In Arabic, Muslims use the word awrah to mean the more private parts of the body, those a respectable person always covers in public.Every society in the world has its own versions of awrah, and the Saudi Arabia of the past few decades has instructed all its faithful to regard as awrah not only a woman’s hair, as is widely taught across the Muslim world, but also her calves, her arms, and perhaps—depending—her face.
The change came in the 1980s, as conservative Islamist movements were burgeoning throughout the Middle East. Couples walking or driving in public together were forced to show police their marriage licenses.
The Saudi government, its legitimacy threatened by such upheaval, enlisted religious police in a kingdom-wide crackdown that imposed upon all Saudis the rigidity of its most conservative cultures. And central to the conservative crusade was the castigation of women: for succumbing to Western influence, for appearing outside the home without male guardians, for speaking in voices that might distract or seduce men, for dishonoring God by failing to drape themselves completely in black.
When the message we want to give off is respect me, not look at me. Dayooth means a man who is not sufficiently vigilant about his wife and other female relatives whose honor he’s supposed to be guarding. Halah Alhamrani, 39, teaches kickboxing at her home in Jeddah; she’s a physical trainer, a career that women are taking up despite some hostile response. “A lot of closed-minded women see what we’re doing as a disgrace.” “The problem is how they are thinking,” Noof said now, from the passenger seat of the Toyota.
Women debate each other about the niqab, which is the word Saudis use for the black, tie-on cloth made specifically for covering the face; I once sat through a table-pounding niqab argument among three Riyadh feminists, one of whom insisted that any modern woman who “chooses” to veil her face does so only under pressure from the oppressive society around her. “This is the issue.” Sami, behind the wheel, said, “When we go out to shop or something, I feel people look at her.” “Staring,” Noof said. Staring.” The most disturbing stares, the ones that rattle Sami, come from men. He wears black-rimmed glasses and has a short beard and a gentle countenance.
Young women window-shop with cell phones pressed to their ears, angling ice-cream cones or soda drink straws into their mouths beneath their niqabs.
Pakistani and Filipino drivers nap in the parking lots or video call their overseas families, waiting for the women who employ them to emerge.
EDUCATED AND ENTERING THE WORKFORCE Over the past four decades Saudi Arabia has achieved substantial advances in education for women, most recently under reforms instituted by the late King Abdullah.
Although he encouraged women to study and work, the nation still lags behind many other Muslim countries when it comes to employment opportunities for women.
To view all registered Colombo language exchange members, please click here.
Click on a name for more information or to contact the member.
“So I’m—‘Please, Noof, cover your face,’” Sami said. “My answer will be, this guy, he’s a Muslim, but he doesn’t follow Islam in the right way,” he said finally. “If I fight with the guy,” he said, “that means I fight every day.” Noof chuckled.