Friday, November 25, 2011

More Moorish Musings

As we unhappily said goodbye to the Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens and made our way down the long stone walkway towards our car, I was taken aback by a sight that never fails to unnerve me. A woman in head-to-toe burka and face-covering niqab was walking with her husband, pushing a stroller down the path in front of us. It’s fairly unusual to see women outside Muslim countries fully draped, but I’ve seen several in London, always in loose fitting black cloaks with frightening grills across their eyes, and now I’d seen one in Granada. This woman’s burka was light grey and appeared to be of high quality material, starched and pressed, with the headscarf fitting tightly across her face, just over and under her eyes. Her husband sported casual western clothes – a brightly striped sweatshirt hoodie, jeans and Nikes. I’ve heard and read the arguments from both women and men about the merits of the burka – how it allows women to praise God; how it provides women with a protective, comforting anonymity; how it’s specified in the Koran (questionable); how it allows women to honor and show respect for their husbands. But no matter how I try, I just can’t buy it; I find the burka both troubling and astonishing. It subjugates women, makes them less than individuals – nameless and faceless, inhibits their social interaction and communicates a message of subservience. Every time I’m confronted with the specter of these women so attired, I have the urge to sit them down and suggest that if they want to be anonymous and hide their individuality, just put on some Jackie-O sunglasses, slip on a shapeless moo moo and don a floppy hat. Such an outfit would let women go about their business in public, unnoticed and undistinguished but not send such a blatant message of degradation. While not in favor of a burka ban (outlawing behaviors and practices often serves in the end to encourage them), as I watched the gray-clad woman load her baby into the car, I wondered, are women who wear the burka aware that their attire screams oppression?

The following day, we returned to Granada to explore the rest of the city including the massive cathedral (the second largest in Spain behind the one in Seville), the checkered Plaza Nueva, the dark alleys of the Alcaicería (formerly the silk market) and the Albayzín labyrinth (the ancient quarter of the Moors). Perhaps it’s because everything pales in comparison to the Alhambra masterpiece rising on the summit above, but for some reason the city below didn’t move us. We climbed the Assabica hill, which faces the Alhambra on the opposite rise, through the narrow, winding streets of the Albayzín to reach the Mirador de San Nicolás (an incredible viewpoint on a church plaza). While wandering the neighborhood maze was interesting, the whole point of the climb was to once again see the Alhambra from a different vantage point. When we finally reached the top of the final stairway and made a hard turn to our right to face the Alhambra across the ravine, we had a mouth-dropped-open moment. “Oh, wow!” was all we could say.

There are apparently many Roman Catholic religious orders based in Granada since we passed many priests and nuns on the streets, going about their daily business. As we headed down and back across town from the Mirador de San Nicolás to the parking garage, we crossed paths with a tall, regal Cardinal in black and crimson ecclesiastical regalia, short cape over his shoulders and red mitre on his head. The young novitiate in tow scurried just behind him, carrying the dignitary’s briefcase and other paraphernalia. The supremacy of this man of the cloth was unmistakable, given his gilded robes. As we rounded the corner onto the Gran Vía de Colón, I almost stopped dead in my tracks. Was it possible that we could be following two more burka-clad women? That’s three in two days in Christian Granada? What were the odds? As we got a bit closer, it suddenly hit me. These women weren’t Muslims in burkas, they were Catholic nuns in long gray and white habits, their brows pushed down and their cheeks pinched by tight wimples. The woman in the burka and the nuns in their habits...are these femininity-erasing garments really that different? Cardinals ascend to power wearing royal colors and nuns, unable to become priests, are stuck in black and gray. Muslim men wear colorful western clothing and their women are hidden under identity-robbing burkas. Perhaps this is an obvious point in common – the patriarchal culture of two of the world’s largest religions. The suppression of women: discuss.

Pictures of our adventures:

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