It’s Ramadan! It’s my second Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, and even though my last post went into great detail about how I feel like less of a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, I have to admit that there is something nice about being in Saudi Arabia for Ramadan. It doesn’t feel as spiritually significant as it should a lot of the time, because often the routine just gets flipped; many people tend to sleep all day and stay up all night, or sleep in late at the very least, which sort of defeats the purpose. But at the same time, everyone knows it’s Ramadan. There may not be a real sense of Islamic community (that I can perceive) the rest of the time here, but during Ramadan, I feel there is. Women go to the mosques more, for the night prayers (called tarawih). People get out more in general, at least at night. There’s a sense of joy and excitement. It’s somewhat comparable to the Christmas season in the States; there are certain foods that you only eat during the Ramadan season, certain clothes that are mostly just for Ramadan…there are even Ramadan songs on the radio.
I like Ramadan.
And in honor of Ramadan, I thought I would share a story about a shopping experience that happened last year, during my first Ramadan in Saudi Arabia.
One night, after fatoor, my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I went out shopping. We were on a quest to buy jalabiyas. A jalabiya is a long, flowing Arabic dress with long sleeves. They usually fit quite loosely, and I love them, because they make everyone look glamorous. Okay, so not every jalabiya makes everyone look glamorous (I tried on a green one that I loved, and the gathers in the sleeves made me look like I was a huge green balloon–you know, one of those balloons filled with helium that is still big and round but just enough helium has leaked out of it so that it sits on the floor and bounces across the floor when you kick it? Yes, that’s exactly what I looked like). But lots of them do.
I wore jalabiyas all the time while I was pregnant, because they had plenty of tummy room. But my in-laws wanted some because they are “Ramadan-y.” And indeed, I can see why they would say that. I can’t think of a garment that would give you nearly as much room for your tummy to expand during evenings of massive fatoors and suhoors, and possibly several yummy sweet snacks in between.
So, anyway, at the first mall we visited, we went to a few different stores and we each chose several jalabiyas that we wanted to try on. Now, the weird (well, different) thing about this shopping experience was that none of the stores had fitting rooms. So we had to choose jalabiyas and then get permission from the shopkeeper to take the ones we wanted to try on to the ladies room in the mall, where there were several stalls that were just for trying on clothes (i.e., no toilets). Then we had to return to the store to either pay for the jalabiyas if we liked them, or give them back if we didn’t.
In the second store where we found a few jalabiyas to try, the shopkeeper was at first hesitant to let us leave the store with them. He spoke to my mother-in-law, and he seemed agitated. But eventually, he let us leave with a few jalabiyas that we wanted to try.
When we got back, I had selected a few to buy, and so had my mother-in-law. The shopkeeper looked visibly relieved to see us return. He was much friendlier with us as we paid for our jalabiyas. He was chatty and kind. As he spoke, I heard him apologize to my mother-in-law for something. As they continued talking, I noticed them making motions around their noses, like they were covering their faces.
After we left, my mother-in-law told me what the shopkeeper had said to her. Apparently, earlier in the day, two women had come into the shop and asked to try on some jalabiyas. They had taken the jalabiyas to the fitting room…and hadn’t brought them back. Between the two women, the shopkeeper lost seven jalabiyas.
I asked what they were talking about when they were making those motions around their faces. My mother-in-law explained that they were talking about how those women were wearing niqab; how the shopkeeper wouldn’t have been able to identify the thieves even if they had been caught, and how, in Saudi Arabia, the niqab is sometimes considered to be an indicator of a “good” Muslim woman, or at least a very pious Muslim woman…but the niqab actually tells you nothing about what kind of person the woman wearing it is, whether she is honest or dishonest, kind or unkind, generous or stingy, sweet or cruel.
And then, in a case of timing so incredibly perfect, we got to see a perfect illustration of the idea that “niqab=good person.”
After we said goodbye to the shopkeeper from whom we bought jalabiyas, we headed out of the mall. As we got closer to the exit where our driver was waiting with the car, we spotted a member of the muttawa. Well, I didn’t; my mother-in-law did. At the time, I still had no idea how to identify them; it’s not like they wear uniforms and jackboots and giant badges. In case you’re curious—a member of the muttawa will usually have a long, neatly trimmed beard, a thobe that is a bit shorter than average (hitting maybe around his ankles), no igal, and a dark bisht, which is a long cloak-like garment that goes over the thobe and is usually worn only on formal occasions (like if you’re going to a wedding, you might break out your bisht. Meeting the king, that’s a bisht occasion).
Anyway, this muttawa was an old guy; he looked like he might actually need the walking stick he was carrying. But no—he was using the stick to scold women about their lack of covering. He was waving the stick at women as he passed them, ordering them to cover their faces. The women mostly ignored him (as I mentioned in a previous post, the muttawa are allowed to advise people, but they can’t haul you off to jail for not covering your face or anything like that). Still, he continued on his quest to save the mall from the women’s naked faces.
I was not wearing a niqab, and neither were my in-laws. My mother-in-law grabbed my elbow and steered me toward a different door, so that we could avoid the niqab patrol. My mother-in-law is nothing if not feisty, and she didn’t want to get into a shouting match with the muttawa in the middle of the mall.
In the car, my mother-in-law was seething. She muttered angrily about how the niqab doesn’t make anyone a good person, and how the two women who stole jalabiyas from the shopkeeper in the mall would have never been bothered by the muttawa because their faces were covered. Mostly, she kept saying, “This is not Islam…this is not Islam.”
That’s something that I’ve always remembered since I got here, especially when I get jaded. Despite what the outside perception may be, there is a great variation among the people of Saudi Arabia when it comes to how they live their lives and practice their religion. Saudis are not all the muttawa. The muttawa are not all terrible. And sometimes culture masquerades as religion.
(No, this niqabi had nothing to do with this particular story, but the picture seemed appropriate to include here, even though it didn’t really turn out. But to be honest, I couldn’t resist attempting to snap a photo of her when I was out on a different night. I mean, look how she’s rocking that Hello Kitty bag! I freaking love that Hello Kitty bag.)
Of course, long before I landed in Riyadh, I knew that there is a major difference between religion and culture, anywhere in the world—even when certain people, both of and outside the culture, claim that a certain culture exemplifies a particular religion. It just never happens that way. If any culture exemplified a religion, that shopkeeper would never have lost his jalabiyas, the muttawa would have been leaning on his walking stick instead of waving it at people, and the most devoutly Christian areas of America wouldn’t have the highest rates of STDs.
I’ve often heard people say, “(Insert name of religion here) is perfect, (insert name of adherents to said religion) aren’t.” And that is so true. But that experience with my mother-in-law, the jalabiya shopkeeper, and the angry muttawa always makes me remember that religion, although certainly not necessary in order to be a good person, is supposed to make you a better person. Appearances matter not at all. Don’t get me wrong; I have absolutely no problem with any woman wearing niqab if that is what she chooses to do. And I have no doubt that for some people, including myself, what we wear on the outside is a representation of at least an element of what we want to be on the inside. And that’s okay. I know absolutely amazing women who wear niqab, and I don’t presume to know everything (or on some days, even anything) about religion. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you’re concerned about niqabifying the mall while women in niqab walk right past you with stolen merchandise under their abayas…you’re not doing it right.