by Kris O’Donnell
Am I showing too much flesh? That man just turned and looked at me again. He should be lowering his gaze. I don’t want to be a cause of fitna. Here I am out with my sisters. I call them my sisters, though they are really just women related to men approved by my husband. We have been out together because it’s indecent for a woman to be out of the house by herself. Some people think that even five women out together is not quite proper – we should all be accompanied by male family members. I thank God that my husband permits me to leave the house in the company of other respectable women, though I remember my grandmother saying that a truly devout woman should leave the house only twice in her life: the first time on her wedding day, and the last time when her body is taken to be buried.
I thought that I was dressed modestly. This morning, after putting on my bra and panties, I picked up a pair of thick, dark blue stockings and rolled them on to my legs. They reached above my knees, and I made sure that they wouldn’t fall down by fastening garters around the tops of the stockings. Then I put on a long, dark blue skirt, which came down to just above my ankles. I bunched my hair up and gathered it together in a French pleat, and then covered my head with a tight-fitting skull cap, so that none of my hair was showing. It was then the time for me to put on my under-gloves. These fine white cotton gloves reached above my elbows. The last item of the clothes that should not be visible was a loose, long-sleeved shirt, which hung down below my knees like a Pakistani qameez. This buttoned up to the neck and had Velcro at the wrists so that I could make sure that the ends of the sleeves were tightly secured.
Now was the turn of clothes that were likely to be seen. My colour theme for the day was dark blue, so I took out of the wardrobe a full-length abaya. This garment has a hood to cover my head, long loose sleeves, and falls to the ground like a long gown. When I was shopping on-line for abayas, I noticed that they were often embroidered and decorated, but I believe that fancy garments are more likely to attract attention, so I bought nothing but plain abayas. I went for dark colours – black, charcoal grey, midnight blue and deep brown, and today it was the turn of the midnight blue abaya.
I know that many sisters would consider that, once they put on their plain, flat-soled shoes, they were dressed modestly enough to appear in public. To my mind, however, I was still virtually naked, a walking temptation and distraction to any man. I believe that a woman must cover her face, and guard her voice, when in public or in the presence of men who are not their husbands or other family. I didn’t want to speak inadvertently in public, so I decided to wear a gag. Sometimes, I would simply cover my mouth with a scarf, or roll a scarf up tightly and tie it across my mouth, but today I decided that I should wear a gag. I first considered a simple ball gag – this is a rubber ball that fits inside my mouth, tied to a piece of elastic that goes round my head. But I thought that this might not be sufficient, so I picked up a heavy inflatable rubber gag. This has a leather strap to secure it round the head, and when the strap is buckled, it’s even possible to lock it with a small padlock. I decided to use this gag, and to leave the key to the padlock at home, so there would be no temptation to remove the gag once I was outside.
The gag itself took some effort to fit inside my mouth. There’s a rigid tube through the middle of the gag to allow for breathing and also for drinking (if I use a straw or a drinking tube). At the outside end of the gag, the rubber is moulded to allow the gag to be gripped by my teeth. Once the gag was in, I inflated it by squeezing on a rubber bulb attached to a tube running into the gag. There is a one-way valve to stop the air coming out again until I’m ready to take the gag off, and I can detach the inflation bulb when the gag’s fully blown up. I buckled the strap as tightly as I could, fastened a small padlock onto the buckle to stop the gag being released, and then gave the inflation bulb a couple of extra squeezes to make sure that the gag filled my mouth as completely as possible. I was now mute, and so my voice could not be a source of fitna.
My husband permits me to leave the home, so long as I am in his company, or in the company of modest married women of good family, and he approves of my silence in public. He tells me, when we are alone together, that he likes to hear my voice from time to time, but he recently brought back a book written by a distinguished scholar who offered proofs that women’s voices should never be heard. It seems that some researchers are investigating methods of temporary or even permanent voice nullification. This might involve either medication or a surgical procedure to take away a person’s ability to speak, or even make any sound with the voice. I sometimes wonder what it would be like not to have the power of speech – I still think I’d like to wear a gag anyway, as a physical reminder of my silence.
