by Dave Potter
Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
I have decided to put pen to paper after visiting this website many times over the years and reading so many of the fabulous stories here all about women who veil. Whilst I have enjoyed more or less all of the stories however, I have noticed that so many of them are about veiling told from the point of view of the woman, and that is why I have written you this story, my story which tells everything from the eyes of a man, a man who loves veiled women.
My name is Sahrul Gunawan and I am a normal Indonesian boy. I am a good Muslim and I respect the Creator (SWT) but I am not so religious as some guys. I come from the province of Aceh in a small village by the sea named Leupung. My childhood was a happy time. We lived in a large wooden house on stilts and everyday I used to play on the beach or in the groves with all the other local children. And so it continued until I was twelve but then on one terrible day everything changed; the great tsunami of 2004 hit my village unexpectedly and destroyed everything, killing most of the people that I’d grown up with and shattering our lives completely. Thanks to the mercy of Allah (SWT), I was in the city at that time, visiting my uncle and so I and all my family were spared, but our house and livelihoods were gone. From that day on we lived in the city whilst our home was rebuilt and when it was complete it was decided that the rest of my family move back but that I stay on in Banda Aceh with my uncle as I was a good student and that is where the best school and college were.
When I was growing up veiling was not really a part of our lives. It is true that Aceh is probably the most religious part of Indonesia, (it was our province that was shown the Light of Islam first!), and occasionally you saw some girls in niqaab but not so many. My mother and sisters wore tudungs (headscarves) but that is all and as we weren’t so religious, it was not likely that they would wear more. But after the tsunami you started to see more covering, perhaps because people now knew first-hand the true power of the Creator. But me personally, I did not notice it until one day at college I passed a girl walking in the precinct. She was dressed head to tow in black and the most beautiful pair of dark eyes stared out from between her veils. I was in love immediately! Even though it was only her eyes that I saw, I knew that she was all beautiful outside and inside. Everyday I saw her and everyday she captivated me. But, being essentially a shy man, I said nothing.
How can I tell you about my feelings for these veils? Well, in one way I hated them because they were a symbol that always we would be apart but at the same time I loved them; loved how she was pious enough to keep herself covered for her husband alone. I knew that any girl in veils would be a good modest girl.
And so it was that I watched this girl. I found out which classes she was in and casually waited outside, if only for a glimpse of her beautiful eyes. And so this continued for one month, maybe more. I learnt that she had two different types of veils, sometimes the khimar like I saw her wearing at first and on other days a more standard Arabian style but with a blue dress underneath. Both were beautiful in their own way, I cannot say which I preferred. Instead I just liked to watch her glide along, her heavenly eyes perhaps glancing towards me and as I watched I dreamt that one day I would be together with this angel. How can I tell you about my feelings for these veils? Well, in one way I hated them because they were a symbol that always we would be apart but at the same time I loved them; loved how she was pious enough to keep herself covered for her husband alone. I knew that any girl in veils would be a good modest girl.
But I tell you, when this dream did come true, I did not know where to put myself! One day she came out of her class but instead of gliding past she walked straight up to me and asked, “Why is it that you’re looking at me?”
“I am not,” I replied.
“Yes you are, I see you, everyday, waiting to look at me. Why is this?”
What could I say? I was so embarrassed. “Sorry,” I muttered.
“But why are you sorry, Sahrul Gunawan?” she asked.
“How do you know my name?”
“And I thought that you were watching me because you recognised me from Leupung!”
“You lived in Leupung?!”
“Yes, I am Nurismawati Nuraini!”
Nurismawati Nuraini! I couldn’t believe it! We had played together as children everyday! “Do you wish to go out for a coffee?” I asked.
“Of course!” she replied.
