Note: names have been changed to protect privacy. :)
In the community where I’ve lived for the past year and a half, most women cover their faces in public. The attitude toward the face-covering stems from a mixture of religion and culture. Some women cover their faces out of devotion but others do it simply to protect their identity when travelling in the public world of men – outside of home and tribe. 3shan akhud ra7tee. This phrase, which I've heard from many covered women translates roughly to 'take a rest, be comfortable, not be stressed out.' When one is used to living in a domestic feminine world at home in the village - full of sisters, aunts and cousins - food, babies and softness - diving into the rough world of men is jarring. Though niqab/heimar is a dress code that is not traditional to the Bedouin community - as Islamic interpretations have spread and changed and as the post-settlement Bedouin populations have been exposed to different influences - the niqab has gained popularity for a variety of reasons. While it can be nearly impossible to separate culture and religion, I find that some women cover for God, while others do it for comfort, for family, upon request of their husbands or simply because their older sisters do it (and in two cases, against the wishes of male relatives). However, in some cases, women who might cover their faces when travelling do not cover their faces in the safety of the family neighborhood.
When I first started wearing the niqab, which I did with little understanding or guidance (what can I say? I'm famous for spontaneous decision-making!), I picked and chose the places where I wore it. In self-defined private spaces – like my neighborhood, place of work and in the homes of friends, I showed my face. In public spaces, I covered it. Here is what I found.
Walking through Aqaba with a covered face offers a dramatic change from what I have previously experienced. In the souq, where the Egyptian store-minders are excited to sell and promote\ their goods with a shout of hello! or welcome! – all I hear is a gentle ‘please, ma’am, buy from us.’ No one else looks my way. When walking with a female friend who covers her head and wears either the long-robed abaya or jilbab, she notes a difference in her treatment as well – no one speaks to her when she is with me.
Every space that I return to with a covered face, I wonder what the reaction will be. I’m familiar with the different opinions on niqab, but experience brings a new level of understanding.
After a month in-country, it’s time to renew my visa. I head to the police station. Although a government entity and therefore staffed by both genders, individual police officers, as in most places, tend to a more traditional mindset. I am met with incredible enthusiasm by the two male officers handling my renewal.
“Are you Muslim?”
“Since how long?”
“About five years.”
“And how long have you worn this?”
“Just a month – but not everywhere.” (As we shall see, this honest statement will later cause some challenges.)
“That’s fine. As a Muslim, you are only required to cover your head.”
I nod politely. The conversation shifts as one of the officers inspects my passport.
“It’s so great you are Muslim! Hey! You’re born in 19--! I’M born in 19--! You’re birthday is 2- October?! Mine is the 1-th! I’m just ten days older than you!”
He’s as a giddy as a school boy. I cease conversation and sit quietly until my renewal is complete.
I begin to notice that a different dress code attracts a different type but does not necessarily stymie one’s attractiveness.
It’s been a while since I visited my old neighborhood. My former neighbors are truly gentle people – their love of food, farming and a quiet life is one that I’ve always appreciated. They don’t stray far from home and when I think of them, I am reminded of Tolkein’s hobbits. My desert hobbits are among the most Muslim of people I’ve known, taking their practice seriously – keeping their prayers, acting with generosity and compassion, open to learning and sharing with those who are different and nearly always reserving judgment. The neighborhood is full of olive trees, grape arbors and fruit trees. A deep sense of peace emanates from their land. The most devout ladies in this neighborhood wear niqab and their intention is a religious one.
Selma and I are sitting on the veranda, sharing tea and conversation. My niqab is flipped up over my head - my face revealed. Her teenage niece, visiting from the city, drops by.
“Lina! (That's me.) Mabrouk il niqab!” (Congratulations on your niqab!)
I blush and stammer a polite thank you.
I start to understand that for faithful Muslims the choice to wear niqab is one not to be taken lightly and that when worn by a practicing Muslim – eg. not for reasons of comfort, family or protection - comes an expectation of behavior and practice.