Rana Jarbou is conducting an experiment, using herself as the guinea pig. For one full week, the 30-year-old resident of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is wearing the niqab when she leaves home — a traditional form of dress that conceals all of a woman’s hair and her face except for her eyes. Jarbou is chronicling the experience on her blog, Desert Rain.
Jarbou, a Saudi native who is writing a book about graffiti in Arab countries, normally wears an abaya (or robe) and usually a headscarf when she goes about her daily business. That isn’t always enough to suit the people around her in the Saudi capital, where she grew up and is living again after spending several years in Lebanon, Bahrain, and the U.S.
"I am considered 'rebellious' because I wear the scarf loosely and sometimes not at all," she writes in an email. "I have noticed … that having my hair shown attracts attention. People assume only foreigners have their hair exposed. I have often shocked people just by speaking with a Saudi accent with my hair exposed." In one incident, a niqab-wearing woman at a mall berated her for her appearance, suggesting she could not truly be Saudi unless she covered herself completely.
Women around the world who choose to wear the niqab for religious reasons face their own share of discrimination. In the United States, Canada, and Western European countries, and in the Arab world as well, women have faced restrictions on their right to wear the veil in driver's license photos, while testifying in court, while attending university, or even when simply leaving their homes. In Egypt, women who wear the niqab — many of whom have not been able to find jobs because of their dress — have started their own TV channel in order to combat the negative image of niqab-wearing women.
I first learned about Rana Jarbou's project on the site Global Voices, where she wrote that she "decided to do this experiment in order to fully grasp, live and feel life behind the niqab." Rana Jarbou is finding that wearing the niqab for a week — what she calls the "Faceless Experiment" — is giving her an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of veiling, femininity, and human identity.
Jarbou's exploration of what it means to hide your face or to show it may seem like a culturally specific endeavor. But as any woman who has ever walked down a city street knows, a woman in a public place is nearly always open to comment and judgment. A woman’s body, way too often, is considered to be a public place itself.
The niqab and other traditional forms of modest dress are supposed to protect women’s bodies from scrutiny, to provide security. In her experiment, Jarbou is exploring the cost of that trade-off. How will covering her face affect her sense of identity and individuality?
As soon as Jarbou put on the niqab, in the women’s bathroom at the mall where she purchased it, she says she noticed a difference in the way she was treated:
No one stares, let alone looks. It felt very, very liberating. I walked towards an escalator to which a man was also approaching. He stopped to let me go before him, and even waited a few moments after I got on to give me 'space'. Until I made my way out, seriously, no one stared! Yes, I'm otherwise accustomed to staring pairs of eyes without my niqab.
Those stares, she writes, are not necessarily from lustful men. They come because she seems "peculiar" as a Saudi who sometimes lets her hair show.
On day five of her experiment, however, Jarbou discovered that the niqab did not make her as anonymous as she thought. She went to get some exercise by walking along a sidewalk designed for strolling pedestrians.
[A]t this walking spot, men did look and stare. Some even gave looks, grins or whispered something. I had my headphones on beneath all the blackness, so I didn't hear anything.
She went into a nearby public bathroom to take a "breathing break," as she found the black veil suffocating in the intense heat of the day. There, she saw graffiti advertising for a "misyar bride" – a woman willing to enter into a modified type of marriage sanctioned by Islamic law and increasingly popular in Saudi Arabia, but still controversial.
The niqab, Jarbou is finding, does not eliminate the interaction between men and women. "I had also started picking up on the variety of ways women can indicate whether or not they're interested to meet men albeit wearing the niqab," she writes. "There is a subtle language, and the niqab actually makes it easier."
As the experiment has gone on, Jarbou says it has worn on her sense of herself. She's finding it stressful not to interact with storekeepers as she usually does, not to share smiles with people in a local coffee shop.
I'm tired. It feels like a strict diet that I want to break. I actually 'cheated' like you cheat on diets, by taking off the niqab for a few minutes while in the car last night. Those few minutes made me feel immense relief, though I kept dreading to put it back on…
I'm feeling exhausted nonetheless. Physically tired from being so out and about, but mentally tired from going back and forth from Rana and niqab-wearing Rana. In fact, I could never be "Rana". When I aimed to be "Rana" I was niqab-wearing Rana. Otherwise I was just a woman wearing the niqab. I'm starting to think of the niqab as a mask. Nothing more, nothing less. As long as your identity is concealed, it's mask. Why else would women wear this mask in all women's places?
The way women are treated in public places, and their perception of their own safety, is often used as a barometer of a society’s overall safety. Jarbou worries that trying to solve this problem with a dress code is futile.
"I am aware sexual harassment happens everywhere in the world," she says. "And the only way to protect us from potential harassment is through law, and not a piece of cloth. Which is the ultimate motive for the whole experiment. When there is no law, let alone logic, don't count on individual morality."
Top image: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters