Agne’s life at Al-Bayt Aleadhara continued in much the same fashion as that first day. It was monotonous, silent and heavily restricted. Every morning she was woken from her slumbers by the unzipping of her sleeping sack for prayers, then allowed to use the toilet and fed. Then it was schooling, always the same. There were sessions of Quranic recitals on the headphones, Arabic language lessons and, after a couple of days, on a on-to-one basis, some lessons on what purdah and purdah-living were.
Purdah had been mentioned on that very first day. Agne had never even heard the word before and had not a clue what it meant. She very soon learnt. Purdah, according to Hanifa, means the religious and social practice of female seclusion, that is to say, a way of life in which women live as separate and secluded from males as is humanly possible. The word itself literally refers to a curtain and, according to Hanifa, this could denote either the curtain of her clothing between her and the outside world and that of the walls and windows that surround her.
Which was all well and good (or not), but Agne struggled to see what it had to do with being gagged and encased within a stiflingly hot rubber catsuit. As she was allowed the limited use of her hands and a notepad in these sessions, she asked the question and, as always, Hanifa had an answer.
“The thing is Saaliha, women must remain hidden because of their awrah. What is this awrah? Awrah is our attraction; our shapely figures or tempting voices. Even an elegant turn of the wrist can turn a man wild with desire, let alone the curves of our buttocks or breasts. So our prophet decreed that women should shield themselves from men, pull the veils over their faces. Which is proper and good, and that explains why we wear the clothes we do and live in separate quarters, even from our husbands. Yes, even them, for while it is lawful that they can share a bed with us, is it truly helpful if they are continually distracted by our curvaceous forms or heavenly voices? No, the only interaction between a man and a woman should be lovemaking, when he has a need to fulfil, either to produce offspring or just to release tension. Aside from that, by His alluring design, we merely cause havoc and chaos and so should be shielded from them completely. The clothes hide our forms and the gags our voices. It is as Allah wills.
“But, there is more than that. Say, in the course of lovemaking, your husband uncovers your veiled face by accident. Can you imagine the fitna – that is to say, chaos – that can result from this? It is terrible! He may fall totally in love with you and desire you constantly, seeing you in his dreams and needing you always at his side. Which is bad enough as it is – for he has many important tasks to fulfil – but what about his other wives? You see, Muslim men are allowed to marry four times, indeed, it is recommended that they do, for a man’s sexual needs are greater than a woman’s and so several are necessary to fulfil him. And if one has a comely face and the other is ugly, then surely he will favour that wife over the other, when our faith teaches us that all must be thought of equally. Similarly, if one speaks in the bedroom and she is clever with her words and has a beguiling voice, whilst another has a thick accent and has not had the education to make her speech poetic, then what fitna may ensue? These have been problems for over a thousand years and so, around ten years ago, developers in Egypt, at the ICT – Islamic Centre for Technology – created the first purdah suit. Based on ancient covering practices, suits like the one that you are wearing mean that pious and dedicated muslimahs can stay covered and anonymous 24/7. It really helps in eliminating the poison of western thinking which says that women should have a personality beyond that of their religion and their husband and, I am sure, it will cure you of many of your ills too. The purdah suit goes further than pious women have in the past. It limits what you can do with your hands, focussing your mind on religious necessities and, because you cannot converse with your sisters except in carefully monitored sessions, the opportunities for gossip, slander and poisonous backbiting are eliminated for the first time in history. Under the purdah that we practise today, the women of Saudi Arabia can become what Allah always intended them to be: pious objects who can breed Islam into a bright future.”
Her words were so terrifyingly awful that Agne did not respond. She could not think of a suitable reply to make.
One addition on her second day was most unwelcome. During her first session of Quran recitals, her arms were unfastened and then guided behind her back by Hazirah. Then something was fitted over them. It was a sort of white leather pouch which held them, palm-to-palm, behind her back in a most unnatural position. After they were fed into it – which was discomfiting but not overtly painful – then the ensemble was laced, forcing them closer together. The ache on her shoulders was agonising and she would have cried out in pain were if not for the gag in the mouth. On that first day, the device – called a monoglove by Hanifa – was not laced fully, but over the days that followed it was tightened progressively so that, after a fortnight, her elbows were pressed tightly together behind her back. Wearing it, she felt almost completely helpless, like a baby, although thankfully after a short period, her arms would go numb due to the lack of blood getting to them and only a dull ache in the shoulders would remain. The monoglove was removed for every prayer time thereafter, and when the blood flowed back in she would get pins and needles, but then, straight afterwards, it was always refitted and the ordeal would begin afresh.
