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Rym Tina Ghazal Headshot

Single in the City: The Niqab and I

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I was nine years old when I wore my first niqab.

The entire fourth grade at my all-girls school in Saudi Arabia joined the older girls wearing the niqab to "protect" us from the prying eyes of the crowd of drivers that waited outside the gate at the end of a school day.

As the face cover or veil continues to stir controversy in parts of the U.S. and Europe, particularly in France, I couldn't help but recall my own experiences with the niqab.

Depending on which part of the Arab and Muslim world you are in, there are different designs and versions of the face veil.

In the UAE for example, it is common to see older generations of women wear the traditional burqa, pronounced "burga." It is one of the oldest items of dress in the Gulf region, and it is a mask that was traditionally worn by girls when they came of age. Quite different from the head-to-toe one-piece cover used in Afghanistan, also called a burqa, the Gulf burqa is a traditional, metallic-colored red or golden embroidered cloth used to cover part of the face.

In my case and that of most of my friends in Saudi Arabia, we would either let our black head scarfs fall over our face completely or use it to wrap around parts of our face, with just the eyes showing to help us see. I remember how we would often have to sit outside in the heat in our abayas, squeezing into the shaded areas on the school premises, waiting for the guard to call out our names at the end of the school day.

"Rym! Rym Ghazal, ya Ghazal!" the guard would yell into the loudspeaker, informing me that my driver had arrived to take me home.

I used to hate to pass by that crowd of men, who would sometimes point and lean in from behind the metal barrier, watching the girls go to their cars. If a driver leaned too far over, the guard would yell at him to back off and stop disrespecting the girls.

It didn't always work, and it remained an intimidating part of our school routine.

While, of course, women shouldn't be the ones to compromise and make changes around stupid, rude men, I have to admit that I felt much better hidden behind the niqab as I walked through the gate and to my car. Behind the tinted windows, I would simply take off the niqab, and off we would go home.

I used to wonder as a child how my driver knew it was me when I was surrounded by other covered pupils. When I asked him (he'd been with my family forever and was pretty much my second father), he felt comfortable enough to tell me: "You walk like a boy."

In my case, the niqab gave me a sense of anonymity that helped to strengthen my fragile confidence as a child walking amid an unfriendly group of strange men.

But as I grew older, I wouldn't allow men to disrespect me with their comments or behavior without a rebuke. I didn't need the niqab as long as I dressed modestly, and sometimes wore the abaya out of respect for the place, but that is just my personal experience.

Sometimes it is actually used against you. I know some people judge and criticize the women who cover their faces when they go out to certain places and don't want to be recognized by people there. I would hear things like "Oh, she is trying to hide her identity 'cause she is sitting with a man who is not her husband."

But if she didn't cover her face, then she would be at risk of shaming herself and her family.

There are so many pressures on women in conservative societies that they really have to be careful about their reputation and with whom they are seen and where. It is, of course, not the same standard for a man.

Generally people should be free to dress as they see fit, in the latest style or completely covered up. It is really no one else's business. But at the same time there should be some respect for the values of the place where they happen to be.

Dress code became a hot issue this year in the UAE, and I can't blame them, since sometimes I feel that what some women wear here they wouldn't even dare to wear back in their home countries.

Actually, I became offended on a recent trip to a mall in Dubai with my seven-year-old godson.
Two women "forgot" certain undergarments and showed us way too much skin when they leaned over, leaving the boy laughing and me embarrassed.

At the same time, I don't want to just pick on women. Some men need to close up those buttons, as well. If I wanted to see that much chest hair then I would go to a zoo, not to a bookstore.

But I know the minute any dress code is enforced we get into the area of personal rights and right and wrong. On the whole, family-orientated places like malls and conservative places where people worship should encourage more modest clothing just out of respect and, well, tradition.

I also like the idea of us wearing our traditional clothes more. They give us character and an identity.

But there is no need to be excessive. Some Muslim women in France started to wear the niqab in defiance when they previously didn't even wear an abaya. So it has become a case of confrontation, where both sides could spend their energies on far bigger problems like poverty or high unemployment, problems that are actually in need of a solution.

An Emirati woman, aged 83, said it best. She told me she wears her burqa to "beautify" herself.
"It hides all the wrinkles and helps accentuate the eyes," she said. "It is not an object of repression, but an accessory to our traditional clothes and beauty regime."

By banning the niqab and burqa we are not really helping anyone. A truly repressed woman has far bigger problems than what she wears on her face.

So while largely perceived from a Western perspective as a suppressive mask designed to conceal a woman's facial features, I have to admit the niqab was my shield. It helped me walk more confidently around sleazy men.

Now, I simply step on their toes with the heel of my shoe.

Rym Tina Ghazal is a senior feature writer and columnist for The National Newspaper.