When I converted to Islam, I always knew I wanted to wear hijab–i.e., a headscarf. Perhaps owing to my years as a devout Catholic with the drive (but never the bravery) to wear a mantilla during Mass, headcovering seemed like a natural progression in faith, one that I sought to embrace wholeheartedly. I still love having my head covered in public. I feel uncomfortable and disconnected when I don’t, even though headcovering here in Saudi Arabia, with the tarha that matches whatever abaya I have on, can feel like a chore more than anything else because the material is often slippery and the wrap-and-tuck style I use (as so many other ladies here, Saudi and non-Saudi, do) when in the Kingdom lends itself to my adorably excitable baby yanking it off.
But even though hijab came naturally for me, I’ve never felt persuaded to cover my face with a niqab, whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. It just never seemed to me like a practice that would enhance my connection to my faith in any way. However, I do know ladies who readily embrace the niqab for this reason, and for many others–yes, including feminism. Some women wear it because their husbands prefer for them to (at least when in Saudi Arabia), for a myriad of reasons. I know Western women for whom moving to Saudi Arabia was a relief because it meant that they could finally wear niqab without fear of judgment and/or harassment. I know other Western women married to Saudis who feel no particular connection to the niqab and wouldn’t wear it in the States or any country other than Saudi Arabia, but their husband’s female family members wear it, so they do, too. The diversity of reasons for wearing niqab is as endless as the diversity of the faces it covers.
But after a breakfast here in Riyadh in which I found myself chatting with friends about wearing the niqab and its influence or lack thereof on who a person is behind it, I found myself curious about what it would be like to cover my face in public, and what better place to try it out than in Riyadh, where the majority of women cover their faces, anyway?
It wasn’t about how other people would respond to me, or about attempting to step into the shoes and replicate the experience of a full-time niqabi through a part-time experiment. Rather, it was simply about exploring how I interacted with the world around me when I had my face covered. Would I feel different? Would I somehow feel closer to God? Would I feel further away from God? Would I feel empowered by my relative anonymity, or would I feel constricted by it or lost within it?
So I decided to give the niqab a spin.
I couldn’t just run downstairs and borrow one from my female in-laws; neither my mother-in-law nor my sister-in-law cover their faces, although my mother-in-law used to when she was younger (she says she stopped because it caused her skin to break out, which makes sense to me…the niqab serves as a protective barrier from the sun, but it also seems like if your face got sweaty, the cloth would absorb the sweat and hold it against your face, which can’t be good), and both of my husband’s grandmothers do. So one Saturday morning, while we were out and about, I instructed him to stop at an abaya shop and purchase a niqab for me. He ran in and came back out with exactly what I needed.
“It was really cheap,” he informed me. “Only 10 riyals.” Which is less than $3. I wasn’t surprised. This particular niqab was basically a long, narrow strip of black fabric that tied at the back of the head, with a square-shaped piece of matching fabric that came down over the face area, its top two corners connected to the longer strip, so that the eyes remained visible. There are different abayas that have the niqab built in, and different kinds of niqabs that are designed to come connected to a headcovering. But the one I now own is very simple. I just put on my abaya and put my tarha on my head like usual, and then I place the niqab over my face, with the long strip on my forehead and the ends tied at the back of my head.
For the next several weeks, I wore the niqab when out by myself in public places.
My first concern when I started wearing it was that Lavender would be freaked out when she saw me with it on. She had never seen me with my face covered before (heck, for that matter, neither had I), and I didn’t want to scare or confuse her. But when I tied on my niqab and turned to look at her in the backseat, she just laughed. Crisis averted.
Another concern I had was the heat. I thought that surely, it must be stifling underneath a niqab! And yes, being completely unaccustomed to it, it was, at first. I had never been so aware of my normal breathing. Every time I exhaled, it felt like there was a bubble of hot air trapped over my face. But then I noticed that every time I breathed in, the opposite happened. The incoming breath filtered through the fabric and canceled out the heat on my face with a rush of cool air. It was like a see-saw. Warm, cool. Warm, cool. Eventually, it evened itself out and I stopped noticing the presence of the niqab.
In Riyadh, I’ve often heard Western female expats say that the niqab actually draws more attention to them, not less, because their blue eyes are a giveaway that they’re not Saudi. I don’t know if my glasses deflected that sort of attention or what (when I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, I was wearing my regular glasses), but I don’t think anyone really noticed me more than usual when I wore niqab. In fact, I felt like I fit in much better; my sense of sticking out like a sore thumb was significantly diminished–which, obviously, is culturally relative, because in the States, the opposite would certainly be true. The only time I really felt that the niqab drew more attention to me than usual was when I spoke to someone in English–my American accent caused folks to stare a lot.
Wearing the niqab didn’t make me feel closer to or further away from God. Thus, I still don’t feel like the niqab has any sort of religious significance for me personally, but I understand that it does for many women (much like I can see how the mantilla would have no appeal for many Catholic women, but for me, it absolutely did). However, I feel like this is a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing–I put on the niqab partly to see if it would catalyze some sort of religious clarity or insight, but I think many, if not most, Muslim women who make the choice to cover their faces feel the religious need or preference to so before they follow through.
And even though I don’t feel like the niqab is a beneficial Islamic step for me, it’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of it, at least here in Riyadh. Even though many women don’t cover their faces here, the fact that so many women do makes it stand to reason that putting on the niqab would contribute to blending in with the larger crowd.
If my mother-in-law and sister-in-law wore niqab when they went out, I probably would, as well–or at least, I’d think more seriously about adopting it as a ritual when here in the Kingdom. But as it stands, I’ve reverted to my previous abaya-and-tarha combination, and just as before, I don’t automatically reach for my niqab as a part of getting dressed to go out. However, I do now keep my niqab tucked in a small pocket on the inside of my handbag, in case I ever start to feel uncomfortable in a way that more easily blending in with the crowd would help alleviate. I certainly didn’t feel lost within or constricted by my niqab-imparted anonymity, although I think that’s something that would vary from person to person. I actually appreciate that since I now know that I can feel comfortable with my face covered, I can choose to wear niqab or not, as it suits me.
And as with everything else, choice is what it should always be about.