author photo

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

Cuba and the Veil: An Anecdote

December 30, 2013 | Print Print |

Isbel Diaz Torres

Yasmin junto a los miembros de Arcoiris Paquito el de Cuba, Negra Cubana Tenía que ser, Norge Espinosa, e Isbel Díaz.

Yasmin (l) along with members of the Arcoiris (Rainbow) movement.

HAVANA TIMES – It happened inside a bus in Havana some days ago, for all passengers to see. A teenager attacked my friend and colleague Yasmin S. Portales Machado, yanking the veil she normally wears so hard he almost made her fall backwards.

The young man, about fifteen, began to pick on her and yanked her veil the moment she got on the bus, to the surprise and displeasure of my friend and Luis Rondon, another colleague of ours who was with her.

The two reprimanded the kid, pointing out he was being disrespectful and overstepping the most elementary bounds of civility. “Don’t sweat it, it’s not so bad…” the aggressor said cynically.

That, however, was not the end of it. A few stops later, as the teenager was getting off the bus, he went over to Yasmin and, with a violent yank of her veil, almost made her lose her balance and fall down.

To defend Yasmin, Luis tried to grab hold of the youngster firmly (and even ripped his shirt trying), but he managed to run away, leaving my friend in a state of near-shock – a mixture of fright, anger, feelings of impotence and sheer surprise.

The anecdote is short and simple, but we can certainly reflect on its implications. We could of course simply say it was just a rude and mischievous brat, but, even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean other factors weren’t involved in this gratuitous, violent gesture.

Violent actions spurred by xenophobic, racist and discriminatory sentiments directed at anyone different abound in Western societies, and Cuba is no exception to the rule. Cuban society has become more aggressive as it has slowly entered the world stage, and I suspect that its many years of isolation have had serious repercussions for it.

The cynicism with which many assume racist attitudes, for instance, is something we can already appreciate in everyday life in Cuba.

According to Yasmin, no one had ever attacked her in the five years she’d been using the veil for. I know for a fact that Yasmin’s vividly and beautifully colored veils (the light blue one is my favorite) do not go unnoticed by others. I think this is very positive, and I think my friend likes the attention they get.

I had always thought the pride and determination with which Yasmin wears these garments would have sufficed to ward off any discriminatory gesture. However, we are beginning to see the true face of the intolerance we have sown at home and the consequences of a domestic legislation that has very little to say about these types of violent actions.

In 2011, Spain issued the Comprehensive Equal Treatment and Anti-Discrimination Law, a bill that stipulated that educational institutions that denied students admission for religious reasons (such as the use of the Islamic veil), could be deprived of public funding.

A move in the opposite direction was seen in France, where, in 2010, President Sarkozy approved a law prohibiting the use of the burka and nicab in all public spaces. The debate surrounding the use of these garments is of course complex, placing discrimination against women and xenophobic attitudes in the balance.

Fortunately, one can still find quotas of decency and civility among Cubans: several witnesses to the absurd attack condemned the actions of the teenager and showed support for my friend.


What's your opinion?

  • John Goodrich

    Islam is the most misogynist, most totalitarian of the organized religions .
    It has no place in a society of equality and no self-respecting woman would or should allow her dress to be dictated by either a religion that was established by primitive men in a primitive age of man or by a male-dominated society.
    Both the bases of organized religions and the ( general) Islamic nuclear family structures are regressive, undemocratic and misogynist and should be relegated to our primitive past and not encouraged.
    That said, I would have broken the arm of that kid on the bus in defense of that woman . Were she a Muslim man with a beard , I doubt that the kid would have yanked his beard.
    It was a cowardly and misogynist act on his part and perhaps reflective of a macho Cuban male attitude .
    This is strictly my opinion

    • Griffin

      For once, I agree with you whole heartedly!

      I object to the practice of veiling women, but I defend a Muslim woman’s right to do so if she freely choses to follow the practice.

      • John Goodrich

        Thanks Griffin,
        it’s nice to be on the same side for a change.

    • Informed Consent

      Hear, hear

  • Walter Teague

    Isbel, I hope your friend Yasmin has seen what your wrote. Whatever her reasons for wearing a particular piece of clothing or personal attire, she deserves the same respect we all desire.

    However, all humanity is still far from being perfect and all societies have rules and customs that mostly come from the past and seldom make absolute sense. Therefore as John writes, we should be educated about where these ideas and practices come from – and where they might be going. Costumes for fun or choice seldom hurt the viewer and often like the El caballero de Paris they allow us to expand our humanity. But other times, costumes become involuntary and even signs of oppression: uniforms, upper and lower class dress, signs on our backs or foreheads, bound feet, mandatory high heels at work, etc. The list is long and mostly obvious. But some attire is invisible in its manipulation of our minds: as in the automatic comment “Oh you look so good” when a guy puts on a tie and suit or a women dresses in a fancy dress unfit for doing anything useful in., etc.

    So I confess, a burka looks ugly to me, even if the woman say she does it voluntarily, it makes me sad for her. Ties I don’t’ wear anymore. And I feel sad for people who feel inferior without some artifact. But that is me and I wish we could all bel more tolerant of each others idiosyncrasies while we are learning..

    • RONIN

      Well, the actions of the youth were definitely not acceptable, and someone should have stepped in to defend the lady. However, as a Muslim, let me share my thoughts on “Islamists” (and there is a distinct difference between a Muslim and “Islamists”) Although we would like to enjoy a world where we are tolerant of ALL people and their beliefs, would you have been tolerant of say the Nazis back in the early 1940′s? The “Islamist” and their movement in the Middle East have already declared that their ultimate goal is to “convert” the entire world into Islam. They have shown by their conduct that they will not relent, and continue their “Islamic Crusade” until they have accomplished their goal. They have declared “Jihad” on the entire world and they will not cease and desist until they succeed.
      Now we can sit back and be tolerant of ALL people, or we can make a stand against this tyranny. As an Amrican, and a Muslim, I am tolerant of ALL religions, and even of atheists, however, the “Islamists” have declared war on the rest of the free world, so, to me there is a line in the sand and we must make a stance against the people whose ultimate goal is to eliminate all other religions.

      • John Goodrich

        I think you missed a key point .
        The three Abrahamic religions that arose in the primitive Middle East are all totalitarian, misogynist and male-dominated as was the culture of those times.
        The misogynist and male-dominant aspects have been softened in Christianity ( except Catholicism) and Judaism but all three remain totalitarian forms in which not only God/Allah but the priests and other cleric must be blindly obeyed.
        Among those three Abrahamic religions , Islam is by far the most totalitarian and, due to its predominance in some of the world’s most backward areas , the most misogynist .
        In the case of burkas and head coverings, the women are forced to camouflage their natural features that men find so sexually stimulating that they cannot control themselves if they see a lock of hair or a calf .
        Muslim men and Orthodox Jews are so socially and sexually deranged and their behavior and thinking driven by their penises that even when praying , they are so easily distracted by the presence of a woman that all women are banished to the back of the mosque/synagogue where they cannot be seen .
        That’s absolutely nothing to do with the worship of God/Allah but entirely to do with the misogynist, male-dominated Bronze Age
        thinking out of which these religions arose.
        “Faith”, as Bill Maher pointed out,” is making a virtue of not thinking” to which I would add it is also making a virtue orf retaining some very primitive thinking as regards the place of women.
        That position should be beside a man and not behind him with downcast and masked eyes .

        • RONIN

          WHAT??????

    • John Goodrich

      A very effective and well written post Walter, thanks