A Shop Apart
by Emily W
The elevator doors opened and Janet joined the large group stepping out of them. The elevator was large, it could accommodate well over fifty people. It was also made out of glass which meant that its occupants would watch as it ascended and descended the floors of the mall. Among the people exiting the elevator were Arab men in traditional dress and women in all covering black niqab. There were also Arabs in more Western clothing and Westerners as well.
The mall was located on a small Arab island Emirate. Flushed with oil wealth it was fabulously wealthy. A fortune was spent on making its buildings opulent beyond imagination. It was popular with Arabs who liked its more relaxed atmosphere than several of the more conservative Gulf states. It also received a boost from many of the Western tourists who came to admire its beautiful cityscape.
Janet was one such tourist. She had flown all the way from Britain to visit the island Emirate. Here it was a possible to experience much of the thrill of visiting the Middle East but without much of the danger. She had spent her first day of the journey just riding around the city, taking pictures of all the buildings. She then visited several places of significance and on this day she was touring what was currently the largest shopping mall in the world.
She had purchased a few souvenirs. Some were modern clothing from fancy department stores. Others were Middle Eastern themed items. As she left the elevator she was getting ready to leave the mall when a shop caught her eye.
Most of the stores in the mall where elaborate and huge. They were made of spaces far larger than what a shop back home would normally occupy. However, the shop Janet saw was very different. It occupied barely more space than the entrance. The windows were covered in curtains so one could not see inside. Janet felt intrigued and approached the shop. She tried looking through the cracks between the curtains but could not see anything.
Finally Janet opened the door to the shop and stepped inside. The interior was a complete surprise. Most of the shops in the mall were ultra modern. This shop looked like it belonged to someplace else entirely. The walls were a faded tan color. The floor was clean but worn. Against one wall were some old shelves with neat piles of black cloth on them. On the other side of the wall was a counter with an elderly Arab woman behind it. She wore an abaya but no niqab.
“Welcome,” the Arab woman said in a friendly but not terribly enthused voice.
“Oh, uh hello,” Janet said. She remained just inside the shop with the door slowly coming to a close behind her.
“Do you need help?” The Arab woman asked.
“Well, I was just curious what was in here.”
“We sell abaya and niqab.”
“Oh.” Janet had seen plenty of Arab women dressed in such a manner during this trip. While she always tried to be understanding of other cultures she found the practice a little more than objectionable. And yet, she had to admit she was curious about what life was like underneath one of those things. To have one’s face hidden from the world.
“You want to try one on?”
“Yes.” The answer came without hesitation and almost surprised Janet. Before she knew it her bags were on the ground and she was being led into a small changing room. A simple chair sat against a wall with a standup mirror in the corner. The elderly Arab woman placed a small stack of black clothes on the chair and then disappeared out of sight.
Janet remained still in the room for a moment. Her heart was beating hard. Why was she so nervous? She was only trying on clothes. It was not like she was changing her life.
Janet began by stripping off all of her clothing except for her underwear. She then began to work on the black clothes on the chair. First were a pair of black stockings. These appeared to be about knee length. Janet supposed that made sense. In a culture where seeing even a piece of a woman’s body was not allowed all possible cautions would be taken. She pulled one of the stockings up onto her leg. The material was a little thick and fit snug around the lower half of her leg. Next she pulled the matching stocking onto her other leg. She paused to look at herself in the mirror. Save for the stockings and her own underwear she was nude. She could only imagine the riot she would cause if she went outside in this state.
Next she took out the black trousers with an elastic band waist. She pulled these up her legs until they passed the stockings and soon she was completely covered from the waist down. The trousers were a little baggy which helped to conceal the lines of Janet’s legs. Next she put a couple of black sandals onto her feet. And then a blouse soon joined them and soon only her head and lower arms were visible.
The next item was a pair of elbow length black gloves. She contemplated these for a moment. Most of the women she had seen who wore the niqab at least had their eyes and hands free. However, some preferred to have their hands covered too. Janet pulled one glove on and then the other. She looked down at her concealed hands, each finger covered in black. She thought about how strange it was, that her hands might be so sexual that they would cause men to be driven crazy with lust for her.
When she looked at herself in the mirror only her head was not covered in black. However, her figure could still be more or less perceived. This was soon remedied by the abaya. When Janet put it on she found her figure now more or less obscured from the view of men.
Next came the hijab which left only her face free. Janet admired the look in the mirror. In a way, it was kind of fashionable. If she had been born in this part of the world she would be dressed like this everyday of her life.
Next came the final piece of the outfit. Janet looked down at the niqab, almost with a sense of unease. Millions of women had to cover their faces with this exact same piece of cloth. Janet lifted it up and worked in place. When she was down her eyes were looking through a narrow slit. She turned to face herself in the mirror.
A stranger looked back at her. A stranger whose body was covered except for the eyes. Janet looked up at the niqab and realized that there was more to it. She had seen a couple of women who took the protection of their modesty to such an extreme that they wore transparent cloth over the eye slit. Janet raised a curious hand up to one of these layers and pulled it down.
Everything in front of her gained a black shade to it. She could still see her reflection in the mirror but it was through a haze. She reached up and flipped another layer over her eyes. Now everything was much dimmer. She could still make out the basic details of the room and the mirror where she saw a black mass looking back at her. Her hand reached up and brought down the third and final layer. It was as if someone turned out the lights. Slowly, Janet’s eyes were able to make out the very most basic details of the room, but that was it.
Janet proceeded to lift the veils, one by one until her eyes could see through the slit in the niqab again. If she had been born in the Middle East it is likely that she would have had to spend her entire life dressed like this when she was out in public, assuming she was even allowed in public. Her role in life would have been confined to the private sphere. The public sphere was for men. Janet tried to make her eyes look modest and submissive in the mirror. Despite so little of her face being visible, or perhaps because of it, her eyes seemed to convey more expression. Janet was an ardent feminist, and yet the idea of being a woman trapped in a traditional role in a patriarchal society was beginning to feel intriguing, even a little exciting.
An idea formed in Janet’s mind. She left the changing room and proceeded to pay the woman for her new clothes, then with her previous outfit in a bag she left the shop with the abaya and niqab still on and the veils pulled down over her eyes.
Janet felt a rush inside of her. It was like a game, she was pretending to be someone else. Completely concealed in black, no one would be able to tell just from looking at her that she was really British. The other veiled women in the mall would look at her and assume that she was one of their veiled sisters, in fact they might even marvel in awe of her for being so modest that not even her hands or eyes were visible.
Of course, it was difficult for Janet to observe the reactions of others as the veils over her eyes dimmed her vision. She was able to make out the white of men and the black of women, their traditional clothes distinct from the environment.
Janet walked through the mall, just another black ghost amongst the many that were here. Every time she passed a person she wished she could know what their thoughts were, their presumable assumption that she was another Arab woman completely concealed from the world. She found herself enjoying this game of make believe. She tried lowering her gaze tilt towards the ground. She tried to assume a posture of someone who was trying not to attract attention to themselves.
At one point she stepped into a fashionable clothing shop that she had stopped at earlier. As she traversed the store she looked at the stylish clothes on display through the shrouded vision afforded to her by the veils. She had actually bought a couple of outfits from here and yet now she was wandering the store in the most extreme form of modesty.
Janet spent the remainder of the day dressed life this. She even outside in the blazing hot sun. Although it was uncomfortable she still enjoyed this game of pretending to be a veiled woman. She went out to eat at a restaurant and practiced bringing food up underneath the niqab.
When the sun was beginning to descend in the Western sky Janet returned to her hotel, but did so in her niqab. She felt the eyes of all the foreign guests as she entered. They likely thought her one of the local women. She smiled at the thought and as she rode the elevator up to the top floor she reflected on the day. How many people had seen her and assumed she was an Arab Muslim woman?
When she arrived in her hotel room she laid down on the bed, her niqab still on. It had been quite the adventure today. As eye hers slowly closed and she drifted off to sleep she thought about whether or not to go out dressed like this tomorrow.