This is not an article about how much I "hate Saudi Arabia", because I honestly feel the exact opposite. Saudi Arabia is like home to me, and I'm always super excited when I have a chance to go back! It's a magnificent country, and I'm so blessed to have spent so much time there. This is an article about some issues I've faced particularly in Saudi Arabia, and about me discovering the beauty of the niqaab. Let me repeat one last time: I love Saudi Arabia. :)
What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you read the name Saudi Arabia? Oil? Oppression? Burkas? For me, I think "home". Not only home for me, but home for Islam, as our two Holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located on Saudi soil. I had been traveling quite a bit this summer break, and my adventures took me back to Saudi Arabia, the country I was born in and lived in for 13 years. And, for the first time in my entire life, I wore a niqaab.
To make sense of why I would do that, I think I need to start at the beginning. Saudi Arabia is a very exclusive country. Chances are, you've probably never been here unless you're a Muslim going to Mecca or Medina for pilgrimage. They aren't exactly tourist-friendly, to say the least, and people (particularly of) South Asian descent who comes here for work are discriminated against. You think I'm exaggerating? I just read on the news a few days ago that Saudi Arabia is going to stop it's men from marrying women from 4 countries, one of them being Pakistan, so it speaks for itself. This all said, I still consider Saudi Arabia to be a very beautiful country and some small incidents of discrimination can't scare me away. One of my closest friends (shoutout to Dareen!) is from Jeddah and she's the absolute sweetest, most fun loving person I've ever met.
In Islam, women aren't required to wear a niqaab (like they are to wear a hijaab), so anyone wearing one is doing so out of their own religiousness and modesty. I wore one for different reasons though, mostly because I was tired of being a target of what my friends and I called eye-raping. For those of you who don't know, women in Saudi Arabia are required by law to wear an abaya/burka and a hijaab to protect her modesty. There are religious police that enforce this and a woman can get into real trouble with the law if she doesn't follow this rule. So, every single woman roaming the streets of Saudi Arabia is covered head to toe, literally, but I've found that men still check us out. And it's not just your everyday check-out, it's more like what I said earlier: eye-raping. They look at your body so intensely, as if they have a super power that allows them to undress you with their eyes.
Catcalling and the like aren't really allowed in Saudi Arabia (nor in Islam, where a man is required to lower his gaze in the sight of any woman...) so these men take all of their sexual tension and just stare at you. And stare at you. And stare at you. And they don't stare at your face; they stare at your 100% fully covered body. There's not much to check out, and it just makes you feel so uncomfortable. If you're out looking all cute, you kind of except at least a little male attention, but when you're covered up completely for the sake of modesty and religion, but get "eye-raped" regardless, you feel disgusted. It makes you feel like a sexual object, there just to satisfy their neverending thirst. It's not the Saudi men who do this either - it's always some older Desi man.
Why? My theory is that it's because of power. As I stated earlier, immigrants are not treated fairly in Saudi Arabia. There seems to be this unspoken hierarchy, that flows something like this: Saudi men. Saudi women. White men. Non-Saudi Arab men. White women. Non-Saudi Arab women. Desi men. Desi women (I would say Filipino men and women are on the same scale as us Desi people too). I, as a desi girl, am at the "bottom of the food chain", and therefore an easy target of these power&sex hungry fools. (Please understand that this is solely based off of my own personal experiences, and of those of my friends, and are in NO WAY a reflection of what ISLAM preaches!) Furthermore, I've never faced this kind of sexual torment in any other country (including Pakistan, which is where most of these creeps are from). Of course, men still cat call, men still stare, men still commit crimes like rape, but honestly I've never felt as victimized as I do in Saudi.
I can't explain to you how disgusting it makes you feel to be covered head to toe, NOT want any attention from men, but still have them stare at you. You don't feel human anymore. You feel, like I said before, a sexual object. Not a person. Not a woman. Just a sex toy. I wore a niqaab to protect myself from their endless staring.
Wearing a niqaab was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.
People, especially in Western countries, seem to think that Islam and Muslim countries oppress women. I've always argued that Islam does not oppress women, and that for the most part Muslim countries don't either (and if they do, it's not because of Islam, but rather because of their own hypocrisy. Again, this is for another post), but I wasn't as sure of it as I am now. I always understood why women wear hijaab. Not only is it required by our faith for various reasons, but it looks beautiful as well. Niqaab? I wasn't ever sure why someone would want to hide their face. Especially if they cover their eyes too. It just looked creepy and uncomfortable to me. Have you ever seen a woman trying to eat with a niqaab? Yeah, I never understood why someone would willingly choose that life until I decided to try it out (to hopefully stop being sexualized) and saw the benefits.
On my second day back in the kingdom, I went abaaya shopping because my old one was getting a bit short. That was when I decided to buy a niqaab as well, because just as I was entering the store, one of the men sweeping the street stopped and just stared at me walk for a good 2 minutes. I had no makeup on, I was wearing a burka and hijab, and I was with my family but he had no shame... I felt disgusted, and thought to myself that I don't want to go through that anymore. A few days later, our journey took us from Khobar to Mecca and then to Medina, which is where I first put on my niqaab.
There were some of those Desi workers outside the masjid sweeping the streets in Medina, who stared at me and other non-niqaabis every time we walked by. One day, I took my niqaab out of my suitcase, put it on, and went to the masjid for prayer and literally none of them looked at me. Not one of them. They didn't even dare look in my direction. It was so liberating. I'm almost certain that the staring didn't stop because I was covering my face, but rather because the niqaab is associated with Saudi women (usually they're the only ones who wear one in Saudi Arabia), fear of them, and unspoken food chain which I stated earlier. Anyways, it wasn't only that. When I went into the masjid, many different women talked to me in Arabic, and it made me feel included.
In Saudi Arabia, you'll see different "cliques". The Saudis stick together, the Desis stick together, the Indonesians together, and other Arabs together, etc. You can literally tell everyone apart because Saudi women wear all black (abaayas, hijaab, and niqaab). Non-saudis tend to wear colourful scarves, and if they're not wearing a niqaab, you can obviously tell their race by looking at their face.
Anyways, the Saudi women treated me like one of them. They would come and talk to me, and only after saying a sentence in Arabic and hearing me reply back saying either "Maafi Arabi" (no Arabic) or "Sorry, I don't really speak Arabic" would they realize I wasn't one of them. I was born in this country and lived here the majority of my life, but this was the first time I ever really felt accepted by them. Please don't misunderstand me: no Saudi woman was ever rude to me, nor am I calling them racist, it's just that like I said before: people here tend to stick in their "cliques" and don't really mix with anyone else. To feel included in the Saudi one, 13 years after living in the country, felt kind of nice.
Wearing the niqaab made me understand that, at least in Saudi Arabia, women really did wear it out of their own will, just as I did. Wearing a niqaab gave me respect, power and acceptance. No longer did I feel like this helpless girl who was a daily victim of sexual "assault" nor was I an outsider. I felt included, and I felt powerful. The moment that niqaab came off and I went back outside, I felt inferior, ashamed (because of the staring, as if it was my fault) and naked. It's easy to detect a person's emotions by just looking at their face. The way their eyebrows are arched, how their smile goes up or frown goes down, the rosiness of their cheeks... I felt like my soul was vulnerable and exposed.
The niqaab didn't only give me acceptance and respect from men, but it protected me from the women too. Women, myself included, like to stare at each other for some reason. "I like her eyebrows", "her nose is really big", "her makeup is perfect", and "her lips are too thin" are just some of the comments I've overhead women make about other women in public, like at the malls. Before I wore the niqaab, I do feel like women stared at me for whatever reason. No one was ever downright rude or mean to me, nor has a stranger ever complimented me, but you can just tell when someone is staring at you. With the niqaab, I felt protected from that. My identity was hidden deep within me, not open and being shown for the world to stare and judge. Again, this felt absolutely liberating. I'm the kind of girl who likes to wear makeup every time I leave the house, because I simply don't feel beautiful or confident without it. I have a need within me beautify myself for other women's eyes, but wearing the niqaab enlightened me and showed me that I don't need to do that.
Tomorrow, I'll be flying out of Saudi Arabia and back to England. Soon after that, back to college in the US. Will I continue wearing a niqaab there? No. I'm not saying this with any pride, but I don't wear a hijab outside Saudi Arabia. One day, when I'm ready, InshaAllah (God Willing) I want to start wearing it. But a niqaab? I've never felt the need to wear one anywhere else except this country. I've never felt like a sexual object in any other country but this one, which was the main reason I began wearing one here. That said, wearing it taught me a lot about myself and society, and gave me a new found understanding of why women in this country wear one (which is something I didn't necessarily understand before).
The point of this post was to show that women aren't forced into wearing hijaab or niqaab by their families, as people often believe. I wore the niqaab by choice here in Saudi Arabia. In less religious cities like Khobar, many women don't cover their hair, but I did/do out of my own comfort. Don't tell me women in the Middle East are forced by their families to cover up, because we're not. We do this on our own, not because we were forced by our families. Some women are forced into these things, but you can say that about any religion, race, and tradition. Women around the world are "forced" into things, so it is unfair to focus on that very minority that were forced by their families to cover, when the majority did/do so out of their own will.
Families don't force their girls into covering up. Are women forced by society, though? Yes. I can't argue with that. Society forced me into wearing a niqaab in Saudi Arabia; something I wouldn't have ever done otherwise. Niqaab is not required by religion, it was literally the society that made me feel like the only way to protect myself was to cover my face. Anyways, on one side of the world, women are pushed by society to cover up their bodies, making them feel like they're just sexual objects, and in the other, women are pushed by society to show more and more skin, again making them feel like they're just sexual objects. Neither society is really totally free, nor are either totally oppressed. Only when women are able to truly choose for themselves what they want to wear, and not have any consequences for their choice, will women around the world be free from man and society's grip on not only our dress 'codes', but also our overall lifestyles.