Sunday, 27 December 2015

Living in a Society Covered in Niqab

'Shock and Awww'
Recently on my social media outlets whereby I connect with family and friends, I posted my first Selfie, alongside my cute little daughter, just outside Masjid al-Haram, Makkah. I was somewhat reluctant at first, because I'm not really a selfie person, but mostly because I was wearing the niqab (face veil) - and I thought, will my friends and family understand? But, because I like to be quite daring at times I thought oh well, let's just see how they react! To make it less or more awkward I captioned the image 'Shock and Awww.' alongside the following statement: 

Friends and family - the images of the niqab/burka has become synonymous to the view of extreme Muslim or oppressed women. And I'll be honest I came with the view that saudi women may be of the latter kind. From my own personal observations, living in a saudi residential area where it is common to wear the face veil - it doesn't stop them from coming out to the parks, picnic-ING with their friends and family. Some lift it up in female gatherings, or completely take it off when eating in restaurants.
HONESTLY once you get to know anyone who wears the niqab in England especially when you put your judgements and feelings aside you will realise they are just human like us emoticon
BIG Respect to all those who choose to wear the emoticon

I was surprised by the positivity I received from my family and friends. It all started to make me think of the women I already knew in England, many of which were my own friends who wear the face veil - and I was just amazed at how they continue to do so in England where it isn't even common. Going with the majority is so much easier - ie wearing niqab here because it is the custom of many Saudi and non-Saudi women to do so. Whether it is a religious obligation to wear the niqab -  I will not be going into this because of my lack of knowledge on the subject. It is a lot common in the residential areas of Makkah. Of course in the Haram [by that I am referring to the Ka'bah masjid] it is so international that I think the international community outnumber the locals by a huge margin that niqab wearers seem a minority. The verses from the Qur'an that commands women to cover are seen here:

O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. [Surah al-Ahzaab, v59]

And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful. [Surah an-Nur, v31]

Is it compulsory for all to wear the niqab in Saudi Arabia?
In Jeddah, the lovely coastal town of Saudi that is just over an hours drive from Makkah, it isn't as common to wear the niqab. The only thing that is made compulsory to wear here in Saudi Arabia for all Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is the abaaya - which is basically a like a long flowy dress or open front jacket for a society that wants to ensure modesty. So non-Muslim women wear the abaaya, some not even in the black colour but do not cover their hair. I like that they are given that choice especially as it is not even compulsory in their religion to cover their hair. Some of you may be wondering, well why should they have to wear the abaaya? To be honest, they could really just wear anything that was loosely modest but I think this uniformic way just makes it easy, perhaps? These are just my own thoughts.

So what is it like wearing a niqab here? 
How did and does it make me feel? This may sound strange, but I feel FREE and less image conscious. As I reflect on it more, I feel as a society in England we are as women quite conscious of how we look. I feel we are building this culture more and more because of the images that are thrown at us in the Media, on adverts, billboards etc [annoys me more to find many of these images are photoshopped!] In the work environment we want to appear presentable and professional. When going out, we want to dress up a little more than our uniformic work clothes. At home we want comfort, so we happily settle for lounge-wear or even better the bathrobe. We are always dressed according to the occasion, or so I say from my own experience! 

Slave of Allah OR Slave of 'what will people think'?
However, when wearing the niqab - it's a face veil. Covering my face means I don't have to think about what people will think if I haven't worn make up or concealer covering the bags under my eyes. Not that I usually would care but, whenever I haven't worn make-up in the past, I have had friends, colleagues, family say oh you look tired! :)  Whilst they most likely don't mean to ruin your day by saying that, they make you conscious of that little effort you didn't put in to cover-up that look of tiredness! Make up makes us all look great, and yes it makes us feel great too. So good and so great, that the day we cannot be bothered to wear it or forget to wear it, we are reminded somehow! Also, the time it takes to decide what to wear to look 'presentable' or feel good is just crazy! You should see me getting ready for a friend's wedding for example. I am not saying the niqab is the solution to our image conscious behaviour - but that it really helps reduce it. But that doesn't mean to say I haven't stopped wearing eyeliner or make up! What I'm saying is at least when I'm trying on my pop red coloured lipstick, I won't have the whole world staring at me as I walk down the street :) The niqab for me is a reminder as someone who already wears the hijab to ensure modesty. Modesty isn't simply how we dress, it is much deeper. But the actual hijab which represents modesty for me, It is a reminder to not be afraid of what people think. For me, it has always added to my self-confidence alhamdulillah. So whilst some people find hijab and covering synonymous with modesty I find it empowering at the same time too - as do I am sure many others who wear it! As soon as we fall in to this trap of what will people think? We crumble and become weak and we are defined by society's ways. 

Some personal reflections on Saudi life:
As some one who has worn the hijab [head scarf] since I was a teen, and having lived abroad in Pakistan and wearing the niqab there as well, you would really think adopting the niqab in Saudi Arabia wouldn't be as difficult. To be honest, I was never against the idea of moving to Saudi Arabia because of having to be in niqab, but I assumed that because it is a society in which women wear niqab, they probably aren't allowed out! I know! I as a Muslim woman thought that! Clearly, being born and raised in England and knowing nothing but England, I really didn't know. But, it really isn't the case here. Yes it is a segregated society, by that there are separate entrances to the mosques for example [we have that in England too]. But the men and women work together in places like hospitals, [I visited one yesterday for my medical test to obtain my residency card]. The doctors from Pakistan and China were intrigued by my being from England and what it was like living there etc. The women, who I saw in the reception area, some in face veil, some weren't worked alongside male colleagues of different nationalities. Life was just normal, normal hospital without long waits - that's what stood out more than how the women were dressed. 

*This image is taken from Google - not my own.
To finalise, I feel the image of the black niqab has been abused so badly in the media that even I thought women in Saudi Arabia are oppressed! But they aren't oppressed as a society - these are from my own observations as an outsider. Ok, they can't drive here, I probably wouldn't want to either with the crazy drivers on road here [not that I enjoyed driving as much in the UK anyway!] however, if you could really catch a glimpse of the family time which can be seen in their park picnics, their men at the forefront, ensuring all the kids get their drinks, their ice-creams etc. And they sit for hours spending time after work together on weekdays! Yes picnics and family time is not saved until the end of the week  - they spend this time together in the evenings in the outdoors in the nature, away from the technology that is tearing up parts of our society.

Any drawbacks of the niqab? It's not easy to wear with an 8th month old baby who thinks its a game but isn't it cute that she still knows who her mama is amongst a group of women in niqab holding her! I used to find it difficult holding her and trying to keep the niqab on at the same time at first! It definitely isn't easy to eat a burger when wearing niqab either - so in some restaurants where the seating is in the family section, I simply remove it. It is fine, I don't feel guilty. Most of the time in Jeddah  I don't wear it. For the women that can wear it and eat at the same time - I salute you! :)

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