Illustration by Shenuka Corea
When I moved to Saudi Arabia as a child, I was surprised that before I went out to public spaces I was told to put on an abaya, a long, dark-colored robe that covers you from shoulder to toe. At first, I was enchanted by it. The abaya looked so elegant and made me feel grown up. My younger sister did not wear one at the time because our mother didn’t think she needed to yet. I’d secretly smile to myself, because I did need an abaya. I was old enough for one and I could dress just like the adults.
After some time of wearing this dark robe, I realized I couldn’t move around as easily in it. Sometimes I’d end up tripping over its silky fabric. I had to be careful when I stepped onto escalators because the flowing cloth could get stuck in the machine. It became difficult to shop for shoes because I couldn’t try on a pair and examine the way they looked with the rest of my outfit in the store mirror. I wanted to go back to wearing my jeans and t-shirt.
When I’d bring this up with my mother she’d tell me that I was no longer a girl, that I was a woman now, so I had to wear it. I hadn’t realized womanhood meant no going back. It may seem childish to be whining about minor inconveniences like not being able to try on shoes the way I want to, but instances like this are merely symptoms of a much larger ailment.
Under Sharia law, which Saudi Arabia abides by, both men and women are told to dress modestly and not expose themselves. Despite this nuance in the law, there is a much greater restriction on a woman’s clothing in the actual social realm. Women do wear abayas as though it were actual law. In fact, they even face social consequences for not doing so.
If a woman in Saudi Arabia chooses not to wear her abaya, or wears it in an unconventional way by leaving parts of it unbuttoned or wears it in too striking a color, she is subject to nasty glares, catcalling and other unwanted interactions. As a result, mothers will often urge their daughters to cover themselves completely, to draw little attention to themselves.
The problem with telling girls to dress a certain way in order to avoid harassment is that it promotes a social attitude that absolves men of responsibility and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up. Furthermore, it creates a power dynamic in which a man’s gaze can will a woman to change her demeanor, but a woman’s gaze holds no such influence over a man’s behavior. In this system, the female body is policed which therefore perpetuates a society of male domination.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the only country with this system in place. Almost all over the world, a woman is baselessly told to reveal less in order to protect herself. Except for when it serves an ulterior purpose.
Recently, a province in another country I like to call home has passed a face-covering ban. In Quebec, Canada it is now illegal to have one’s face covered while receiving or providing public services such as riding a city bus, checking out a book at a public library or teaching or studying at a public school. While the Quebec government says it is a law to ensure security and open communication, it really looks like a law that targets Muslim women who wear the niqab or burka.
In addition to the racist undertones of this law, it also assumes women as disposable pawns that can unquestionably be used for the furtherance of a political agenda. Aside from the severe loss of identity and discomfort some women may feel at no longer being allowed to wear their niqab, lawmakers have also assumed that the female body can be manipulated without consequences.
A common argument upholding these dressing regulations in both Quebec and Saudi Arabia is this notion of culture. A Saudi will often say that it is in their culture to wear an abaya, or a Quebecois might say that religious neutrality is a part of their culture. However, as far as I can tell, it seems that a man can still uphold himself in whatever way he wants to without having to concern himself with what the culture is dictating. The thowb is a traditional garment for males in Saudi Arabia, but wearing it is optional. Similarly, while the law in Quebec attempts to apply generally, the only people that are actually affected by it are women.
Culture is created by those in power, and unfortunately in most places men do continue to exercise a greater amount of power than women. Among the ways that this power structure is perpetuated is through the mechanism of the female body which is policed and manipulated either through social ridicule, or a legal framework. In doing so, a woman’s agency and authority are effectively taken away.
Covering or not covering does not give a woman honor or dignity. Giving her a choice does.
Larayb Abrar is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]