The Unexpected Side of the Veil

Many years ago, I thought as probably many young Americans did, that the coverings Muslim women wore were oppressive. That is was unfair to force women to dress in baggy tent cloaks and cover their hair and faces. Eventually, I embraced the idea that a woman being free to wear whatever she wants should include covering as much of herself as she wants. I still don’t think I agree with the forced adoption of the abaya in Saudi, but I also don’t like the niqab ban in France. Turns out, wearing an Islamic style face veil in France gets you a 200 Euro fine, ouch!

When I went shopping for my own Abaya and hijab, I went into it with the expectation that it was a sort of necessary inconvenience. If I wanted to go to Saudi, I had to obey the laws and respect the culture. And the shopping experience itself helped me to a new understanding that the covering garments were culturally appreciated as beautiful, sort of the same way that seeing a woman in a nice dress or a man in a nice suit is: it shows a care for your appearance, not in this case by showing it off, but by protecting it for the right person.

You see, that’s the positive aspect of abaya/hijab/niqab wearing that I hear most often from Muslima. There is of course the call for modesty (for men and women) in the Quran, but there isn’t a specific dress code anywhere in the religion, so what qualifies as modest varies from culture to culture. (Although, I do understand that there is a specific mention of covering the bosom/chest.) Additionally, they’re supposed to not show-off their beauty to anyone but their husband, but there is no description of what showing off means or of what exactly is “her beauty”. Is that her hair? her face? her legs? her ass? who knows?

Other Muslima say that they like to wear it because it keeps men from looking at them like sex objects. I’m not sure this is realistic. The men here still try to pick up girls, they hurl their phone numbers at them from car windows, plaster their social media accounts as bumper stickers on their cars, and wander around malls with their blue-tooth connections open, signalling single ladies with a subtle hand sign or hat tip that they’re available. The abaya may keep men from seeing a woman’s body shape (to a point, cause the wind plasters those things right down like a bodysuit), but it doesn’t stop men from passing around dirty pictures like they have done since the dawn of time and fantasizing about the women they can’t have.

Some Muslima even talk about how much they like chatting online with men because they know the man must be interested in their words and personality because he can’t see their face or body. I absolutely believe that men all over the world are capable of appreciating a woman for her mind and personality. But I have a really hard time believing that the internet is full of sexually frustrated young Muslim men who are interested in these women for their minds. So, I’ll just be holding off judgement on the objectification prevention aspect of the abaya. Maybe some men can weigh in on this one.

Many Muslima say that they like to wear the coverings because it keeps anyone from seeing their beauty but those whom they choose. This seems almost romantic when they talk about it, guarding their beauty for the man they love, but I’m not sure about this one either. They barely get a chance to meet, often only see each other once or twice while chaperoned and then phone or online conversations to “get to know one another” before the wedding. I’m not saying love can’t grow out of an arranged marriage, but it does seem overly Disney Princess to imagine that you’re hiding your beauty for your true love’s eyes only.

On the other hand, I have to say that as an American woman, I get pretty fed up with the notion that my beauty is on display for everyone all the time. There’s an expectation in America (and probably large chunks of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America) that we should be dressing up every day. That it is our duty to look good not for ourselves, or even just our husbands or boyfriends, but for every man whose field of vision we will enter that day. The idea that if I choose to go out of the house in comfy jeans and t-shirt with no make-up and my hair in a casual bun that I must not be feeling well (best case scenario) or that I’m a lesbian who doesn’t want to turn men on (not even the worst case, but you get the idea). Leaving aside the fact that lesbians might want to turn women on with their looks, its totally ridiculous that we can’t have casual days without there being some big reason other than “I wanted to be comfortable” or “I like how I feel about myself in this”.

*Seattle may be an exception, cause people there dress in PJs and yoga pants. It’s been accused of being a fashion blind city and I love it to pieces, because I can’t stand the idea of wearing makeup every day.

Recently there has been a photo movement  which encourages Muslima to take a selfie in their hijab (with or without niqab) with the hashtag #damnIlookgood. The idea is to raise awareness that women who cover their hair and faces still feel beautiful and confident and want to capture that feeling to share with their friends and their future selves. All reasons we take selfies in the West, too.

I expressed a desire to find some kind of middle ground for modesty in dress and behavior and the ability to still have friends of the opposite gender. It sure would be nice to be able to dress in a way that made me comfortable and not feel sexually objectified without being called ugly, fat, tired, sick or butch. To be able to feel beautiful and confident without feeling like I’m on display, and then be able to break out the sexy when I choose and for whom I choose. Seriously, how cool would that be. But, I really like my guy friends. It drives me crazy that every dude in this country who talks to me in anything other than a strictly professional capacity ends up coming across like that creepy drunk in the bar who makes you beg your gay friend to pretend to be your boyfriend. And I feel like this is a direct consequence of not being allowed to talk to girls their whole lives. So, middle ground.

In the end, though, these are all aspects of the veil that I’d read about or heard about in some form before coming here. The experience certainly adds depth to my understanding of these motivations, but none of them were wholly unexpected.

What was unexpected was the feeling of safety, security and protectedness that the veil imparted to me.

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When I first arrived here, I had an overwhelming desire to meet the bare minimum of the legal requirements. I would wear the abaya, but I knew it wasn’t legally required for Western women to cover their hair, and dang its hot in September here. It was explained to me swiftly that Tabuk is a more conservative town, so it would be a “good idea” to wear my hijab as well. Two of the ladies I work with also wear the niqab (face veil) as well. Only one chooses to veil for religious reasons. The other one started off not wearing the veil here, but experienced so much harassment from men that she started veiling in self-defense.

Sadly, she probably got more harassment because she is African-American and her skin tone (while light) is still more similar to someone of Arabic or African nationality than Caucasian, so the Saudi’s are more likely to think she’s a third class expat than a first class one. Sad but true, they are pretty bigoted against certain nationalities and tend to forget that there are black people all over the world.

At the time she told me about this, I had experienced nothing but positive interactions with the people I’d met in Saudi, men and women, so I felt very far removed from the possibility of experiencing similar problems. But over the course of the next several weeks, events in my life changed my perspective.

I’ve only worn the niqab once, but I remember feeling that it made me invisible, like I was looking out from behind a two-way mirror. This was actually a little trippy and kind of empowering, but not enough to make me want to wear the niqab all the time.

Then there was the unfortunate experience with the hotel manager. Cause few things make you feel more vulnerable and unsafe than the guy with the master key and all the close circuit tv cameras in the building walking around your apartment, touching your stuff and leering at you. It was pointed out to me at great length that the way I dressed and who I talked to was very crucial to my reputation here in Saudi, and that if I was seen as easy or loose (already well on my way just by being American) that it would be seen as an invitation for advances from other men. Showing your hair or smiling at man can be perceived as easy and loose behavior, by the way. And worse, if my reputation gets too bad, then other people will believe that I invited it (was asking for it) instead of holding the man accountable for being a skeezebag.

The “white knight” in the above linked post who so violently defended my honor against the hotel manager also turned out to be way more psycho than I originally realized. Violent behavior was not limited to defending young women’s honor, and he’s caused so many fights and traffic accidents that he’s wanted by the police! My normal friendly behavior and Facebook friend acceptance led to some very awkward electronic communication, even though I have not seen him since that day. Including invitations to join the Communist Party, pictures of car wrecks he caused, stories about ISIS beheadings (apparently he sent the video of the beheadings to one of the male teachers here), pictures of hickies he’s gotten, and multiple public threats to murder someone on my behalf.

And speaking of Facebook, I’ve had to make statements on the Saudi Facebook pages I’m on to the effect that I will not befriend any men living in Saudi, and that I will not go places or visit or otherwise hang out with men in Saudi. In the first place, my personal facebook page is generally limited to people I’ve met in person. I don’t like having anonymous people of either gender reading about things I’m trying to share with my friends and family. In the second, its a huge problem to be friendly with guys here. The pages are great, cause its a public forum where we can talk and exchange ideas and be protected by the moderators and the presence of other readers. But dudes who want to private message or friend me are mostly just looking for easy loose American women. No thank you.

Worse, I’ve had people try to bully me into not being “such a prude” about talking to guys (blocked, btw), and dudes who deliberately had vague profiles. In one post while I was in Jeddah, I said I was going back to the beach and any ladies who would like to share a taxi were welcome, but sorry no men. Someone PM’d me about sharing a taxi and I didn’t realize for a while that it wasn’t a lady. I got upset and tried to terminate the conversation, ended up having to say I felt like I’d been lied to since I’d specifically said no men and he’d responded anyway, and he kept pushing me to meet him at the beach.

Then there were the taxis in Jeddah. Yeesh. I got so fed up with the treatment I got there, marriage proposals, unwanted touching, pretending to get lost or demanding more money when I turned them down. Awful. Finally, I decided to see if my coworker’s experience would help me and made sure my hijab was properly and modestly fastened, and while it didn’t stop the harassment entirely, it cut way back, and I had drivers and shopkeepers who were much more polite and respectful.

One driver told me that he was very happy to see me wearing the hijab because usually Americans showed too much hair, and I had a Starbuck’s employee tell me that he thought I was Egyptian.

I started to notice more and more when I was being treated like a Muslim should treat a woman and when I was not. I started to realize that friendly smiles and handshakes were the Saudi equivalent of “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and grabbing my ass (or at least wrapping an arm around my waist). Behavior that I would not tolerate from strangers at all.

And then I started to realize that all the tension and apprehension that comes along with feeling like a sheep in a room full of wolves when skeezy men are on the prowl and you have to keep your guard up, ladies I know you’ve all felt this way at least once.. all that tight-shoulder-shallow-breath feeling went away when I put on the hijab.

It stopped being a sad or strange theoretical possibility that men harassed women here or that the veil made women invisible, and it became a solid visceral feeling of relief and safety. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

I don’t like my hijab, although the abaya is growing on me (mostly because it makes me feel like a Hogwart’s professor), but I do like the feeling of safety and freedom that it gives me while living here. Of course, I would prefer to be in a society where being friendly didn’t mean being sleezy, but the idea that there’s a piece of clothing that makes men at least act with respect toward the women they meet is pretty amazing, and the way it made me feel was totally unexpected.

Abaya Shopping in Seattle

So, I decided that I should buy an abaya before heading over to Saudi Arabia. Although many people in Saudi said that I could enter the Kingdom dressed simply in conservative clothing and a head scarf then go abaya shopping once I was there, I personally felt that the awkward stares in the airport combined with the fact that I did not know how soon after my arrival I would be able to go shopping or be expected to show up at work meant that having at least one acceptable outfit before leaving.

Searching the internet and asking around lead me to find that there are a few “boutique” shops that sell Islamic clothing around, and the prices range from 70-200$. ouch. Online shops were less expensive, but having zero experience in wearing abayas, I was quite hesitant to order something, no matter how descriptive the measurements were.

Finally, I discovered a tiny little Somalian shop in White Center. I GPSed my way down there last Friday (completely forgetting this was the weekly holy day *facepalm*), and pulled into a very empty parking lot with several small immigrant run shops. There was a lady in abaya/hijab sitting on the curb in front of the shop with her cell phone tucked up under her hijab so as to reach her ear without exposing it. She nodded politely at me as I passed her, presumably thinking that I was heading to one of the other shops. When I tried the door of the Somalian store, and peered in the window disappointed that it was locked, she looked up in surprise.

“Oh! you wanted to come here?” she exclaimed, “What do you need to buy?” I explained that I needed to buy an abaya for my upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, and she grinned broadly, quickly opening up the shop and escorting me inside. “Of course, you need black.” she said, her English was good, but clearly accented and marked by the occasional misplacing of small articles and prepositions that many EFL learners struggle with.

Suddenly it became a dress up game. We were like little girls trying on fancy dresses as she pulled out abaya after abaya for me to try. Initially, I had felt very strongly that I would prefer an abaya that buttoned or zipped up the front, because the idea of shuffling in and out of an over the head floor length gown several times a day seemed so unappealing. My school does not require us to wear the abaya for work, but we have to wear them between home and work, so I would have to put it on and off at least twice every day. However, the front buttoning abaya styles were clearly designed for women less busty than myself, and the buttons strained across my chest.

“If you wear a long hijab,” she informed me, “it will not show.” Nonetheless, i decided I would at least try some over the head styles before I gave in to that compromise. Some were indeed very difficult to put on, but these were mostly the fancy (and heavier weight material) “evening wear” abayas. I was quite surprised after trying several on that it became a simple matter to shrug them on and off over my clothes and hair.

I tried on at least a dozen, some were rejected outright for difficulty to put on, or ill fitting sleeves. I was amazed that such a simple garment could have such a wide variety of fits! For the ones that felt comfortable enough, I bustled back to the fitting room we weren’t bothering to use to look at myself in the mirror. All the while we chatted about my upcoming trip. I told her I was going to teach English, and she told me about her daughter who had been raised in America and wanted to return to the Arabic world to teach as well. This was a little sad, because most of the countries in the Middle East require a great deal of certification and experience to hire someone, which her daughter had not obtained yet.

Finally, we found a very light weight abaya with a very breathable fabric. It was a major relief, because just trying on some of the abayas in the shop, I was starting to sweat a little, even though Seattle heat is only in the low 80’s (that’s about 29 C), which is nothing compared to the heat I will be facing in Saudi. The abaya was a perfect fit; it didn’t even need to be hemmed,  and the sleeves bore a pattern of maroon and creme with tiny crystals picking out a flower and vine pattern above. It was perfect.

Now for the hijab. This is the head covering, not to be confused with the veil/face covering which is called a niqab. She asked me what kind I wanted, and I replied I had no idea, having never purchased or worn one before. Years before, for a class in grad-school, we had to attend a Mosque and write about the experience, but I had simply used a regular scarf to cover my head that day. Using a scarf suited for Seattle in the Saudi summer was not going to work. Additionally, I hoped that there was something simple enough for me to put on correctly without having to master a complex folding, wrapping and tucking technique.

I expressed that it would be nice to have a hijab in a color that matched the accents on the sleeves of my abaya, for although the abaya must be black in Saudi, it can have colored trim, and the hijab may be colored. She found a creme colored swatch of cloth and helped me to put it on. So simple! It was a tube of cloth, wider at the shoulder end than the face end. You just push your face through like a turtleneck sweater, only instead of pulling it all the way over your head, you adjust the edge around your hairline.

10574270_10152225365041646_4307585225450516666_nI ducked back into the changing room with the mirror and tucked a few wisps of hair back under the hijab, then examined the complete picture. I was amazed at how different I looked. I could have been a completely different person, but somehow, the covering garments did not make me feel hidden or oppressed. I felt that these clothes were my cultural passport into my next adventure, affording me the ability to travel in and possibly even be accepted in the country I will call home for the next year.

I made a few final adjustments to the bottom collar of the hijab, settling it in a deep scoop across my collarbone then stepped back out into the main room smiling at my achievement. The shopkeeper immediately broke into a wide grin, “Oh!, you look so beautiful dressed this way!” she said to me. I thanked her for the compliment and all her help as she rang up my purchase. We chatted a little more about my departure date, and the upcoming Hajj, and her own dreams to make the pilgrimage some day.

As I drove home, I thought more about the compliment she had given me. It seems so difficult for me sometimes as a well-educated, liberal leaning American woman to remember that the clothes these women wear are not always prisons. Many women choose to dress in abaya and hijab, or even adding a niqab or going full burqa. Here in America, this Somalian woman surely chose her dress style, and to run a business catering to other women who do the same, for no Mutawaeen will ever find her here and shame her into covering her hair or hiding her body. Her compliment was genuine. She felt that in that moment, rather than concealing myself,  I truly embodied her own cultural ideal of feminine beauty.

I am extremely glad that I decided to buy my first abaya here in Seattle from a store and not online. Not only because it turned out to be necessary to try many on before finding the right fit, but because I got to touch lives with the vivacious Somalian lady with the nut-brown skin, infectious laugh, and deep sense for the beautiful that broadened my own.