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(WOMENSENEWS)-- The adoption of the veil among Oromo refugees living in Eastleigh, Kenya, one the largest urban refugee communities in Africa, is a recent phenomenon.
Women feel increasing pressure to cover their heads and bodies in accordance with the practices of their Somali neighbors and fellow refugees. More and more, as instability and violence escalate, Oromo women are choosing to adopt full hair, head and body covering as a kind of urban camouflage with which to conceal their ethnicity. As one female resident acknowledged, "We grew up free but here we have to cover our faces."
Yet, just five years ago, Oromo women in Eastleigh proudly wore their cultural dress in public. For refugees with little in the way of material heritage, women's dress, hairstyles and jewelry have served not only as a vital marker of Oromo identity in their home country of Ethiopia but also as a fundamental assertion of Oromo nationalism in the diaspora.
In the West, the emblematic removal of the veil by Muslim women is a testament to a woman's sense of empowerment and liberation. For Oromo women, I argue the opposite is true, as only through veiling do women feel free and secure. And while the phenomenon of veiling by Muslim women as a public display of modesty has become a metaphor in Western popular media for female subordination and gender asymmetry, especially post–Sept. 11, 2001, the Oromo example is one in which women veil to protect themselves from harassment, rape and imprisonment. That they feel so threatened is hardly a recommendation for veiling.
Yet whether it is viewed as empowering or repressive by the women themselves, they speak of this choice as a strategy. While women, as reflected in their decorated bodies, have always been viewed as those who create, reproduce and transmit traditional Oromo consciousness (Oromumaa), the wearing of abaya (a long, full dress), hijab (hair, neck, and torso cover) and niqab (facial veil) is a recent and temporary tactic by refugee women to outwardly guard their ethnic affiliation.
Dress has become a central, visual strategy within the Muslim refugee community in Eastleigh, where tensions between moderate Muslims and extremists have escalated since 2004. Women's veiling is a recent condition that communicates the social, political and economic climate of Eastleigh today. It is therefore a newsworthy topic of discussion among friends, family and neighbors, who often note how a woman dresses in public.
Muslim Oromo women and men readily provided the following seven reasons for the increased use of the hijab and niqab by women during my fieldwork.
- Reason 1: To go to nightclubs and other non-Muslim spaces undetected, removing the hijab and abaya once inside to reveal a miniskirt or jeans. This explanation was most popular among unmarried women under 25 years of age. These young women have very little opportunity to meet publicly, hear new popular music, dance and enjoy the company of members of the opposite sex in other contexts.
- Reason 2: To appear in public like rich Somali women. One husband stated, "Somali refugees eat meat every day, drink tea with milk in it every day and their women dress smartly. Oromo women see the way they dress, the ornaments they wear and ask their husbands, 'why not them?' Husbands feel they can't compete and lose pride." In this sense, Somali dress reflects women's economic goals. Women did not necessarily view hijab and abaya as a symbol of piety or its owner as any more religious than other women in their community. Instead, the abaya and hijab represented the luxurious, transnational fashions from countries like Saudi Arabia and Oman and gave the wearer a worldly, modern air.
- Reason 3: To appear to be the recipient of support from family and friends in Western countries and thus be subject to less harassment than those who don't have a connection to outside assistance. Women perceived as Somali, for example, felt they would be less targeted by thieves, as their dress indicates that they have access to wealth and a larger community of support. In other words, Somali men might be more likely to step in and assist a woman who is publicly assaulted on the street or when gathering water or wood away from the camps.
Seeming Religious Affiliations
- Reason 4: To garner support from the more militant mosques which provide alms for the poor and free or inexpensive education for children.
- Reason 5: To appear to embrace a nascent religious fanaticism, especially at times of crisis. This was viewed as a good and a bad thing by different individuals, but all agreed that moderate Muslims such as Shaykh Mohammed Rashad and Shaykh Bakri Saphalo, who advocated for a religious foundation in Oromo heritage, are today publicly denounced by radical Muslim sects in a campaign against moderate Islam. Women want to disassociate from the more moderate movements.
- Reason 6: To dress fashionably and to be modern in accordance with their Islamic belief. When I surveyed Somali and Oromo acquaintances on Facebook in August 2011 who either had lived in Eastleigh or had relatives there, most responded that it is the Islamic way of life to dress modern in abaya and hijab.
- And reason 7: To provide protection from Ethiopian agents. Government officials are thought to disguise themselves as civilians and kill or kidnap refugees who are viewed as anti-Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and as Oromo Liberation Front supporters. Some Oromo feel that infiltrators are in Eastleigh in order to play one group of Oromo against another, to gather information for the government and to repress Oromo Liberation Front sympathizers and their family members.
The fact that Oromo informants did not mention Islam as the reason for their choice to veil suggests that this fundamental garment equated with Islamic conviction in the non-Muslim world needs further consideration within the African context. The veil is a powerful symbol of disguise that allows Oromo women to blend in, become Somali, appear wealthy and escape persecution. In this sense, veiling is a potent means of survival at this moment.
This essay is excerpted from "Veiling in Africa," edited by Elisha P. Renne. Available from Indiana University Press. Copyright 2013.
Peri M. Klemm is an associate professor of art history at California State University, Northridge. Elisha P. Renne is a professor in the department of anthropology and the department for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She is author of "The Politics of Polio in Northern Nigeria" (IUP, 2010).
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