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Pandya Hopeful For Change In Middle East After Visits To Yemen

Published: March 15, 2013

Religious Studies’ Sophia Pandya sees hope for Middle Eastern change thanks to the evolving spirituality of the women of Yemen.

The member of the university since 2006 wrote an article titled “Religious Change Among Yemeni Women: The New Popularity of ‘Amr Khaled” published in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. There, she pointed to a Yemeni gender and generation gap keyed on Khaled, a pioneer in religious and socially conscious satellite broadcasting in the Arab and Muslim world with viewership reaching tens of millions. Khaled was chosen in 2007 by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential individuals in the world.

“To many of the Yemeni women I interviewed, Khaled is the ‘chic sheik’ and the ‘anti-Bin Laden,’” she recalled. “He offers a form of Islam that many in Yemen are hungry for, especially its women. The women I spoke to seemed to be ready for more piety in their lives. They told me they are sick of politics. They wake up with politics and they go to sleep with politics. Some Yemeni women described Khaled less as a preacher and more as a motivational speaker. He positions himself as if he were Dr. Phil or David Letterman. There is even the occasional touch of U.S. televangelism.”

Pandya applauded Khaled’s promotion of women’s participation in the public realm. “The women I interviewed listen to an Egyptian televangelist who is clean shaven and wears Armani suits. He offers Yemeni women the chance to look and be different than they are. He offers these women a more international point of view,” she said. “His message is that women ought to participate at every level of Yemeni society. The message of focusing on piety and the beauty of Islam is a message Yemeni women are yearning for. There are some women who believe his message entered their hearts. They cry with him. They form a personal connection.”

It was while she was pursuing her Ph.D. in 2006 from UC Santa Barbara that she first stepped on a plane to Yemen knowing it was the poorest country in the Middle East. “When I got there, there was culture shock,” she recalled. “Yemen is a really different place. Most of the men on the street wore white robes, embroidered scarves and daggers. Most of the women wore a black ‘balto’ or an ‘abaya’ which is a robe made of rayon. The dagger is called a jambiya and was a part of the traditional Yemeni dress before Islam. I’m not afraid of them anymore.”

Her sense of culture shock extended to tipping. She recalls leaving restaurants only to be pursued by waitresses eager to return her gratuities. “There is a word in Yemen that translates to pride and honor,” she explained. “By leaving a tip, I wounded their sense of honor and hospitality. Yet, despite all the poverty, I never was robbed in Yemen. I could walk around with $1,000 in my purse without a worry. No one so much as laid a finger on me. That would be considered absolutely taboo in the tribal values of Yemen.”

When her culture shock began to ebb, Pandya decided to acquire a balto. “I started to recognize their differences and how beautiful they could be,” she said. She went shopping and looked at hundreds of black robes. “It would be easy to think only a few minutes were needed to pick one out that fit,” she recalled. “But once you go into these stores, some baltos have little sequins while others have little pieces of lace. Some have embroidery while others have little feathers. I wanted a pretty one and I bought one but it wasn’t until later that I noticed that, while it was pretty, it was too short. I was flooding. I gave that one away and bought another. Now I own four. Every time I go, I’m tempted to buy another abaya. You begin to look how beautiful and sharp, even professional, a balto can look.”

Sophia Pandya
Sophia Pandya during a trip to Istanbul.

Some of Pandya’s clearest cultural insights came from the party scene. “I really left my heart in Yemen,” she said. “I had such a good experience in 2000. I spent 12 weeks where I not only studied Arabic but volunteered to serve on the National Women’s Committee. I made a lot of friends there and they invited me to a lot of women’s parties which, in Yemen, are gender segregated. At these parties I came in contact with dozens of Yemeni women.”

Pandya remembered how the women arrived in ensembles that included fancy undergarments, gold belts and heavy gold jewelry. The older ladies smoked water pipes and everyone seemed to be chewing khat, a mild euphoric with a legal tradition of use dating back thousands of years. “It’s very interesting to attend these parties,” she said. “They actually gave me a gold set to thank me for volunteering. That is when I decided I owed something to Yemen and decided to return. I need to do more here.” She succeeded in returning in 2006, 2007 and 2009.

Pandya received her bilingual teaching credential from San Jose State then taught migrant farm workers’ children in Salinas for six years. She earned her B.A. in near eastern studies/Arabic at UC Berkeley. The mother of three was hired as a full-time assistant professor at CSULB in 2006. She has studied seven languages including English, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Farsi and Arabic.

Pandya feels her first-person experience strengthens her campus credibility. “I teach an introductory course on Islam and I think my students appreciate my familiarity with many kinds of Islam,” she said. “I am impressed by the diversity of students in my class. I have students who are Shi’ite, Sufi and Sunni, others who want to be missionaries or who want to join the FBI. I even get the very lost. I get everybody.”

Pandya currently works on several books covering topics from Bahrain to the Turkish Sufi movement and Yemeni women. She has extended her research across the Red Sea from Yemen to Ethiopia where there is a sizable Yemeni community. “I’ve visited Ethiopia three times to learn how Yemenis there carry out their religious practices now that the setting is Africa,” she said. “This is fun stuff.”