I’ve been a student at this Islamic high school for nearly three years, during which time I have faithfully worn my uniform — a gray, colonial lady-nightie with a drool-bib collar — every day. When I go out in public, off school grounds, I shroud: a black abaya overtop, a black headscarf, a face cover made of some kind of cheese cloth material. I cover without objection, wear what the Saudis tell me to wear. There are strict laws here about clothes and bodies, about love and worship. God’s laws, they say, and who am I to argue with God?

In Riyadh, inside this school, hidden behind a 12-foot iron gate, I have not found God. Sometimes a wanting rattles, and curiosity stirs, and I open the Holy Book, follow the verses inside like a trail of food into the heart of a forest — searching, hopeful. In the days after my mother’s cancer diagnosis especially, I search this way. I search knowing I’m at the mercy of things I can’t control. I search knowing that, in some sense, all things are doomed to failure before they’ve even begun.

“Developing countries,” we’re encouraged to call them. Countries becoming something else, who knows what.

There are 26 girls in my class. We are from Turkey, from Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon: countries with rich histories and slipping prestige. “Developing countries,” we’re encouraged to call them. Countries becoming something else, who knows what. We don’t know and, despite all their pretending, our parents don’t really know either. They’re the ones who have brought us here, leaving everything behind, expatriating to this place of chrome skyscrapers and indentured servitude; of cheese cloth and endless red baked sand.

On this day, the story is that my friends and I are graduating. We’ve turned in the last of our final exams. We’re done with high school. All morning long, I’ve let Aya cheat off my paper, as I’ve let her cheat off every paper this year. It’s the least I can do.

On principle, Aya doesn’t care about grades. She wants to be a singer, maybe a model or an actress or a UNICEF employee, depending on the day. She has the kind of self-assurance that can’t be faked but can maybe be taught or encouraged. With me, she tries. I am her project.

Aya tells me true power is self-respect: the ability to know your intrinsic worth in every moment. Power doesn’t depend on what you wear or drink, or who you make love to, she says. Searching for answers inside folds of black fabric or on inked pages of parchment is not the way. We are the way. There is no other way but us.

Most weekends, Aya entertains. She hosts “mixed parties,” as she calls them. Her brother attends the boys’ section of our high school. His friends arrive at dusk, urgent and ready like an enemy tribe storming the gates of this walled compound, engines revving, hair gel slick, leather very Michael Jackson. I don’t have any good stories to tell about these parties. Who wants to hear about me alone in the bathroom, hiding from the boys with the greedy eyes? Who wants to hear about me standing by a wall, white knuckles wrapped around a can of Sprite?

If the authorities discover our mixed parties, we will be arrested and flogged. If the girls are caught with the boys, entangled in that way, they will have desert rocks flung at them and everyone will do time in prison. But Aya assures me the risk is worth it. Relax, she says. Trust. It’s our right to explore, to moonwalk, to blush, to kiss with tongues if we feel like it. It’s our right to attend to the demands our biologies have begun to make of us, unfamiliar demands that flame inside, turning our bodies to torches.

When I leave the exam room that day, Aya and the other girls are already waiting for me outside. There are five of us plus the driver. We all fit into Maey’s car but only just. It’s rush hour, so we move slow down Al Sulimaniyah Road. Aya presses her finger into the window. Look, she says. Rain.

We ask for the top to come down because these drops are sacred. Aya pulls off her face cover, her scarf, and shakes out her straight long hair. Rawya claps. Haram, the driver warns. We watch as Aya turns, pushes into the seat, her back to us. She calls out to the boys who have been trailing in their Jeep, taunting them.

When the rain speeds Aya laughs, throat to the sky. She lifts her arms, extending her hands out wide, like little stars.

By the time we arrive at the place, the one car behind us has turned into three, and we are sopping wet. Inside the car is a lake. In a show of solidarity, the other girls have uncovered too, but I haven’t. I stand on the sidewalk in front of French Corner Bakery, dripping and stubborn. My abaya clings to my skinny chest: a wet, feeble security blanket.

Aya twists her hair, wringing the water out. She hikes the skirt of her uniform up, smooth, slender calves on display. A scandal. The boys in the parked Jeep make a pattern out of honks. Someone is shouting.

Are you a psychiatric hospital? Because I’m crazy about you!

Aya ignores them. I can hear windows powering down, can feel the stares. She points at the niqab I’m wearing, the niqab I’ve begun to wear outside even when it’s not required: at the mall, in line at KFC. I enjoy wearing it. There’s so much freedom to be found inside a veil.

Aya likes to talk to me about personal power, how it can be claimed through an act of rebellion: a flash of forbidden leg, a proud toss of the mane. But there’s also a power that comes from being hidden, I say. It’s the quiet power of the unknown; the power of seeing without being seen, the power of God Himself. Aya drops her voice. Take that shit off, she says. Just do it once. Do it for me.

It’s always like this with her. The honks, the catcalls, they seem to strengthen her. There is strength in her beauty, too. Her long blond hair is a weapon, and all around us, the men circle for battle.

She rolls her hip, lifts her skirt higher, shows them, shows me how power flexes and teases, centers and fills. She tells me, here is how you hang yourself and over there you’ll find wings, so which way will you choose? And all the while I stand against a wall, stand in the bathroom, on the corner in my shroud, the living dead.

My niqab has become a line in the sand each time we go out: a shield I should be able to lower and raise at will though it seems I cannot.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m just afraid of being seen by men, afraid of feeling exposed. Maybe I justify my fear like this, pretend it’s holy, throw a mask over it.

The rain eases, but the honks gain an edge. Each one feels like a violation. I want it to stop. I don’t want to think about which way is right, don’t want to choose. I want to live in a world where every way is right. I want to be a girl and only that; not a statement, or an invitation, not a rejection, or something political. Just that.

Someone shouts at us from the street.


I flinch, but she does not. Under me, I can feel life throwing its weight, forcing my hand, pulling me forward in an instant.


Aya flips them the bird. I don’t understand how she can have such courage in the face of a mistake. Come on, Hilal, she coaxes. We’re leaving this place. We’re graduates now. My niqab has become a line in the sand each time we go out: a shield I should be able to lower and raise at will though it seems I cannot.

Until I just can. Until I just do.

I can see her more clearly this way. She’s smiling at me.

There, she says. Isn’t that better?

No, I say, and she laughs and leans in, kissing me on the cheek through her smile.

There are some people who believe respect can be contained within a robe, a cover, a cloth. Some say the right outfit can offer protection on the street, be a charm against snakes, deliver you straight to a Heaven, unblighted. Some believe what you wear announces your worth to the world, is a demonstration of character, of responsibility, of power.

But I already know I am not one of those people.

It’s only when I pull off my headscarf too, good as naked, that I see them: knotted, wood sticks in hand, their police-strides long and righteous in the rain. They shout their fury in baritone. By the glass bakery doors, Aya straightens. We stand behind her, trembling soldiers.

“Never been arrested before, right, Hilal?” Aya calls to me, over her shoulder.

Never. It is my lucky day. I watch as she pushes her welcome-arms out to the police, wide as they will go, then brings her palms together, as if in an offer of prayer.