After two weeks in Al-Bayt Aleadhara (and the purdah suit), there was another change to the routine. This was both welcome and disturbing but, as with everything else, Agne was powerless to do anything about it.
That morning, after she was woken and had performed her prayers, Hazirah fed her as usual. However, something was put into the food which made her extremely weak and drowsy and caused her head to become fuzzy and everything unfocussed. Then, when she was in such a state, barely conscious, Agne found herself being lifted onto the bed and then her piercings, jewellery, cuffs and collar were removed. The maid then disappeared but a moment later Hazirah approached her with a knife. Agne was petrified but could do nothing to resist. Hazirah brought the knife down on her, but then she realised – vaguely – that rather than meaning her charge harm, she was simply cutting off the suit! The process took a considerable length of time and the stench of dried sweat was overwhelming, but the feeling of air on her skin was heavenly. Once divested, she was then carried over to the bathroom where her wrists were cuffed to chains attached to the wall. Hanging there, Hazirah blasted her body with warm water, then soaped her thoroughly all over, before cleaning her meticulously, even in her most intimate areas. She was then rinsed and detached from the wall. Her mouth was then seen to with a thorough rinse and her teeth cleaned. After this she was carried back to the bedroom and a new purdah suit, identical to the last, brought out. Hazirah then carefully oiled her all over and fitted the suit. This took over an hour but, once it was done, the cuffs and collar, piercings and jewellery were also refitted, before she was allowed to rest and recuperate. After another hour or so, her head cleared and she began to feel almost normal. Then Hazirah returned, dressed her in her veils and monoglove and she went for prayers and lessons as normal.
Having had her suit changed and a thorough wash, Agne felt cleaner and brighter, but the state of mind she had been in during the whole process worried her. They had clearly drugged her and she felt upset in her heart that, when looking back, the only time she was free of the hateful rubber suit, she could not recall or experience properly. Indeed, to look back on the changing was a vaguely frightening memory, which was odd since she could remember no outright terror during the changing itself, it was just very uncomfortable to remember, as if the drugged memory itself destabilised her. From now on it seemed that her life was to be a wholly rubberised one with no respite whatsoever.
As the weeks passed, things got a little easier in some respects. As a naturally intelligent girl who already spoke two languages, Agne started to pick up Arabic and, once she could write basic notes, managed to engage in basic conversations with her “sisters”, Kaneez, Batool and Nasrullah. They were all much younger than her, ranging from fourteen to seventeen in age and had lived extremely sheltered lives. They never questioned anything they were told nor thought about much save for the day they got married and how they hoped to become good wives. If she had an idea that was slightly out of the ordinary, they would gently and politely try to steer her away from it and would reiterate the Islamic mantras that Hanifa taught them day in day out. And so, although she welcomed this basic human interaction, her conversations with these Hanifa-appointed “sisters” constantly irritated Agne and, at night when she lay motionless and sweating in her sleep sack, she cried as she compared them with her real sister who had always helped her with her confidence issues when she was growing up. Her sister always made sure that those issues never defeated Agne and when she was overly invested in what people thought of her, she taught her that, ultimately, that was of no importance and that what matters is to have confidence to believe in herself and to abandon the need for approval from the opposite sex. She longed for her sister to be there now, providing support and guidance, empowering her unlike these fake sisters who merely sapped at her will, but then wept when she thought of how horrified she would be to see her in such a situation like this, being prepped to serve the needs of some controlling husband and religion.
Starting to master Arabic also meant that she could now understand some of the Quran verses that were being pumped into her ears hour after hour, day after day. The melodic recitals had an almost hypnotic quality to them but the content was always disturbing. Agne began to realise that what bits of the Islamic holy book she was allowed to hear were carefully selected, for the same passages kept coming round again and again and they were always the ones dealing with the status of women and the role of wives. Phrases like, “The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females”, “Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will” and “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed.” all swam around her head in both her waking and sleeping hours and, because they were always there, after some time she began to start doubting that they were wrong.
