The agony of Muslim garb…

I am practicing keeping my laptop turned off most days, and so far, I am succeeding admirably! Congratulate me–or don’t; I will pick up the slack for you by just congratulating myself! 😛 I actually only turned this thing on to tell you about this article that was in the LA Times yesterday: In Saudi Arabia, a view from behind the veil, by Megan K. Stack, Times Staff Writer.

Basically, she details all the times she is given a major hassle for being a woman: at the Starbuck’s, at the mall, at the bank, basically apparently everytime she breathes. If I sound vaguely unsympathetic, its because I mostly am. I mean, I am sure she was quite prepared to be decently covered up while she was there, and yet she accepted the assignment anyway. So, what’s the belly-aching for? She says:

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?

I am sorry, but comparing gender segregation to apartheid?! Clearly the woman has no concept of what apartheid was. As a Muslim woman born in South Africa, and living through both government-imposed apartheid for six generations and self-imposed gender segregation for-practically-ever, allow me to inform you that they are nothing alike. Gender segregation is not about being bullied simply because of who you are. Gender segregation is not about having dogs sicced on you just because of who you are. Gender segregation is not about cops going into the townships, pulling out “suspected black youth” and beating them to within an inch of their lives, while their screams reverberate throughout the village. That is the real face of apartheid. And if you want to compare gender segregation to that, then you are clearly clueless.

And then she blames the abaya for not allowing her to stand tall:

In the depths of the robe, my posture suffered. I’d draw myself in and bumble along like those adolescent girls who seem to think they can roll their breasts back into their bodies if they curve their spines far enough. That was why, it hit me one day, I always seemed to come back from Saudi Arabia with a backache.

The kingdom made me slouch.

Please. Give me a break. You are slouching in the abaya because you hate it, because you think it makes you look ugly, or whatever. This is about you–not about the abaya, not about the kingdom. I know plenty of women who are abaya-ed, and they have no trouble striding tall and proud. I also know those who walk with a perpetual slouch–and they usually do that because they think it makes them look less obvious to society or more pious. And you are slouching for your own strange reasons that have very little to do with the abaya itself. And then she goes on to make a discovery about Saudi society:

Through the years I have met many Saudi women. Some are rebels; some are proudly defensive of Saudi ways, convinced that any discussion of women’s rights is a disguised attack on Islam from a hostile Westerner. There was the young dental student who came home from the university and sat up half the night, writing a groundbreaking novel exploring the internal lives and romances of young Saudi women. The oil expert who scolded me for asking about female drivers, pointing out the pitfalls of divorce and custody laws and snapping: “Driving is the least of our problems.” I have met women who work as doctors and business consultants. Many of them seem content.

All I have to say to that is: duh! It takes all sorts to make the world go round, even the Muslim world. No, we are not all one huge monolithic entity who are displeased with the same things that you are. Yes, some of us love our cultures and Islamic values…and some of us dislike them and rebel vociferously…and others of us like some aspects and dislike other aspects…and some of us choose to share our angst and happiness with the world, and some of us don’t. Isn’t that to be expected from any society?!

And the final excerpt that I am going to share here is a long one:

ONE glaring spring day, when the hot winds raced in off the plains and the sun blotted everything to white, I stood outside a Riyadh bank, sweating in my black cloak while I waited for a friend. The sidewalk was simmering, but I had nowhere else to go. As a woman, I was forbidden to enter the men’s half of the bank to fetch him. Traffic screamed past on a nearby highway. The winds tugged at the layers of black polyester. My sunglasses began to slip down my glistening nose.
He disappeared again, only to reemerge with another security guard. This man was of indistinct South Asian origin and had an English vocabulary. He looked like a pit bull — short, stocky and teeth flashing as he barked: “Go! Go! You can’t stand here! The men can SEE! The men can SEE!”

I looked down at him and sighed. I was tired. “Where do you want me to go? I have to wait for my friend. He’s inside.” But he was still snarling and flashing those teeth, arms akimbo. He wasn’t interested in discussions.

“Not here. NOT HERE! The men can SEE you!” He flailed one arm toward the bank.

I lost my temper.

“I’m just standing here!” I snapped. “Leave me alone!” This was a slip. I had already learned that if you’re a woman in a sexist country, yelling at a man only makes a crisis worse.

The pit bull advanced toward me, making little shooing motions with his hands, lips curled back. Involuntarily, I stepped back a few paces and found myself in the shrubbery. I guess that, from the bushes, I was hidden from the view of the window, thereby protecting the virtue of all those innocent male bankers. At any rate, it satisfied the pit bull, who climbed back onto the sidewalk and stood guard over me. I glared at him. He showed his teeth. The minutes passed. Finally, my friend reemerged.