Except for my shoes, I had only three more items to put on. First was my niqaab. When I married, I promised my husband that he would be the only man who would have the right to see my face. Even my father, who is close enough to be permitted to see me without my various coverings, agreed that it would be proper for me to save my face for my husband alone (what I’ll do when, God willing, I have a son, I don’t know yet). On my wedding day, before we left the house, he took one last look at my face and told me that the final look would have to be enough for the rest of his life. He was passing me on to my husband, and it was now up to my husband to govern who could see me and who could not. Since then, I have even preserved strict silence when in the presence of my father, who has not heard my voice since the day of my marriage.
My niqaab is dark blue, like the rest of my clothes today. I have various designs of niqaab, and the one I’m wearing today has a high upper section, with an elasticated strap that I can secure round my head. The lower part of the niqaab hangs down to cover my face and my chest. There is a gap for my eyes, and on the inside of the niqaab the eye space is covered with a very fine transparent gauze. This makes it easy for me to see out, but also for people to see in. I pinned the niqaab to the hood of my abaya to make sure that it didn’t slip. I could lift the hanging part of the niqaab slightly if I needed to drink something, but otherwise it dangled down to my waist.
I was nearly ready, but one more item needed to be put on. This was my khimar. As I was already wearing a hooded abaya and a niqaab, many people would think this was modest enough, but I wanted to make sure that the shape of my body was not visible, so the khimar was the final touch. I chose a khimar that came down to my knees, so that the abaya and my underskirt would potentially be visible, and again this was a plain and simple garment in dark blue. However, my hands would be concealed under the khimar. The khimar was closed in front and came over my head. I needed to pin it to the niqaab on either side of my face to stop the khimar slipping, and I held the end of the niqaab away from my face so that I could fasten the khimar at the neck with a brooch, and then allowed the niqaab to fall outside the khimar.
I was now dressed, and I picked up a handbag with the various necessities for my walk into town with my friends. I went out to the lobby of our house, put on my shoes, and as a final touch I put on a pair of outer gloves, made of soft black leather and covering the wrists of my qameez. Lastly, because the qameez was white, I put on a pair of dark blue over-sleeves, which were elasticated at top and bottom, and could be pulled up as high as the tops of my arms. Looking in the mirror in the lobby, I could see my eyes, but the rest of me was covered with at least two and in some cases four layers of clothes.
I didn’t have to wait long for my friends to arrive. We all lived in the same street, and our husbands knew each other well. As always, we were all silenced, so we could only bow to each other in greeting. I recognised, from their general shape and their clothes, the two wives of Abdal-Razzaq bin Ali, and then Mrs Qureshi, and her daughter bint Faisal. By the way, I should mention that, although we all have personal names, we don’t use these in public. We believe that a woman is her father’s daughter, her husband’s wife and her son’s mother. It’s getting increasingly common for girls not to be given names at all, and they are just known as the daughter of their father until they marry. I’ve noticed over the last few months that my husband has stopped using my given name, and just calls me “wife”. He’s also shown me something that he had downloaded from the internet that argues that it is sinful for women to express a personality, which is reserved for men. The document gave a long list of behaviour that could be interpreted as expressing a personality, including using a name of your own, rather than being named by reference to a man.
Mrs Abdal-Razzaq senior was the oldest of us, and she was used to taking the lead. She and her co-wife were wearing layered niqaabs. These had two outer layers of a gauzy fabric that could be thrown back over the head or allowed to hang down over the eyes. I wished now that I’d worn one of my layered niqaabs, because they allow for greater modesty. Not only is it more difficult for other people to see your eyes, but with the first layer, and even more so with the second layer, it’s hard for the wearer to make out more than blurred shapes. So when you have both layers down, there’s less chance of seeing something that would excite or tempt you, like a good-looking man. It’s also true that men respect the modesty of women to a greater extent the more we cover ourselves.
