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Saudi Arabia: The “Faceless” Experiment

Categories: Middle East & North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Ideas, Religion, Women & Gender

Rana Jarbou (@rjarbou [1]) is a Saudi blogger [2] who has decided to carry out an experiment. For a week she is wearing the niqab [3] 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 [4]:

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 [5]:

When I went to purchase the new abaya [6], 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 [7]: 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 [8]: 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 [9]:

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 [10] 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 [4] “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.