x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

As a child, the niqab protected me; now, I protect myself

As a girl at school, the niqab protected me from the prying eyes of strangers. Now, I wouldn't allow men to disrespect me with their comments or behaviour without a rebuke.

I was nine years old when I wore my first niqab. The entire fourth grade at my 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 France and Spain consider banning the niqab and burqa, as Syria has already done on its university campuses, I couldn't help but recall my own experiences with the niqab.

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 behaviour 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.

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. Actually, I became offended on a recent trip to the mall 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.

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. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae