What it’s like to cover up as a non-Muslim, non-Saudi woman

Let’s talk about Abaya, Hijab, Burka, “the Muslim veil”

Many European countries have been struggling with the issue of “the Muslim veil,” with the most recent statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel that full-faced veils should be prohibited in Germany “wherever it is legally possible”. This is not just a European issue, it’s a global issue as we continue to globalize and integrate multiple cultures and religious groups. At the core of the struggle brings the question of religious freedom, women’s rights, social traditions and norms, fears of terrorism, and fears of hate crime. Since the 2016 U.S. elections, I have been hearing more from Muslim women and their enhanced fear of covering up in public places in the United States.

It’s clear that the world needs a safe place to open up a dialogue about this issue. From the way I see it, the very limited pockets of dialogue that is occuring is heavily driven by westerners and non-Muslims. For a balanced debate, we need to hear the voices of Muslim women, who mostly choose to cover up for their own individual, family and religious reasons. A policy of ban on hijab seems to me almost equal to a law for all women to cover. Both policies are restricting a right for women to dress however they wish. After all, isn’t dressing our bodies, however it may be, a form of expression of individual identity, religion, practicality, protection from our perceived risks and shame? This is as a complex issue as we want to make it to be and as someone who’s lived on both sides — as a covered up woman and as uncovered woman — I want to share my own experience and observation, or at least take my first stab at starting a discussion for both sides.

“Did you have to be covered up?” is by far the most common question I get when I hesitantly disclose that I grew up in Saudi Arabia. The shortest and un-engaging answer I give is “yes, all women do”. And I know that’s not the real question, nor is it my real answer. I’ve received this very question during conversations with people living in Vienna, Los Angeles, Seoul, Washington D.C., Paris, Kampala… (you get the picture). The world is curious, for all the understandable reasons, while the Muslim women, the very subjects of the topic, are pleading to move past the veil and see them for who they are. They want to be heard and be seen. When you do listen to them, you might hear as I have often heard that, being covered is not the most pressing issue, that their life concerns are about freedom to live with a purpose, having good jobs, educating their children, starting a business, happiness of their family, health of loved ones, just like the rest of us, with their own unique beliefs and values that makes them who they are.

In Saudi Arabia, all women (generally starting from early teenage years) must wear a full-length black robe called Abaya and cover the hair with a black headscarf in public. Some also cover their face with a face-covering piece below the eyes called Niqab, some may wear black gloves to cover their wrists and hands as well, although that is becoming less common. The basic covering that all women do are the robe (Abaya) and the headscarf to cover the hair. The names Hijab and Burka are not used in Saudi Arabia as Hijab is a general term used to describe the head-covering traditionally worn by Muslim women around the world and Burka is a different full head-to-toe covering, common in Afghanistan. Additionally, there are many different names and ways Muslim women (and men) cover and dress around the world, across approx 2 billion Muslim population.

Most foriegn women in Saudi Arabia conform to the basics with the Abaya and hang a black scarf around their neck in case they are caught by the religious police called Mutawa. I’ve seen foreign girls running around a Saudi mall mimicking Batman and getting caught by the religious police, which is an amusing scene of cultural clash. Recently Mutawa have lost their powers to arrest and to enter certain areas like shopping malls, instead only to report violators to police. The fatwa (Islamic law) and the social norm in Saudi Arabia is that women, in front of unrelated men, should be covered and therefore, every women covers in public. In private, it’s a different story (save this for another blog post). So WHY? You might ask? Who decides the reason and how much to cover? The answers will vary from family to family, from father to father, from mother to mother, from daughter to daughter. Some of these families actually adjust and choose not to cover (or cover much less) when outside of Saudi Arabia to conform to the new social norms. I can’t speak for all but some of the explanations I’ve heard are the following:

  1. It’s in the Koran — This is the most common answer. Allah says in the Koran that commands men to not lustfully look at women other than their own wives. Women cover up to prevent any possibility of such temptation. This Islamic command in the Koran is similar to Christian verse in the Bible that commands not to commit adultery, that “…whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has commited adultery with her already in his heart…” Covering up is a tradition that started as a way to respond to this religious command. Men have the freedom to dress however they wish, but similarly most Saudi men wear traditional white robe called Thobe and cover their head with Ghotra (red and white fabric for the head) and men also dress quite conservatively covering their knees and shoulders, wearing more loose-fitting attires
  2. It’s simply a social norm — It’s just what’s considered acceptable in this society, as simple as that. You grow up with it, it becomes the normal behavior of yours.
  3. Self-protection and Privacy — Many feel safe from the judgement of others and from the eyes of some people who may be up to no good.
  4. Protecting Family’s Image — Protecting and building a positive image and reputation of the family (their tribe) is weighed heavily in the Arab society. Everyone’s identity is in relation to their family. Each individual’s names even will tell you who is his/her father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc. — you carry your family’s reputation without the control of who might see you walking in starbucks and your father is a big-time bedouin who prides in his Saudi coffee (Qahwa). At the same time, it’s a very chatty and gossipy society. I would be too if I spoke fluent Arabic (I wish!). Arabic is a rich language, full of poetic expressions and words that can add colors, rhythms, and spices to stories and opinions. Being covered up while going about their day in public protects them from a potential gossip and reputation risk.
My friends, Abaya fashionistas.

5. It’s a Fashion Statement — In the recent decade, as a result of women demanding to express their style and fashion, Abaya fashion has mushroomed and has become a clear fashion statement. Most women own many different kinds of Abayas for different occasions, just like how most woman would own several dresses for different occasions (i.e. daytime, comfort, parties, weddings, formal events, etc) Oh yes, there is Abaya haute couture and also hijabistas! Google it!

6. It serves a clear utility function — This is my answer! This silky light fabric is super comfortable, cools my skin, and protects my face and eyes from the scorching sun (long summer average temperature is 113F) and the harsh sand storm as I wander between air-conditioned buildings. This style of dress for both men and women makes a lot of sense for this hot, dry, desert-land, where most come from bedouin tribes (nomadic arabs in the desert). It has saved my life several times during the dark red clouds that fill the air densely with sand. And most importantly, it has saved me on countless bad hair days. Yes, it’s arguably possible that I am the laziest woman in Saudi Arabia :)

That’s me, at age 5 wearing Abaya for the first time. My brother Ron to the right, age 3.

7. Girl’s rite of passage — It’s something little girls look forward to. Do you see your daughters and little girls walking around in mom’s heals and trying on lipstick? Abaya signifies this kind of little girls dreams of becoming a beautiful woman in their minds. Below is a photo of me at age 5. My mother tells me that I begged her for Abaya and so I got my first one at age 5!

If you were to roam around Riyadh on any given night, you’ll find fully covered women showing only their eyes, women who wear plain black Abaya, women who show their figure ever-so-slightly with a tight-fitting Abaya, women who look regal with golden lace detail and crown-like tasriha (arabic hair style). These women go to work, ride quad bikes along the sand dunes, play with children in public parks. Some are fine with mixed-sex spaces and some are not. In other words, their values come out in many different ways and are not dictated by how covered they are. The act of wearing an Abaya does not control or limit their lives.

Business women, NGO board members, News Reporters, Organizers. Municipal Council Election Day. Dec 2015

In the present moment, as I reflect on Saudi women and read the western news with all the attention on Hijabs, I find it controversial and unfair for Muslim women. On one side of the world, Muslim women have been covering to protect themselves and their communities from lustful eyes. On another side of the world, they’re increasingly feeling choice-less but to consider taking off their veils to protect themselves from hateful eyes. I can’t help but to wonder, when will come a time when it’s Muslim women’s choice? Could we, the non-muslim world, not make it about the veil, move past it to meet them, get to know them, and begin a real discussion on real issues that the Muslim women care about?

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