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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chats with Women in Veils: Saudis in Malaysia

Newly wed Hannah of Saudi Arabia was on vacation with her husband, Abdul Azziz (photo below.) She was also having a holiday from covering her face while she was in Malaysia, where she was not obligated to wear a full birqa. Our communication was filtered through her husband’s limited English and my scant Arabic vocabulary.
As the ferry boat chugged along on the Andaman Sea from Penang to Langkawi, I asked how Hannah feels about covering herself in a birqa when she is in her hometown, Mecca. Imitating Hannah's  actions in jest, Abdul slapped his forehead, then stretched his arms skyward and shook his fists. Looking up at heaven, he lamented, “Ma’ambahsen.” ( I can’t stand it.)
Hannah, 23, is a college student. “What will she do after college ?” I asked. “She will go kitchen,” said Abdul, 28, a physicist. However, she can look forward to leaving the kitchen in 2014. Abdul is planning to take her to Brazil for the World Cup soccer tournament, “insh’allah” (God willing.)
Hannah will have “new look” in Brazil, he said. “She will have bikini and yellow hair.” I imagined he knew about yellow hair and bikinis from the internet. I asked, “internet mo haram ( not forbidden ) ? “Mo haram,” he said.
Hannah’s husband jokes about dressing her in a bikini, and he allows her to reveal her face in Malaysia, where the Muslim Malay women do not cover their faces or their bodies in black clothing. However, all over Langkawi, the shapeless black figures of Arab tourist women emerge from the green and flowery panorama of the tropical island. Men accompany the women; Saudi Arabian women are required to have male guardians, usually their fathers or husbands.
With their male guardians, the women walk on beaches in long loose robes, exposing only their eyes and hands (photo, bottom of post). Or, they sit next to pools in resort hotels wearing thick, opaque robes while their male guardians romp in swim shorts in the water. They are seen at Starbucks in the ferry station, sipping coffee without exposing their faces; they insert the cups under flaps of black cloth that cover their mouths.
On the decks of ferry boats, Saudi men sporting shorts and t-shirts would ask me to take their picture with their wives (photo, left.) I imagined the only way to identify a woman in birqa in a photo would be by recognizing the man posing next to her.
On one ferry ride, I met Saber Mohammed, a policeman, also from Islam’s holiest city, Mecca. Saber was traveling with two women in birqa. I imagined they were his wives; after all, Saudis are permitted to have four. However, one was his wife; the other, his mother. When I asked him how he learned his imperfect, but conversational English, he said “from TV in English.” He affirmed it is not haram to watch TV in English, but he added, “I only cannot watch sex.”
Then a woman hidden behind a birqa asked me in perfect English if I would take her picture with her husband. When I asked her how she learned her flawless English, she said she has a degree in English literature. She added, “I am interested in theatre, but in my country (Saudi Arabia) actresses are not allowed on stage without full birqa, but things are changing.”
I said I was surprised by her interests, her command of English. “Why ? she said. “It is the internet… It is globalization.” I had so much more to ask the woman hidden behind a veil, but the boat was about to dock. Her guardian led her away; on shore they moved away until she looked like just one more shapeless black figure blending into the crowd.
Story & photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter, copyright 2011