So that was it, the girl of my dreams was one of my best friends from childhood. Like me, she had escaped the tsunami and had settled in Banda Aceh because of her studies. What I did not understand however, were the veils. After all, as a child she had always worn her head uncovered, just a T-shirt and shorts and her family were not religious at all. “We escaped the tsunami because we were in the city visiting my mother’s sister,” she explained, “but my father was in Leupung. That night he had had a dream telling him to go to the mosque and pray for his sins and so after breakfast he did and when the wave struck he was inside the mosque and survived. When he realised that Allah (SWT) had spared him he became very pious and devout and grew a beard. We are all good Muslims now.”
So her father had become religious, but what about her?
“But do you like wearing all those clothes?” I asked. She frowned. “We are not here to talk about that,” she said, “but I do because it is the right thing to do, my duty to my father.” After this I said no more but I felt that she perhaps wasn’t as happy in her new life as her father was.
That night as I lay in my bed I wrestled with my feelings about Nurismawati and her veils. On one hand I was so happy because the girl that had fascinated me so much was in fact somebody I knew. The Nurismawati that I had played with as a child had been a happy, lively girl and I recalled her face then and tried to imagine how she would grow up to look, then trying to link that image with those enchanting eyes peeping out from behind the veil. All the images that I conjured in my mind were heavenly and I longed to see her adult face and grew angry with those veils for keeping it from me, yet at the same time I loved them for it was those veils that had created my mystery girl and drawn me to her. If she had just been wearing a T-shirt and tudung, would I have even looked at her twice?
My feelings were confused too about what those veils symbolised: a religious, modest and chaste girl whom I could love all the more, yet at the same time totally off-limits when I longed to be with her totally, all of the time. And then too was the feeling that I had from the tone of her voice that her father was the motivator behind the veiling, not her. Was she happy being covered up like that, would she not prefer to be free? Yet at the same time, being so dutiful I found made me long for her even more, body and soul. In the end my head swam and spun, unable as I was to get this veiled beauty out of my mind and it was not until four in the morning that I eventually drifted off.
Over the months that followed, we became the best of friends, meeting up everyday and talking about different thing. Underneath that niqaab she was still the same Nurismawati that she always had been, energetic, lively and fun and more than ever I was deeply in love with her. Slowly I gathered up the courage, ready to ask for her hand in marriage but then some six months or so after we talked that day I got a second shock.
One day I arrived at her house ready to escort her to school, (this had become a daily practice for a month or so, her family trusting me totally because they knew my parents in Leupung, when instead of the usual Nurismawati, a different figure came out, clothed in much thicker and heavier robes than usual and most shockingly, wearing a veil over her eyes.
Whilst in the house I said nothing, but as soon as we were outside I asked her.
“What if I want to wear eyeveils?” she answered defensively.
By this time I knew her too well to accept this answer. “There is something more,” I said.
“Well, if you must know, my fiancé has asked that I wear them.”
“Yes, last night was my engagement ceremony.”
My anger, fear and helplessness all rose up inside me. “But how can you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you realise, I love you Nurismuwati, with all my heart. I have always loved you! I was going to ask for your hand!”
She bowed her head.
“I must do my duty.”
“But what about your happiness?”
“Happiness comes from being dutiful, Sahrul, you know that.”
“And wearing those eyeveils and us being torn apart, does that make you happy?”
She did not answer, but turned her head. I could hear her sobs and tried to comfort her but she pushed me away.
From that day on we stopped going for coffees and walking to and from college together. As an engaged woman it was not appropriate, particularly since I had declared my love for her. But a life without Nurismawati was not a life worth living for me and I knew that I had to see her again and give it one last chance, and so I went to her home one evening and asked to see her. To my relief, whilst all her family were out, she was in and to my surprise, she was happy to see me. The maid showed me to her room and left us in privacy.
“You are lucky, Sahrul; if my father had been here we would never have been left alone.”
Even in her room she was fully veiled. She had on the blue dress that I liked so much with a black headscarf. Her face was covered with a thin piece of black cloth but under that I could make out another full head covering with two circular cut-outs for her eyes that were faintly visible beneath the cloth. Her features were picked out by that cloth and I desired her more than ever.
“How are you, Nurismawati?” I asked.
