By Peri M. Klemm
WeNews guest author
Sunday, October 13, 2013
The adoption of the veil among this group in Kenya's refugee communities is a new thing, says Peri M. Klemm in this excerpt from "Veiling in Africa." While there are many reasons for this push, Islam isn't a motivation for covering up.
Credit: BBC World Service on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)
(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.
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).
Buy the Book, "Veiling in Africa (African Expressive Cultures)":
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