There was nothing particularly unusual about it. A group of us had toured a historic site outside the capital. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and one of the guys in the group decided to buy us some ice cream from the street vendor with a cart by the side of the street. I took the lid off the small cup of strawberry ice cream, holding the small wooden spoon in my other hand, and as I have done a thousand times, started to lick the ice cream off the lid. This would have been a simple thing to do had I been in any other place, in any other circumstance. But in this case I was in Sanaa, Yemen, wearing a full black abaya or robe, with hijab or headscarf, and the niqab, or veil covering my entire face except my eyes.
Having lived and traveled in the Middle East on and off since 1985, I was no stranger to seeing women covered in black. I had worn my share of black myself, having adjusted to the convenience of donning a flowing abaya over my western garb versus trying to dress sufficiently conservative to please the religious police during my years living in Saudi Arabia. Yet I had never covered my face with the exception of the briefest attempts at trying the hijab, more as a novelty than from any serious thought at wearing it. But this time, my companions all wore the full face covering, and when they were asked to prepare me adequately for my public appearances in Yemen, this is what I was brought. Although they insisted I didn't need to cover my face, the draw of building a sense of solidarity buttressed the goal of increased security by covering my blonde hair, and I willingly invited my new women friends to wrap me in the various layers the right way.
The arrangement is surprisingly complex, with several layers of cloth performing various functions. The sensation of the added effort needed to breathe in and out with these layers in front of your nose and mouth, probably made more challenging by the thin air of Sanaa, was a bit disconcerting at first. My colleague commented how she didn't like the experience of smelling her own exhaled breath. At one point I tried to drink from a bottle of water, but found it challenging to find my own mouth while sorting through the layers. At dinner, our friends assured us we could remove the face veil to make eating easier. Throughout the few days we spent together, we saw a variety of approaches to modesty, from women flipping the face veil over their heads until they heard or saw a male nearby when they would quickly flip it back down, to turning with their backs to the room so they could eat in relatively comfort. When I tried to flip the veil back and forth I inevitably ended up with layers in the wrong place and things coming untied. The fact that I wore glasses made it even worse, as there were times you had to remove the glasses before rearranging and other times when you needed to leave them on.
Over dinner, a mother of a young tween girl of 11 talked about how she had decided that her two daughters would not cover their faces. She was asked whether she herself did so because her husband compelled her to, and she said he did not. Yet out of habit or custom or tradition or for lack of wanting to change, she went through the same contortions as her colleagues while her uncovered daughter looked on.
All things considered, the ensemble was not nearly as uncomfortable as I had feared. I was able to see from the small eye slot much more easily than I had anticipated. I could walk and not trip over the flowing robe most of the time. I only managed to forget to remove my glasses, ending up with a tangled mess, a few times until I learned the tricks. And in the end, I was somehow able to eat my strawberry ice cream, although I'm sure I have traces of it on my veil. And despite the challenges, I am sure my friends would have figured out how to lick the lid.