Veil of Faith

Linda Ishak

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 Middle East.

"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 24:30-31)

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 robes.

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 and elegance.

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 far-reaching?

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 still linger.

© Linda Ishak

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