Tag Archives: niqab

a free and open society in the Arabian peninsula … mirage or reality?

We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.

Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:

And here is the Saudi side of the border:

Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.

So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!

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hijab etiquette

The first time I visited Saudi, I spent a lot of time obsessing over my hijab. How to keep it from slipping off my head? Why do I look so dorky in it? How do Saudi women deal with hijab hair and arrive at parties so well-coiffed?

My first solution was to adopt the niqab (the face covering). I discovered that by tying that around my head, the hijab wouldn’t slip off my head. Plus, I could easily blend into the crowd with it and not attract attention. But, as anyone who has ever worn a mask knows, it’s not pleasant breathing in your own warm breath all the time. Also, as you can see by this photo, I could hardly pass for a properly dressed Saudi woman. I couldn’t even put the niqab on correctly (there’s just supposed to be one slit for the eyes, not a second one across the forehead).

This is the only photo of me in the niqab. I’ve never worn it again since that first visit except when I had to go to a wedding. This brings me to my main topic, which is hijab etiquette. This doesn’t apply to the Saudi women I know, who always wear a hijab and niqab no matter where they go outside the house. But for me, I’ve learned that there are certain situations where it is optional and others when it is ‘better’ if I have it.

When in the house, or in the hareem of others’ houses, there is obviously no need to cover my hair. But if a male is present (e.g. brother-in-law, uncle of husband, and any ‘stranger’ – but not husband, father of husband, or pre-pubescent nephew of husband), I should pull on the scarf, even if just loosely.  Of course I have some lee-way as a westerner; a Saudi woman in the same situation would likely cover her hair and face, or avoid being in the same room altogether.

Outside of the house, I usually wear the hijab while in the car and walking outdoors. But if I am in the mall or some fancier restaurants, I usually feel comfortable enough to take my hijab off. But only if I am on my own. If camelman is with me, I wear it. We learned that lesson the hard way (sort of), but that’s another story.

By the way, my solutions to-date to the questions above: put hair up in ponytails/bun/hair claw, get bangs, and use lots of hairspray. Bobby pins come in handy too, and a pair of cool shades.