The melhfa. A long strip of colorfully-patterned fabric, tied with two knots and wrapped around the body and head of Sahrawi women. An entirely unique way of dressing, tied and worn this way only by the women of this culture. A style worn by every Sahrawi woman while she is in the camps. What does this attire mean to these women? What does it say about their values and self-image?
The concept of the melhfa, and its meaning in the lives of the women who wear it, goes deeper than just appearance and outward modesty. The responses I got about the melhfa were overwhelmingly positive. Every woman I spoke to told me that she values this custom. Other than the admission that the melhfa makes it harder to do housework, and the fact that most women do not wear the melhfa when they are outside of the camps (such as in Algiers or Spain), the wearing of the melhfa while in the camps speaks volumes to them about who they are. Some of the women I spoke to had opinions that they couldn’t even put into words, or didn’t know how to express in English or Spanish. Others had such a poetic way of describing the melhfa’s worth, that their deep care for their culture and all it includes was clearly evident.
As I conversed with my friends about the melhfa and what it means to them, several underlying values that shape melhfa-wearing rose to the surface. Their identity as Sahrawi people, their self-image as women, and their conception of beauty were three ideas that were woven through all of my discussions. These insights into the melhfa, and what they tell me about some Sahrawi values and ideas, give me a little glimpse of the hearts of these people and what is important to them.
“We are Sahrawi.”
While I walked back home with one of my Sahrawi friends after an afternoon at her house, I asked her why she wears the melhfa and what it means to her. Despite her beginning English level, she was able to make very clear to me how much the melhfa shapes her identity as a Sahrawi person. She told me that if she were to arrive in the camps and get out of the car without a melhfa on, the people would say that she is not Sahrawi. Even though she doesn’t wear the melhfa while studying in Algiers, the moment she steps into the camps, the melhfa is a uniform way of expressing who she is and her unity with this culture.
I wondered how this came to be such universal attire for women in the camps, and further conversations gave me several insights. One woman told me that the melhfa is, “Something we opened our eyes to… it’s a part of us.” Being born into this culture, they know the melhfa as what Sahrawi women wear, and could not imagine it otherwise.
A big aspect of Sahrawi identity is their Muslim faith, and it was a reason nearly all women brought up for wearing the melhfa. Covering is very important in Islam, and the melhfa is seen as a convenient way to cover all the modesty requirements. It is loose, big, covers a woman’s head and conceals her arms and legs. I hear some women comment on the way some others wear the melhfa, such as whether they wear tight pants or a long skirt underneath, or how neatly it is wrapped, and it revealed to me that the use of the melhfa itself can express a woman’s value of these cultural expectations.
Whether women always loved the melhfa and played “dress-up” in it when they were little, or had to grow accustomed to it as they matured, every woman I spoke to told me in some way that it expresses Sahrawi identity for them. No woman goes without it in the camps. When I asked if they ever wanted to go without the melhfa, a couple of my close friends told me, “Our grandparents left it for us to wear, so why would we ever want to leave it?” This culture holds their traditions and the values that their ancestors have passed on to them in high esteem, and the melhfa is definitely one of those.
“We are women.”
The melhfa expresses Sahrawi womanhood both in how the women see themselves, and in how they hope to be perceived by men. To many, it is the outward mark of womanhood, and in some families it can be tied to the beginning of household responsibilities such as cooking for the family and making tea.
Several friends told me of how little girls will put on the melhfa and pretend to be women, and it reminded me of sweet childhood memories raiding my friends’ mothers’ closets to imagine what it was like to be a grown-up. At a friend’s house for lunch recently, I saw her little niece wearing the tiniest melhfa. She stayed with us for some time, as if wearing the attire of a grown woman helped her fit in with us. It is clear that from a young age, the melhfa is the sign of womanhood and helps girls step into their adult lives with all the responsibilities and opportunities that entails.
Many women brought up the idea that men find a covered woman more respectable. One told me about a Spanish man who was visiting and said that even he respected the covered women more compared to the Spanish women he was used to. The amount of times this was brought up really enforced the idea that respect is something women value, and they feel they can achieve it through their modesty and adherence to the cultural expectations.
“We are beautiful.”
My initial conversations about beauty only touched on the superficial aspects of it. Nearly every woman told me the ideal standards I already knew – that being fat and white is most desirable. They especially value large wrists and ankles, and a round, light-complexioned face. They told me how a woman can appear more attractive, whether that is showing her wrists while she makes tea, pretending to be shy, or speaking in a soft, high voice. One friend told me that men often look for external beauty first, since they often don’t have much of an opportunity to get to know a woman before they pursue or marry her.
Eventually I was able to push a little bit past these conceptions of external beauty into more conversations about how beauty was valued. Some inward traits that are important are wisdom, intelligence, ideas and honesty. A couple of women expressed that they did not care about outward beauty. They said that a person’s appearance is something God decided, not them, so it is not up to us to judge how God made them. External beauty, while not denied as a standard, is recognized as a gift of God and doesn’t necessarily say anything about the value of the woman.
Let’s live out our identity, womanhood and beauty.
Not only have these conversations taught me about how the melhfa shapes a woman’s concept of herself and what Sahrawi women think about beauty, but also made me think about my own perceptions and cultural view of beauty.
One issue that I had to wrestle with was a conflict between what one of my friends said and what I observed while spending time with her. She was one who talked about how appearance didn’t matter to her, yet while I spent an afternoon with her, she was looking through this slide show of Mauritanian brides and pointing out which ones were really beautiful. It was a familiar scene, as I often see people go through pictures of others on their phones and compare who is more beautiful, fatter or whiter than the other women. Or some will see selfies that they took on their phones and point out that they looked “ugly” because of the darkness of their skin, or the sun made them look whiter and “more beautiful.”
While I was initially disheartened when I saw the second side of these values, and was tempted to be judgmental about it, God stopped me in my tracks. I realized that, when asked, I would say the same things about how we are all beautiful creations of God and our outer appearance doesn’t matter. I would also then go back to my life, compare myself to my friends and strangers alike, complain about my unclear complexion, wish my hair were nicer, think too much about what I was going to wear, and otherwise worry about my appearance. I am just as, if not more, two-sided than the friends who so honestly share their thoughts and their lives with me.
As I grow in knowledge about these people, I am thankful that God uses discoveries like these to help me grow in love for, and identity with, their beautiful hearts. No, they’re not perfect. But as I learn how imperfect I am too, we can grow together in our brokenness. We can encourage each other in our values of identity, womanhood and beauty, even if we can’t fully live out those ideas.
This is part of my advocacy series, “Hearts of the Desert.” Check out other posts from this series: