Veil of Faith
Our 747 entered Saudi Arabian airspace and a wave of
movement swept through the plane. A swishing of fabric rustled the air as the
unveiled women pulled on long, black folds of cloth. They quickly concealed
their hair, and sheltered their arms, legs, and body beneath the black cloak
required of all women here. Taking my cue, I pulled on my abaya, a symbol of
submission that would become part of my daily life during our assignment in the
"O Prophet, tell your wives and
daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks all over their
bodies, that is most convenient that they should be known (as such) and not
molested." - thus says the Quran (33:59).
I shot my husband a quick glance of mixed humility and hopeful defiance as I
assumed my new profile. More than anyone in our family, I had been eager for
this opportunity to experience a new culture, leaving behind family, friends
and a blossoming career.
We stepped off the plane into the blistering heat of an August day in Saudi
Arabia's second largest city, Jeddah. Drops of sweat slithered slowly,
annoyingly down my back and the abaya wrapped itself stubbornly around my
ankles, making my descent from the plane treacherous. Already it seemed to be
transforming itself into an awkward burden - both physical and psychological.
Later, in the privacy of our hotel room, it was with great frustration that I
flung the black sheath onto a nearby chair.
The practice of covering the head and body, known as hijab, originates from the arabic word
hajaba, which means "to shield" or "hide from
view." Nowhere is it stated that the garments must be black. This is
simply a custom in certain countries. In fact, many of the women in rural Saudi
Arabia continue to wear fabrics that conceal the body in a swirl of traditional
colours and patterns.
Hair, considered offensive in public - much like exposed breasts in the west -
must be covered. So should the body - from the neck to the wrists and ankles.
The garment should be loose enough not to lend itself to the shape of the
woman's body and thick enough not to show the colour of her skin.
For the faithful, veiling is a sign of a woman's belief in Islam and of her
modesty and chastity, very important religious ideologies. Veiling provides an
aura of respect and elevates her to a higher level than the woman who allows
herself to be admired as a sexual object. But for many of us from the west, the
veil conjures up images of subservience and inferiority rather than faith and
purity, in a country where women are forbidden to drive, work alongside men, or
even socialize in mixed company.
Days passed. We moved into our home, in a large compound, shielded from the
surrounding neighborhood by a wall two-meters high. Inside we were free to walk
around as one would in the west, exposing the white expanses of our arms and
legs in hopes of getting a tan. Any excursions from the compound, for shopping,
school, or exploring the city that was our new home, would require an abaya. As
I was expected to return the "loaner" that had been provided for my
arrival in Jeddah, I needed to select one of my own.
Determined to exert some western independence, I announced I would do this on
my own. On a Thursday afternoon, the beginning of the weekend, my husband and I
packed our two girls into the car and headed downtown. The modern highway soon
gave way to a myriad of narrow, twisting alleys, marking the beginning of the
souk - or marketplace - in the core of
the old city. Faceless, black-clad women made their way through tiny pedestrian
alleyways lined with shops. I stepped out of the car and arranged to meet my
family again in an hour.
The souk was just beginning to open
following midday prayer. A cluster of abaya shops lay ahead. Swallowing my
pride, I chose a shop and stepped inside, greeting the shopkeeper with a muted
"wa alaikum as-salaam." The long robes hung from racks and hooks on
the walls thick and black, like enormous shrouds. Variations were limited to
the lines, fabric, and color of stitching of the robes. The owner offered a
variety of abayas, which I indicated by pointing - some austere in their
straight lines, others almost elegant.
I selected something simple and inexpensive, which closed with a series of
practical metal snaps. I completed the purchase and managed to secure the
appropriate discount with a brief negotiation session in Arabic. Ecstatic at my
accomplishment, I found my way back to the car. My assimilation had begun!
Varying degrees of veiling prevail throughout the country. Sometimes faces
remain uncovered, although usually only the eyes are seen. In extremely
religious centres, away from Saudi's more modern cities, women must cover their
faces with cloth so thick that it completely obscures all of their features.
This not only makes it difficult for others to see in, but for the woman
herself to look out. Stories of encounters with the religious police, who
patrol the streets for infractions regarding women's dress, segregation, and
attending prayer, are common. In one instance, the police admonished a husband
(under strict segregation rules, they cannot speak to women) for not ensuring
that his wife was properly covered. They could see her eyes through her veil.
It should be thicker, they said. And if she had trouble finding her way, then
he should be at her side to guide her. This amounted to stripping away her
ability to walk about freely on her own.
As the first weeks passed, I realized that, while the heat was oppressive under
the thick, black material, the abaya offered me anonymity and freedom of
movement. It became an automatic part of my wardrobe when leaving the compound,
like throwing on a coat to step out for a walk. I began to resent it less, and
accepted it as a ticket to move around the city without attracting the attention
of the local population. While it would never play a role in my religious
beliefs, I could accept it as a means of conforming to local standards.
"When in Rome...."
I understood the philosophy of veiling according to the Quran, and saw that for
some women we had come to know, it was indeed a confirmation of their faith -
even if they didn't follow the strict Saudi version of covering. But other
women who shed their long, black robe and veil when presented with any
opportunity seemed to be calling Saudi Arabia's version of veiling into
question. Each time we left the country by plane, we watched several women
remove the abaya, transforming their identity with fashionable western clothes
they wore beneath. Were they less ardent in their religious faith, or were they
struggling against the same feelings of subservience that I, as a westerner,
had associated with the abaya?
"And say to the believing women that
they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not
display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof -
and not display their beauty except to their husbands." (Quran
As a foreigner in one of Saudi's more "liberal" cities, I was not
required to cover my hair, although the sight of it always caused unnerving
stares. While I rarely used the tarha
or head scarf, I always carried it with me, cautious in case of an encounter
with the religious police, or mutawwa.
I was fortunate; my encounters with them were few and non-confrontational. One
was while shopping at one of the markets outside the city with several female
friends one evening. We dodged quickly out of sight down a crowded alleyway as
they approached, admonishing "This is Saudi Arabia. Cover your hair! Cover
your hair!" Their power to cause unpleasantness - particularly a lesson in
intimidation and humility at the police office - was enough to remind me of the
wisdom of maintaining the required dress code.
Although the abaya itself does little to reflect her character or individuality,
in most cases, a woman has a strong voice in what she chooses to wear
underneath. Particularly in the large, modern cities, all the latest designer
fashions - Karan, Ferragamo, Rykiel and a pirate’s booty of gold and jewels are
available to those with the means - in the local gold souks. Long, painted fingernails and heavily mascara-ed, exotic
eyes complete the antithesis that is hidden beneath their austere midnight
Some months later, my second trip to the souk
for a new abaya seemed to me a "normal" event. Only when my friends
and family saw pictures of me sheathed in black, or when I related stories of
covering during my visits back to Canada, did my black robe seem out of
context. But here in Saudi with everyday wear, mine was becoming rather shabby.
The austere, straight robes of the previous year had been replaced by more
flowing lines and meters more fabric. Much more knowledgeable about current
abaya "fashions," I became painfully aware of how outdated mine was
as I began to understand that the abaya was more than simply a black sheath
which allowed me to go out in public, that it revealed much about my sense of
fashion and self, as regular clothes do in the western world. There were
inexpensive, functional abayas and there were more expensive, elegant ones that
went beyond the need to simply cover up to also provide some sense of fashion
Having once cringed at the thought of even wearing one, I wondered if I was
crossing the line and “going native” with the thought of beginning a small
abaya wardrobe. While I still refused to spend the equivalent of hundreds if
not thousands of dollars on the latest "haute couture" abaya, I felt
the need for something a little more elegant for an evening out. This time I
chose one with more graceful lines, which had to be held delicately closed when
I walked to avoid revealing any signs of what might lie beneath.
Our last evening in Jeddah, three and a half years after our arrival, brought a
final encounter with the mutawwa.
After shopping at a mall, my husband and I walked through the parking lot
towards our car. Having so rarely needed it, I had become careless with my head
scarf and left it at home. The individuals patrolling the parking lot had a
glorious view of my dark hair blowing in the wind. Their vehicle began its slow
approach. My husband waited for the mutawwa,
while I took shelter in our car. He listened politely to their lecture on the
need for humility by "our women," before politely explaining our wish
for a peaceful last evening in their country. Perhaps understanding that with
tomorrow there would be one less rebellious foreign woman on their soil, they
let us take our leave.
Certainly, there are instances where the veil is used to isolate, oppress, and
alienate women. As keeper of the Holy Mosque in Mecca - Islam's most sacred
shrine - Saudi Arabia takes its role as custodian of the Muslim faith very
seriously. Is the veil, then, merely a symbol of its deep faith or a step
towards religious extremism? Has its original intent of maintaining modesty and
humility on a religious level been transformed into something much more
Those who believe in the veil, and in Saudi's strict interpretations of the
Quran on this subject, argue that the practice allows individuals to treat each
other as human beings, without being distracted by superficial values such as
beauty. To an unaccustomed western eye, it seemed to eliminate humanness -
reducing women to faceless, identity-less, voiceless objects in which no
emotion or individuality could be read.
We no longer live in Saudi Arabia. As we left the country for the last time, I
sat on the plane wrapped in my everyday abaya, which had accompanied me like a
faithful companion during my stay there. Both that and the more elegant one are
now packed neatly away in a box like a wedding dress - reminders of a
significant, although entirely different, period in my life. Occasionally, I
pull them out to remind me of their role in my initiation into a culture that
seems so severe by western standards. While they taught me lessons in
tolerance, acceptance and understanding, many of my perceptions and questions
© Linda Ishak
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