This has definitely been a very difficult word to explore. While we are committed to using the Y version of this word yashmak for a face-covering veil, the more common words are niqab or burka. It’s a religious concept really, one that takes the sartorial gesture — much life the turban, the yarmulke, or the habit — to its most spiritual dimension. And yet, the political atmosphere of the day has transformed this simple expression of devotion into a highly charged issue of global magnitude. Post September 11, for a woman to wear a full face veil in an American city is a fearless act.
I make a date to go to a Yemenite video store to talk with a young, very hip woman in traditional Muslim dress who knows an immense amount about music and movies. We film together for an entire afternoon as I interview her about wearing a veil in New York and the challenges of being different on the street. It’s a wonderful conversation, and I feel great about the material. But, as I am heading out the door, she whispers, “Please don’t put my face on the internet.” Drat. Double drat. More work.
A few days later, I walk with my daughters from shop to shop along Atlantic Avenue’s famous block between 3rd and 4th Avenues, stopping into the mosque, various essential oil stores and then finally to a Halal butcher. When I ask if they know where I can find a shop that sells a yashmak, I am sent up the hidden stairway behind the cash register. Here? Really, here? I wonder. In a windowless room I never could have imagined before, I am allowed to run my fingers through one yashmak after another, as I listen to the friendly, hijab-dressed saleswoman explain the various forms of dress and their nuanced meanings. For the next several days, I return to the shop with my camera and am told a whole range of stories about why she is not there. On the third day, one of the butchers announces that she no longer works in the dress shop upstairs and that the owner, who was scheduled to meet me that day at 5 PM, is in Egypt.
In a case like this, I have now learned, it is never a good idea to call first. Just appear and start talking about your project and hopefully someone with power will become intrigued. At long last, I find an Islamic dress shop where I am allowed to film and ask a few questions. I speak French to the Moroccan saleswomen. They are, for the most part, quite shy about being on camera, but they are proud of their fabulous inventory and happy to allow me to photograph. I am still wondering whether a full-face veil is a symbol of oppression or liberation from the onus of making oneself beautiful in front of a far too critical public eye. When I look up the definition for the NIQAB or yashmak, I discover, for the first time, a definition on Wikipedia.com in which THE NEUTRALITY OF THIS ARTICLE IS DISPUTED.