Anyway, it was too late for me to go back and change, so I joined the other women and we began to walk slowly towards the public library. This is a fairly modern and airy building with a lot of glass and polished stone, located in the main square. We like to go to the library in the mornings because it’s reserved strictly for women until 3PM, and there’s always a police officer outside making sure that men don’t go in until their time comes round. The library has a café where respectable women can drink (and even eat if they are not wearing a gag or are able to remove their gag). What we really like about the library café is that at each table there are some electronic communicators. We can type things in and read on the screen what we are “saying”. Before we can start our conversation, we have to log in. The system keeps a record of all conversations, and our husbands or guardians are notified that we have been using communicators. If they want, our guardians can read our conversations. Although the two Abdal-Razzaq wives and Mrs Qureshi logged on, as did I, bint Faisal just sat still. When the system loaded up and we could start our conversation, Mrs Qureshi explained.
“My husband discovered that daughter had been looking at inappropriate web sites, so as a punishment she is not permitted to use the internet or any communication device for the next month. Also . . .” and at this point she lifted up bint Faisal’s khimar and opened her abaya, “daughter is not permitted to use her hands in public.”
We saw that bint Faisal was not wearing gloves with separate fingers but rather her hands were covered with black plastic spheres. Inside, her hands must have been in fists, and she could certainly not pick anything up or type on a keyboard. To add extra security, bint Faisal was wearing a thick leather belt round her waist, which had been padlocked, and the spherical gloves, which had convenient rings attached, were also locked to rings on the belt. So bint Faisal could not move her hands at all. By the way, I’ve heard that many women nowadays have their hands restrained in various ways. Bint Faisal was restrained rather severely, (though at least her father hadn’t confined her to the house, and was still allowing her to go outside. Some women have their hands fastened to belts by short chains, which allow them some movement, but means that they can’t raise their arms or use their hands for visible gestures that could tempt men who happen to be watching.
We chatted on for some time, and then decided to order drinks. On each table, there was an order pad and a pencil, and we filled this in and then pressed a button to summon a waitress. She soon returned with five bottles of soft drinks. Mrs Qureshi had to hold bint Faisal’s drink up to her mouth, but the rest of us could sip our drinks discreetly through straws while we held the bottles underneath our niqaabs. When it came time to pay, Mrs Abdal-Razzaq senior typed into her communicator that she would settle the bill. She took a debit card out of her handbag – the card was in the name of her husband, and the maximum amount that she could charge to the card was limited. Some banks’ debit cards are designed so that when they are used by a woman, the account holder is contacted electronically and has to give his agreement to the expenditure, but this card could be used by Mrs Abdal-Razzaq for any spending up to a particular limit. We used the communicators to thank Mrs Abdal-Razzaq for her generosity, logged off the communication system, and left the library.
And now, as we go down the steps of the library, I’m confused and unsettled. There’s a man staring at us – no, staring at me! Doesn’t he know that he should lower his gaze and move away? Does he want to be tempted into sinful thoughts? Will I distract him from his devotion? He looks normal enough – he’s dressed, like so many men, in a simple white thobe, sandals, and a kufi skull cap, and he has the beard of the devout believer. I heard once that a great shaykh, who normally looked only at the ground when he knew that women were near, accidentally happened to look at the eyes of a woman outside his place of worship, and for three weeks he was unable to pray because this single glance had created improper thoughts. If this could happen to one of the best of men, then I could easily be the cause of this man’s fall into sin.
Ah! What a relief! He’s turned away. Well, I’ve learnt an important lesson today. A woman can’t be too modest in public. When I get home and my husband returns from work, I’m going to ask if we can surf the internet shops and see what’s available so that, next time I go out, I won’t be such a walking temptation. Should I ask my husband to find some new, more conservative, friends, whose wives dress even more modestly than the Abdal-Razzaq wives? There are many women who would regard me, veiled as I am, as utterly indecent and unrestrained, and I feel indecent myself. So maybe it’s time to pay attention to the teachers who say that the ideal woman is one who is still, silent, and suppresses all personality, so that she cannot lead any man astray but serves her husband in perfect modesty. Can I be the ideal woman? At least I can try.