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Saudi Arabia: The “Faceless” Experiment

Rana Jarbou (@rjarbou) is a Saudi blogger who has decided to carry out an experiment. For a week she is wearing the niqab or face veil, to see how she feels, and to see if she is treated differently.

Rana, who is currently working on a book documenting graffiti in twelve Arab countries, lived in Saudi Arabia until she was a teenager, then lived in the US, Bahrain and Lebanon. These days she divides her time between Riyadh and Beirut.

On July 20 Rana introduced her experiment:

For the next week, starting today, I'm doing a little experiment. […] I'm going to wear the niqab whenever I'm out in the city of Riyadh.

Rana wearing niqab. Photo used with permission.

The first step was to buy a niqab:

When I went to purchase the new abaya, scarf and niqab, I had to tell the salesman a white lie. I told him it's for my sister because it would just seem odd for me to walk in with my ordinary look and walk out with a completely different look (whether on me or in a bag). […] I go to the nearest women's toilet in that mall, to do the swap. I walk out and start heading towards the gate where I was to be picked up by [the driver] Eric. So far, I can see perfectly fine. This niqab does not affect my vision. But I noticed something immediately. 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. […] I failed to mention that on my way out, I stopped by a couple of stores to start testing out interacting with salesmen. They barely look into my eyes. That was not so cool.

Rana tweeted:

@rjarbou: Wearing a niqab in Riyadh is like wearing a tank top & mini skirt in NYC. NO one stares. #faceless

She compared it to her experience of Lebanon:

@rjarbou: I just got tired of Lebanese pretending to be ‘open-minded’ & all. #Fail… I'm still a walking sex object everywhere in Lebanon. Everywhere.

On the third day of the experiment she wrote:

This ‘experiment’ gets confusing at times. Because though the purpose of wearing the niqab is in the presence of men, I have noticed that I see niqab-wearing women in many ladies sections in public places, let alone all-women buildings. It only takes a few moments to put it on, so I can't imagine keeping it on is to avoid the hassle of putting it back on. This has puzzled me, but now what is more puzzling is what I'm supposed to do for the experiment. Should I be Rana, who would find no logic behind wearing the niqab in all-women’s rooms and buildings, or should I follow the niqab ‘norm'? What is the norm?

By the fifth day, however, Rana discovered that wearing niqab doesn't make a woman immune to stares and whispers from men.

Global Voices asked Rana more about her “Faceless” experiment.

Global Voices (GV): What do you normally wear when you're in Riyadh?

Rana Jarbou (RJ): I normally wear an abaya and have a scarf on loosely or not at all… It depends on where I go. Wearing the scarf is mainly due (if not for religious reasons) to culture, tradition, or fear – all of which I am capable of defying. But I did notice there is a difference even between having the scarf on loosely or not at all.

GV: What gave you the idea to do this experiment? You have mentioned “incidents in public places with my fellow niqab-wearing comrades” – can you tell us more?

RJ: I have been reflecting on how and where the scarf and veil are worn for a while. But I decided to do this experiment in order to fully grasp, live and feel life behind the niqab. I have been in many situations in which a lady wearing the niqab would cut in line in front of me or interrupt while I was talking to a salesman, teller, or whoever. I have also observed how some women wearing the niqab treat their domestic workers in public. It seemed as though the niqab was a license for them to behave as they wanted.

And then an incident happened last week. A man had parked his car with three wheels on the sidewalk in a cul-de-sac where cars drop off and pick up shoppers. I said something to him, and he responded, ‘This is none of your business so why don't you SHUT UP!’ The security guard was not doing anything. I went into the mall, and when I came out again shortly after, the car was still there. There was a woman – wearing the niqab – in the passenger seat with her children in the backseat. I decided that maybe, just maybe, woman to woman I could try to communicate what I had failed to earlier on (because her husband refused to listen).

I told her, ‘If we all did the same thing, the place would be so chaotic and everyone would get angry, and…’ before I could even finish my comment, she interrupted me and said, ‘It's none of your business!’ in English. I responded ‘I speak Arabic, and it sure is my business – this is my country and I'd like us to respect each other and the public space.’ She responded, ‘You call this your country and you look like that? No, this is not your country…’ and carried on attacking me. Our conversation was no longer about the car parked where pedestrians walk in and out of the mall; it turned into her insulting me for not wearing the niqab.

I am generally saddened by the fact that something like a piece of cloth – and how I wear it – can strip me of my humanness, or rights as a citizen.

GV: Some would argue that the real problem is the obsession in every society with how women dress (whether equating covering up with “decency” or bare skin with “liberation”) – the use of women’s bodies and appearance as an ideological battleground. By doing this experiment aren’t you playing into that obsession?