A liberal, U.S.-educated professor at King Saud University, he was sure to share my outrage, I thought. Maybe he’d even call up the bank — his friend was the manager — and get the pit bull in trouble. I told him my story, words hot as the pavement.

He hardly blinked. “Yes,” he said. “Oh.” He put the car in reverse, and off we drove.

So the Saudi dude was barely interested in this tale of woe. Yes, I think it was rude for the security to treat her that way. Yes, they could have had her come inside out of the burning sun into the lobby–since when does Islam teach us such discourtesy?! That is insane. However, I am not at all surprised by the “liberal, U.S.-educated professor’s” response. How many incidents of discrimination do you think he suffered through in the US as a Muslim man? How many times have I recounted to a non-Muslim American the horror it is for me to be patted down in an airport in full view of the entire airport like a criminal…and then have them come back with “well, its all for national security” all the while listening to me with a reassuring smile? Oh, and these are my open-minded friends I am talking about, not random people I pick out to complain to! Crap goes on everywhere, sometimes in the name of culture, sometimes in the name of religion, sometimes in the name of security.We as a nation do things for the sake of national security, others do things in the name of cultural security. That’s life.

By the time I boarded the plane, I was in a temper. I yanked at the clasps, shrugged off the abaya like a rejected embrace. I crumpled it up and tossed it childishly into the airplane seat.

Then I was just standing there, feeling stripped in my jeans and blouse. My limbs felt light, and modesty flashed through me. I was aware of the skin of my wrists and forearms, the triangle of naked neck. I scanned the eyes behind me, looking for a challenge. But none came. The Saudi passengers had watched my tantrum impassively.

I sat down, leaned back and breathed. This moment, it seems, is always the same. I take the abaya off, expecting to feel liberated. But somehow, it always feels like defeat.

It feels like defeat because you are rebelling against a simple piece of cloth. Its silly and childish. Rather than enjoy the different-ness (like how some of our abaya-ed girls enjoy the different-ness of more revealing styles, when they are visiting in the West), you are futilely resisting a cloak. Next time, buy yourself one of the more beautiful abayas, and you might actually enjoy it more. In addition, its not the abaya you are really resisting, its the pressures of a different set of social norms, and some of those social norms are really not half as oppressive as you seem to think.

Oh, and this was not a view from behind the veil, it was view from underneath the abaya; putting on the niqaab might more than likely have given a totally different perspective. But, if the abaya was difficult, then I don’t even want to contemplate how much worse the niqaab would have been.

And that’s my $0.02 worth. Going to visit the blogs tonight inshaAllah. Turning off for now…. 😀


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7 Responses to The agony of Muslim garb…

  1. Faith says:

    You said it sista! I highly suggest that you email this personally to her:

  2. Servant of the Compassionate says:

    Me too!! Do it! Send it to her– you can make an anonymous e-mail.

  3. Ayla says:

    Asselamu aleykum,

    Gee. She’s got probems that woman [Megan].

    MashaAllah, you answered her very well. It was a pleasure reading; felt like I myself was saying those words. 😀 MashaAllah, I’m sure many sisters can relate to this.

  4. Umm Layth says:


    don’t go anonymous if you send it.

  5. mortalmuslim says:

    lolz…even i live in kingdom but i never felt opressed jst cause i cant sit wid men in starbucks…isnt it betta that i have a family section..I dunt understand Y do women want to be an “object” of men’s pleasure..Y dunt they want to be wat Allah has created the, a whole human being with their rights!

    nice post sis!

  6. Faith, SoC, and Umm Layth, I am so not sending this post of mine to her! Thanks for the encouragement though. I just felt like venting, and it was kind of unprofessionally written 😳 If living in the kingdom didn’t give her a positive feeling, then nothing anybody else says can help her view things differently…
    Mortal Muslim and Ayla, Wa Alaykum Salaam! I don’t understand how disrobing has anything to do with being free from oppression, and why on earth does having a separate section for women/families sound so awful to some people? I don’t really understand, and I hope I never do! 😀
    Jazakillah Khair to all of you for your kind and encouraging words. *huggles*

  7. queenie says:

    Great post! Her views on the matter are a bit awkward, but I don’t think the issue is as black and white, as polarized as its perceived. Saudi society has a certain dynamic, a muddled mix of culture and religion, and it’s often difficult to distinguish the two. I think she took a lot of her experiences at face value, and I truly don’t believe that she went into this without her own prejudices and biases, that’s bad reporting, but Saudi Arabia isn’t everybody’s cup of tea either..

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