“I am fine,” she replied, but the voice was distant and unconvincing. “And you?”
“Without you my life is empty and meaningless.”
She laughed a nervous laugh. “You are just saying that, you will find the perfect girl soon.”
“You know I shall not.”
She got up and paced around. “You are so young and immature, Sahrul, you know nothing of the world.”
“I am several months older than you.”
“Boys mature slower than girls!” With that retort I could sense the old Nurismawati returning.
She sat down on the bed beside me and faced me.
“Is there any hope for us?” I asked.
“You know there isn’t.”
“Well then, as this shall be our last meeting, I just have two things to say. The first is that I love you now and always shall love you with all of my heart, Nurismawati.”
“And the second thing is a favour: May I have a kiss for old times’ sake?”
“But what about my niqaab? I am not allowed to remove it.”
“Then through the niqaab.”
She sat in silence for several seconds and then nodded slowly. “I shouldn’t but I will. I owe you that much.”
And then slowly she leant over to me, my lips met the fabric of her niqaab and we kissed as only true lovers can.
It was the happiest moment of my life.
After that day my life changed completely. I tried not to think of my veiled love but it was impossible. Can you believe it but I had never even seen her face or touched her skin after the age of twelve and yet I loved her so deeply?! My days passed like a dream; I concentrated on my studies and at home I just watched TV. Then college finished and I knew I had to get away. I went to Jakarta to find work and got an office job there. Then I applied to an agency for working overseas and Allah (SWT) smiled upon me for I was accepted go and work in Saudi Arabia as a construction worker. This I knew, was my golden opportunity, for the money was good, I would be aware from the heartache of Aceh and Indonesia and I would in a country where veiling is compulsory for all women. The departure was not for a month, so I returned home to spend my last few weeks with my family in Leupung. In the village everyone was so proud of me, a simple Leupung boy going off to Saudi, and I was invited to everyone’s house. After my first week though, the biggest honour of all came; Mr. Toer, the main landowner in Leupung invited me to his home to eat.
I went over and was greeted my Mr. Toer, a pious and wealthy man. There was a great spread laid out before us, but what interested me most of all was his wife. She was sat in the corner of the room, silent and unmoving, clothed entirely in black. Her face was veiled entirely with a veil so thick that I doubted she could see much through it. I found the image intensely erotic for some unknown reason. I imagined living like that, unseen and unseeing, shrouded in veils all day long, never seeing the sun except through the filter of thick black cloth, subservient to the will of your husband and master. Oh, that I could have had a wife like that! But there would only ever be one wife for me and she, like Mrs. Toer, was married and veiled now. Married to another man.
Mr. Toer went across to his wife, took her gloved hand and guided her across to me. “And may I present my wife, Mrs. Toer to you, Mr. Gunawan.” I greeted her and she nodded and then was guided out into the women’s quarters. When he returned Mr. Toer said, “Forgive her for not speaking, but she observes extremely strict purdah and does not speak to strange men. But of course, you are not so strange to her; I believe that you played together in your youth. Her name before marriage was Nuraini, Nurismawati Nuraini.”
I flew to Saudi Arabia soon after that and stayed there for no less than eight years. Every Friday, my only day off I would go to the shopping mall and watch the veiled ladies glide past, some with eye veils, some without. Whenever the dark eyes of one of them caught mine, I recalled the day when I first saw Nurismawati in the precinct at college and whenever I saw one so heavily swathed in black that she needed help walking along, then I recalled my beloved’s situation now, silent and unseen, living in the strictest of purdah. Was she happy or sad? Did she ever think of me so far away? As I had done every night since first seeing my veiled Nurismawati, I wrestled in my mind my contradictory feelings about the veil.
And all the while my fascination with the veiled female form and my longing for Nurismawati gre stronger and stronger.
After eight years had finished and my contract was up, the boss told us to go back home as the recession was biting and there wasn’t the work. I wasn’t sad for during my years in Saudi Arabia, with no diversions beyond watching the veiled ladies, I had spent nothing and earned much and so it was that I returned to Leupung a wealthy man. I decided to build myself a house with some of the money and with the rest I set up an import-export business which eventually became extremely successful. When I returned I was again the toast of the village and the pride of my mother and sisters whose only regret was that I was not interested in doing what every good Indonesian boy should do, and get married.
When I set up my business I was approached by Mr. Toer to do a deal and again I was invited to his house. Part of me knew that this was a bad idea as it would only reopen old wounds, but at the same time part of me burned to see how Nurismawati was and to glimpse her veiled form once again. And so it was that I went and asked Mr. Toer how his wife was.
“Wife? No Mr. Gunawan, whilst you were in Saudi Arabia there have been changes.”
“You are divorced?”
“Not at all, but now the word is ‘wives’ for I have taken a second one. The first could not get pregnant and so I took another but alas, even though we have been wed for five years, she cannot get pregnant either.”
He then sent for his wives and two identical black shrouded forms appeared before me. Which was my love and which was the second wife? There was no way of telling, but the news that Nurismawati now had to share her husband with another shocked me deeply. To think that she was now but a number, to be used on alternate nights by Toer. The idea was strange yet somehow also exciting.
This may sound strange to you, but that sight shocked and disturbed me more than anything else before. During all those long years in the Gulf, watching the veiled women at the mall, I had known that I would never be with my beloved Nurismawati, but had gained some solace in the fact that when I returned to Bandah Aceh, I could at least view her veiled form someday, but now, when she was one of a pair, how did I even know which wife it was that I was looking at?! Cut off from my last, tenuous link with my love, I succumbed to the pressures exerted by my mother and sister and announced that I was looking to be married. My only stipulation being, that the girl whom I wed be a good musilmah and what’s more, a niqaabi. Everyone assumed that this was because, during my years in the Gulf, my faith had intensified to the fact that I wished my wife to be pious and modest but in fact, the real reason was that the only wife there would ever be for me would be the one that Allah intended me to have, Nurismawati, and since she was denied to me, I could at least pay tribute to her in having a wife who dressed in the same manner. And more than that, if veiled, I could always imagine that that hidden form by my side was Nurismawati.
A matchmaker soon found a suitable girl, a niqaabi was an inland village named Lintang. I shall never forget our engagement ceremony when, in the presence of both families and the imam, she walked out of her simple wooden home swathed all in black with only a pair of dark eyes showing, her sister holding her hand, and sat down before me.
As I gazed at her I wondered, could I love the person beneath those veils?
Then, as is the custom, she undid her niqaab and for a few second revealed her face to the world. She was pretty. I was relived. She looked friendly and kind. Perhaps I could love her after all? Then, before I had time to gather my thoughts, the veil had been replaced and she was led back into the house.
Our wedding, some weeks later, was a grand affair, one of the largest that the village had seen and attended by everyone. Well, almost everyone, for Mr. Toer left his wives at home as befitted their state of purdah. But my Lintang looked like a real Sumatran princess as she entered by chamber, her face obscured by a beautiful bead veil and her body clad in the traditional wedding sarong outfit. At that moment I felt that maybe I could love her. “Keep the veil on my love,” I whispered as I undressed and prepared to consummate our union.
After our wedding night I set down her new life to my wife. I requested that she remain veiled at all times possible, wearing a thin veil to cover her whole face, even in bed. Like a good Indonesian bride she agreed without question but I should have known then that our union was doomed. After all, how could it work when I kept her hidden so that I could imagine she was someone else?
However, we did stay married for a whole year and Lintang did adhere to my rules, but one day I returned home from work unexpectedly and found her sobbing on the bed. I rushed to her and asked what was wrong but she at first said ‘Nothing’ and when I pushed it, refused to tell me. This made me angry and I stated that if a wife cannot be honest and open with her husband, then why are they married?! This made her sit up and explain things. She was crying because although I was not a bad man, she did not love me, but another; a boy from her village that she’d grown up with and who was now heart-broken because she was married. She had married me only because her parents had ordered her to and she could not betray them. At this point I realised that I had become the thing I hated; that I had taken someone else’s Nurismawati off them. I ordered her to stay in the room and drove straight to her village and sought out this boyfriend. Then I took him to our house and told him to enter our bedchamber. Lintang was still sat on the bed, a red scarf over her face and a black tudung on her head.
“Is this the man you love?” I asked.
“Lintang, I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!” I pronounced.
Both her and the boy gasped.
“Please, marry this man and pursue your happiness and take this money for your family and to build a new life!”
Then I gave them $5000 and they thanked me and kissed my hand before leaving. Never in my life have I felt so happy and good but what it meant was that once again I was alone, with only my dreams of Nurismawati for comfort.
And one would imagine that that would be it but it seems that Allah (SWT) saw my act and smiled upon me, for that evening my mother came rushing into my house shouting, “Have you heard the news?”
Immersed in my own sorrows, I had heard nothing.
“Mr. Toer, he has died of a heart attack; the landowner is no more!”
I looked to the heavens knowing who the true agent of change was and my thoughts were not of Toer but of his widow. I put on my best clothes and went to the house to pay my respects. Both wives were there and I bowed to them and then asked to speak to the first in private. She assented and we went into the chamber.
“Mrs. Toer, you are now a widow and our faith states that we should help widows. I come therefore to ask for your hand in marriage!”
“Sahrul, how can you think of such things when my husband is not yet fresh in his grave! Could you not wait a little?”
“Nurismawati, I have waited for almost a decade, I cannot wait anymore! Give me your answer, tell me my dream can be realised!”
Silently she came to me, lifted her eye veil with her black gloved hand and I saw those dark, bewitching, beautiful eyes for the first time in eight years.
“Is that answer enough for you?” she replied.
And so it was that six months after the demise of Toer, and almost ten years after I first saw those bewitching eyes, we wed, my veiled Nurismawati. After we married and retired to the bedroom, I sat my new wife down on the bed and asked her as to how she wanted to live her life. This was an important pont for me because, as I have explained to you already, I both loved and hated her veils and purdah; loved them for the way they looked, the way they hid my precious jewel, yet hated them because I suspected that my love wished to cast them off and go around face free, just as she had done as a child. However, as we sat there, I was surprised to hear her words.
“It is true Sahrul, that when my father first ordered I wear the niqaab, I resented it, and too that when my first husband decreed that I spend my life in complete purdah, I was upset and broken inside, but over the eyars I have grown used to it, grown to like how protected I feel, so special and hidden that now, I would be afraid to bare even my eyes, let alone my whole face. Besides, I am afraid that people seeing me now would be disappointed, for the last time that my face was shown in public, I was sweet sixteen, yet now I am approaching middle age and my face is lined. Therefore, I request you humbly my darling, to please let me remain in purdah.”
I granted that request of course, delighted that my two aims in life were happily both realised: I had my Nurismawati who was happy living how she wanted to, and I had a niqaabi wife also. I realised then, that in a strange kind of way, I owed Toer a debt for if he had never come, she would have never lived in purdah with full niqaab willingly. And so it is that I and my Nurismawati have lived happily ever since. We have three strong daughters and two strong sons now and both daughters and mothers are veiled. And so it is when I look across the table at the veiled form opposite and try to catch a glimpse of those beautiful eyes underneath, then I know indeed how blessed I and my beloved Nurismawati truly are. As for her face, well, like everyone else, I prefer to remember her as that sweet sixteen year-old and so I too have never removed those veils and instead I have a wife with enchanting eyes who will always be as beautiful to me as that day she swept past me in the college precinct.
And that dear reader, is my humble story and I hope that it adds to your understanding of the niqaab.
Copyright © 2009, Dave Potter
Story inspired by a conversation with Bo_Emp, the Flickr pictures of fifi.love.veiled and Nurismawati, the Indonesian TV show Ta’aruf and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.