Black clothing worn by Muslim women in Yemen. A woman who is musharshafa ('wearing a sharshaf' in Arabic) has likely spent quite a while in her dressing room before venturing out on the streets. A basic sharshaf consists of three parts, although more sumptuous versions exist with extra veils for the shoulders and neck.

First of all, there is the baltu, a loose robelike garment worn over a normal dress. A good-quality baltu often sports ornate embroidery around the neckline and on the sleeves, which are long enough to entirely cover the hands. These dresses are usually made from a light synthetic material and are always black.

After the baltu, the woman covers her head with the hijab, the veil. This is often bought at the same time as a baltu, to form a matching set with similar embroidery and style. Hijab can be fastened with plain safety pins or knots, but most fashionable ladies in Sana'a prefer long hatpins decorated with coloured beads and worn on the left side of the forehead.

Finally, a sharshaf is completed by the addition of a niqab, a veil worn in front of the face, with a narrow slit left for the eyes. Although I have seen niqabs without the slit, this is highly uncommon as well as uncomfortable in the searing heat of Yemen.

A Western eye often sees sharshaf as a symbol of the inequality of the Muslim women with the men, but for the Yemenis themselves a sharshaf is a symbol of freedom. As a musharshafa a woman can go anywhere, protected from the jeers and catcalls of men, safe in her anonymity.

In Yemen, unlike the Taliban Afganistan, the law does not require anyone to cover themselves with a sharshaf. Western women especially are considered as a 'third sex' and are not expected to wear it, although many do so to disguise their foreign origins.

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