RJ: We need to face it. This is not about right-wing French politics. It is not about ideology or religion. It is about a culture with a growing and deepening sexual frustration. My face and hair have become victims of that frustration.

In addition, that obsession seems to have been contagious, making my fellow niqab-wearing citizens make a surface judgment about whether or not I'm ‘Saudi enough’.

I was around during the 80s, and have been told about the 70s. Throughout the years, as more and more malls are built, and as we advance in technology, we seem to have hit stagnation in this debate.

15 comments

  • Harmonious Accord

    I notice a list of perceived negative aspects were offered as regards your observations of women in niqaab. So where’s the list regarding those who flaunt themselves? Perhaps they’re too well-known to mention. You seem to have offered but skewed anecdotes of your experiences subscribing to this norm of Riyadh.

    “I am generally saddened by the fact that something like a piece of cloth – and how I wear it – can strip me of my humanness, or rights as a citizen.”

    Who stripped you of your rights? The women chose not to listen to you, which could have happened if you had covered. And humanness? The word demagogy comes to mind.

  • Malonicester

    @Rana Jarbou_ through out your talk you did not mention your religion even thou you stated that you can defy religion and cultural practices as regard to wearing Niqab. Your statements also sighted that you only cover your head when you feel like depending on where you are going, i want you to know that that this is not a practice of a good muslim woman (if you are one). If you are a muslim then I advice you to get rid of that western swag in you. Coz it potrays you as some one who is campaining for western ideology in a muslims’ land. But if you are not a muslim, I’ll advice you to behave like romans when you find your self in Rome (a proverb) and always obey the laws of the land for your sake.
    Western cultures think that covering body by women is futile and back wardness. My argument here is that why do we have more prostitute and rape cases in the west than in the muslim lands. Or do they mean that prostitution and rape is humane and the best for our societies?

    • PhoebeCaulfield

      Do you think that rape and prostitution is the product of women not covering their bodies and faces? So, a rape inflicted on a woman by a man is the woman’s fault for having a body and a face, just like a man does, as opposed to the man’s fault for inflicting control and violence on another person? Is it your view that women should hide themselves- the bodies they were born into- in order to protect themselves?

    • Leila

      First of all, there must be as much or maybe more of rapes in Muslim countries. Nobody knows that because a minority of women declare it. Let not begin talking about ‘bad muslim man’ and ‘the evilish arab man’. But we all know that arab women have the virginity pressure and it will be a shame if she wasn’t a virgin, so she marries her rapper. What happened in Morocco was just an example of what happens in the rest of arab countries.
      And no matter how much the woman is not covered she doesn’t deserve to be raped, and covering herself is not the right way to fight rape. The right way is to fight it is to punish the man for doing it and taking off the shame from the woman because she’s not the one who should feel guilty about it. It’s like curing cancer with aspirin.
      Women have the right to walk as covered as they want and not feeling the fear to be raped. Wearing hijab must be only by religious purpuses not by fear or culture or tradition.

    • Maryam

      There was a case this Hajj when woman in Mecca was kidnapped by 5 Saudis and raped for a week till police find them. Do you still think that niqab makes you religious or maybe people in Saudi fell into infidelity under their black covers? Racism is practice in law in Saudi and it’s against Islam.

  • […] Global Voices bericht over een intrigerend experiment van de Saoedische blogster Rana Jarbou (@rjarbou). Jarbou, opgegroeid in Saoedi-Arabië en nu haar tijd verdelend tussen Riyadh en Beiroet, vroeg zich af hoe het zou zijn als ze een gezichtssluier droeg. Hoe zou ze zich dan voelen? Zou ze anders bejegend worden? Afgelopen vrijdag kondigde ze op haar blog aan dat ze een week lang een niqaab zou dragen. In eerste instantie voelde ze zich vrij, eindelijk verlost van al die starende blikken, niet langer een wandelend seksobject. Gedurende de week verschuift haar ervaring. Op haar weblog (Engelstalig) doet ze dagelijks verslag van haar bevindingen. […]

  • Sha

    Well, wearing a Niqab is a choice but wearing a Hejab is a must .. And please don’t start talking about women who wear a Niqab in a negative way, if you’re offended by one woman words to you doesn’t mean like they’re all the same. By that you did the same thing like some people who labels women whom are not covering their faces like “bad muslims”. And your experinces are not reliable and the time wasn’t enough to fully get the result. Believe me people see what they want to see. Like you’re looking for the negatives in people.

  • Leila

    @60296aad0b60945af3c8e14aa35540bd:disqus Actually the ‘misunderstanding’ was about the parking spot, you’re right. But it turned out to be about wearing the niqab, which the women clearly said to her that she’s NOT Saudi if she’s not wearing that piece of cloth.
    Since when does that piece of cloth decide if you’re a good or bad citizen? Actually, the man and his wife are bad citizens since they didn’t respected the right of of others in their sidewalk.
    Look at the Coran. It mainly talks about treating people well and has only few lines about the hijab. They all seem to forget it. Not all niqabi women are bad but some of them hide behind their clothes. They think they have more faith than others and take it to snob you.
    Sorry people, you’re doing wrong.