When her Arabic was up to a certain level, after she had been at Al-Bayt Aleadhara for about two months, Hanifa declared that the “heathen” tongue of English would no longer be permitted and Agne was taught purdah classes with the rest of her sisters. These classes detailed how women should behave when married and much seemed to be about satisfying the sexual whims of their husbands. She was told that when the husband wants sex, it is her duty to acquiesce and in the manner that he desires. She longed to protest and object to such outright misogyny, but with her arms dead and firmly laced into the monoglove, this was impossible. Sometimes though, the lessons were even more chilling than that. One time Hanifa told them the story of Someya, a young wife of only sixteen years, whose husband was “extremely pious” (read, “misogynistic and controlling”) and so he forced her to wear contact lenses at all times that blinded her (which she was “honoured” to do according to Hanifa), and then there was Samira, a young wife who had been caught “pleasuring herself in a sinful manner” by her equally pious husband. This prompted a long lecture on how masturbation is essentially adultery to your spouse and it was finished off by Hanifa proudly telling them that this marvellous husband ordered the amputation of his wife’s hands to be replaced by soft, foam replicas so that, when gloved, she looked normal, but they could never be used to provide her with any sexual pleasure. Almost as scary were the discussions she had about forms of “salat” where women’s “pleasure centres” were “cut” to stop them pleasuring themselves and increase their piety. Although a virgin, Agne had previously fondled her nub from time to time and greatly enjoyed it although, due to her faith, she had always felt slightly guilty afterwards. Of course, nothing like that had happened since she’d entered Al-Bayt Aleadhara as the chastity belt and restraints meant that she could get her hands nowhere near her clit or slit, but even so, the thought of losing that ability or even her hands themselves was harrowing.
And so, life settled into a mind-numbingly monotonous routine and, although she managed to cope on one level and could engage more and more due to her increase in understanding of Arabic, Agne found that coping became harder and harder. Perversely, one of the greatest issues was that of fitness. Ever since she had entered high school, Agne had been an exercise nut, a real gym bunny. She went most night of the week and loved cardio, running and swimming (although she hated weights with a passion). Consequently, she was accustomed to having a toned, healthy body with firm thighs and abs, and feeling the exhilaration that a good workout can bring. She was also becoming aware of how flabby she had started to become, with squishy thighs and buttocks when she squeezed them through the layers of rubber and this destroyed confidence her more than anything. She longed to engage in some sort of exercise, however limited, even though she knew it would result in overheating due to her rubber encasement, and so, one day, she approached Hanifa during the relaxation hours and asked if this could be accommodated.
“I’m sorry, Saaliha, but that is not possible. The activities here at Al-Bayt Aleadhara are very strictly prescribed and exercise is not one of them. However, many purdah-living women do engage in exercise after marriage, depending on their husbands. If their husbands allow it, then why not? Indeed, some husbands allow their wives many freedoms, too many in my opinion. I have heard of wives who go swimming – albeit in special purdah swimming costumes – or jogging or on machines. There are also women who are allowed the free use of their hands at all times and even some limited speech. But things like that can only come after marriage and, so far, you have told me that you are not willing to contemplate marrying, so I cannot help you.”
This was true. It was clear from the very first day that everything at Al-Bayt Aleadhara was geared up to marrying the virgins in its care off to some religious misogynist. Most of the girls were excited about such a prospect of course, so strict had their brainwashing been, but Agne could remember a better life and so she had resisted. However, as the weeks passed, entombed in her sweltering prison, with nothing to occupy her mind and a constant bombardment of propaganda designed to make her doubt herself, she wondered just how long she could hack it. After all, Hanifa had made it quite clear that she would remain in Al-Bayt Aleadhara until she got married and, indeed, one day she had even spoke to the virgins about a young lady who had lived there for over twenty years before a suitable spouse had been found for her. Could she cope with that? Certainly not! And while the alternative of being married off to a stranger with mediaeval ideas about women and how they should be kept was not appealing, surely it was better than that. As the days passed and the Quran verses flowed through her head as she sat in enforced silence and stillness, she began to fantasise about finding a husband who allowed her to jog again, even if it was in a purdah suit. And, slowly, those fantasies went further. She imagined bringing him to such pleasure in the bedroom that, despite not seeing her face or hearing her voice, he fell in love with her. They would communicate with notes and then, one day, he would order her purdah suit cut off and they would embrace as humans. Indeed, he would only think the way that he did because of his misogynistic father and, once she had liberated his mind, he would understand the joy and truth of treating women as equals, not chattel, and would curse the evil of his religion and together they would leave for the west where he would renounce Islam and embrace his true saviour, Jesus Christ.
So it was that, one evening, during relaxation, she wrote on the notepad in Arabic, I am willing to consider marriage. Hanifa hugged her and then showed it to the others who all clapped their gloved hands. But, she then added, there is one condition.
What is that?
I am allowed to exercise regularly.
I shall start the search for a spouse tomorrow, wrote Hanifa