Women debate each other about the niqab, which is the word Saudis use for the black, tie-on cloth made specifically for covering the face; I once sat through a table-pounding niqab argument among three Riyadh feminists, one of whom insisted that any modern woman who “chooses” to veil her face does so only under pressure from the oppressive society around her. “This is the issue.” Sami, behind the wheel, said, “When we go out to shop or something, I feel people look at her.” “Staring,” Noof said. Staring.” The most disturbing stares, the ones that rattle Sami, come from men. He wears black-rimmed glasses and has a short beard and a gentle countenance.
“So I’m—‘Please, Noof, cover your face,’” Sami said. “My answer will be, this guy, he’s a Muslim, but he doesn’t follow Islam in the right way,” he said finally. “If I fight with the guy,” he said, “that means I fight every day.” Noof chuckled.
Although he encouraged women to study and work, the nation still lags behind many other Muslim countries when it comes to employment opportunities for women.
The change came in the 1980s, as conservative Islamist movements were burgeoning throughout the Middle East. Couples walking or driving in public together were forced to show police their marriage licenses.
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Saudis were amused by my efforts to grasp this “depending” part; it was like a newcomer to American culture interrogating one woman after another about the rules for displaying cleavage.The Saudi government, its legitimacy threatened by such upheaval, enlisted religious police in a kingdom-wide crackdown that imposed upon all Saudis the rigidity of its most conservative cultures. And central to the conservative crusade was the castigation of women: for succumbing to Western influence, for appearing outside the home without male guardians, for speaking in voices that might distract or seduce men, for dishonoring God by failing to drape themselves completely in black.In Arabic, Muslims use the word awrah to mean the more private parts of the body, those a respectable person always covers in public.“So he doesn’t look to see my wife.” I wondered about the Prophet Muhammad’s declaration that men have their own obligation to turn away from temptation and disrespect. “Sometimes I’m telling Sami, ‘The guy has to stop staring, because this is our religion. “This man thinks, ‘She doesn’t cover her face because she likes people to look at her face.’ They think like this.” I said that in many societies it was not uncommon for a man, when troubled by the way another man was contemplating his wife, to threaten to punch his lights out. “Too much effort,” she said, from behind the black of her scarf. Try it.” I was wearing a tarha and tried to rewrap like Noof: twice around tightly, with the remaining scarf length pulled over my face.The cloth was sheer, evidently woven with this purpose in mind, and outside the car windows things were dimmer and grayer, but visible. because a female Saudi acquaintance with a mordant wit had suggested that the fraying abaya I’d been wearing for weeks might best be retired by burning it.