    • Harmonious Accord

      Let us not confuse issues. Firstly, let’s consider this person in the offered anecdote. Just because the woman apparently took a religious obligation as a pretext not to listen has nothing to do with the religion. This would appear to be your and the writer’s mistake. And this reaction does not now legitimise not covering properly.  Let’s not be inverted snobs by saying ‘women who don’t cover could be ‘good”, and dismiss the fact this is an open sin. So on this false basis we can now go out and commit all sorts of open transgression, simply falling back on this nonsensical concept. Islam is perfect; the people are not.

  • Leila

    Muslim people and islam is two completly different things. The women wasn’t right, and she clearly knows, since she turned the problem to another subject. It has nothing to do with islam.
    It’s an obligation to cover up, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a sin to not cover up, okay. The women shouldn’t had talked about covering for the simple reason that it has nothing to do with the ‘parking’ problem. God and the Prophet warned us about convincing people talking NICELY. If they were walking down the street and she came and talked to her about this I’m 100% ok with this. But she used it as a weapon. It doesn’t legitimise not covering, but you have to understand that she just didn’t covered up, and it’s between her and God.
    Another point. The different between a good CITIZEN and a good MUSLIM. A good muslim is not commiting sins and doing God’s orders properly(covering for example). A good citizen is good behiavior with other citizens, paying your taxes, AND not parking your car on the sidewalk and bothering pedestrians willing to get in the mall. Your nationality doesn’t determine your religion. If you’re not muslim doesn’t mean you’re not Saudi. Actually the women is muslim since she covered properly (niqab is a choice not a must). She can be a bad mulim if you think so. But the other women is the bad citizen, maybe a good muslim. 

    • Actually parking on the sidewalk is also against Islam, as there are many ahadith which forbid us from blocking the paths or even loitering too long in the path.

  • […] She decided to wear the niqab, the full face covering worn by many women in Saudi Arabia, and then write about it. […]

  • So not wearing a niqab in Saudi is like not wearing a flag pin in America?

  • What happened in Morocco is actually because of Imperialism. The laws in the Moroccan books are based on European standards of morality, with a little shariah mixed in to keep the masses at bay.

    The law that states a woman must marry her rapist is from the Bible, not from the Qur’an or the ahadith. That was never at all considered to be an acceptable solution to rape by Islamic scholars.

    So if you want to point the finger at Morocco, you also have to point the finger at all the dead, white French men who put these stupid laws on the books, and then at the ruling regime for allowing them to remain, despite knowing that they violate the rights women are given by Allah.

  • Muhammad Bilal Martins

    With name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Most Merciful

    Allah says:
    Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.). That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do. [Surat An-nur {The Light} 24:30]

    Whatever beliefs, sayings or actions that contradicts Allah’s sayings that is from shaytan (satan), the deviant and enemy to man!

    Allah says:
    Did I not ordain for you, O Children of Adam, that you should not worship Shaitan (Satan). Verily, he is a plain enemy to you.
    And that you should worship Me [Alone Islamic Monotheism, and set up not rivals, associate-gods with Me]. That is a Straight Path. [Surat Ya-sin {Ya sin} 36:60-61]

    Those Who Patiently Persevere.

    Allah says:

    Say (O Muhammad SAW): “O My slaves who believe (in the Oneness of Allah Islamic Monotheism), be afraid of your Lord (Allah) and keep your duty to Him. Good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world, and Allah’s earth is spacious (so if you cannot worship Allah at a place, then go to another)! Only those who are patient shall receive their rewards in full, without reckoning.”

    Probably we do not fear Allah much!

    Allah says:
    O you who believe! Let not a group scoff at another group, it may be that the latter are better than the former; nor let (some) women scoff at other women, it may be that the latter are better than the former, nor defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. How bad is it, to insult one’s brother after having Faith [i.e. to call your Muslim brother (a faithful believer) as: “O sinner”, or “O wicked”, etc.]. And whosoever does not repent, then such are indeed Zalimun (wrong-doers, etc.).

    Surrender to Allah.

    Allah says:
    Believers, fear God and believe in His messenger. He will show you mercy in double measure and will provide a light for you to walk in. God will grant you forgiveness. He is forgiving and merciful.
    The People of the Book should know that they have no power whatsoever over God’s grace. His grace is entirely in His hand and He bestows it upon whoever He wills. God is truly infinite in His bounty.[surat Al-Hadid {The Iron} 57:28-29]

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