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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


  1. Hi Carola, this blog was particularly interesting, getting "under' the surface of the birqah, especially the "eye contact" in the photo of the woman on the ferry, a startling photo! felix

  2. Hi Carola,
    it is interesting that some women (and their men) are not necessarily happy about having to wear a birqah. Unfortunately we live in a world full of the consequences of miscommunications and the way we present (or hide) ourselves can just add to the confusion. Keep up the good work sojourning the paths less travelled. Nancy

  3. hi carol. what an eye-opening experience. i'm glad to learn about the different ways people live (by desire or possible duress) and am thankful for how i get to live. keep reporting! jane

  4. That encounter left me wanting more. And I hear it was the same for you. We are so cut off here from Arab cultures that the whole thing is a mystery. I am sad to hear of the women being kept down by their traditions and the male-dominated society. They seem to have so much to offer. Thank you for giving us a glimpse under the veil. Nicely written, too!

  5. hi carol am a filipino woman covering my face like saudis, I just want u to know that no body forced me or even the womens of saudis to cover their faces,in fact we feel very free in this world, but uncover our faces is like nude to us,
    it so wonderful feelings 4 us to be a very beautiful woman in our husband alone.
    putting make up into our faces,wearing a very
    nice dresses to please our husband only.
    4 me I don't need to please anybody as long as I am not doing anything wrong to the people like cheating,slandering and etc. and as long as I am good to my family,friends,co workers,neighbors, especially into my husband and practicing all God's ordained.
    prophet mohammed said;The most perfect amongst the believers in faith is one who has the best manners;
    and best of you are those who are best to their wives and is the kindest to his family.
    and prophet says There will be nothing heavier on the scale than good conduct;
    and he says Anyone who has a smallest particle of arrogance in his heart will not enter into
    paradise.whoever is deprived of kindness is deprived of all good.
    GOD says:
    Can he, then, who is a true believer, be compared to him who is an evildoer? surely they are not alike.

  6. I am a Saudi women covering my face and proud to do so ,proud to be a muslim doing what Allah ( God ) ordered me to do , proud to anounce my religion Islam in any place in the world by putting my face cover on , anouncing that I am NOT FORCED to so in my country so I am doing it even in any country I visit .

    I agree with what hamra said .I am happy and proud to have great sisters in Islam like you hamra.

    You people can't imagine how it is peacefull , wonderful and great to be a muslim .