls from sick religious harassment. One of the men made Maya get down from the bus because the veil revealed a small strand of hair. Another man suggested marrying her to return her dignity. The two did not let Maya go until she gave them a gold bracelet from her mother.

After a long journey filled with danger, Ola and her daughter made it to Turkey. She removed her temporarily-worn veil and threw it aside, as did Maya. The two held each other for a while, then the mother and her daughter continued their journey and reached a European asylum country [which?].

The two life companions live there safely. Ola sometimes hears gossip about a woman who asked for divorce or took off the veil after reaching Europe and about violence against women who broke free from their chains. She walks with her daughter in the street at sunset and, breathing freely, buys an uncovered piece of sweets that looks like baklava from a street vendor.

This work is under a Creative Commons license. Attribution: Non commercial - ShareAlike 4.0. International license

Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad