Marianne took a deep breath and looked out over the hall in front of her. The entire audience, several hundred of them, were on their feet clapping. She had worried so much about this beforehand, tossed and turned in her bed, petrified that they weren’t ready for what she had to say, that she would be met by stony silence… or worse. But no, it had been an astounding success! She had played the room and won and it was the proudest moment of her life.
“Mme. Depont, please, we were very inspired by you! Can we have a photo together?” asked an excited young girl, all swathed in black, her sparkling eyes peeping out between the cloth. Marianne felt both sorry for her at having to wear such oppressive clothing, but also heartened: this was exactly the sort of person she wanted to reach out to; she would be the feminist future of Saudi Arabia. She smiled at the camera and then shook her velvety, gloved hands. “Would you like a coffee with us afterwards?” she asked.
“I’d be delighted!” she replied, pleased to be able to get to know some local women better.
And so, when the crowd had dispersed, she joined her new friend. She was now accompanied by another woman. She wore even more oppressive clothing though, being one of that small minority of women who even covered their eyes. Marianne peered at her and felt sad in her heart. She wondered how she could see at all, for the cloth was so thick that nothing could be seen at all of her eyes. “Why don’t you flip back your veils?” she asked her.
It was the other girl who answered: “Her husband does not allow it. Indeed, he rarely allows her out of the house. He also forbids her to speak to strangers. He says that this is what Islam teaches.”
Marianne was shocked. She’d always thought of Islam as backward, oppressive and misogynistic, but this was taking things to a whole other level. “That’s awful!” she exclaimed.
“But she still wants to talk to you but to do that we must find somewhere more private. Across the road is a restaurant with separate rooms so that families may dine together and women may unveil. Shall we go there?”
“Of course, yes,” replied Marianne, eager to speak to this poor woman.
They made their way out of the building and across the road, the girl with free sight holding the hand and almost guiding the other so that it took considerably longer than it usually would. Once inside the restaurant, the waiter showed them to a private room and then tea was brought. “Please, ladies, you may unveil now,” she said once they were inside the room and the waiter had gone. The heavily-covered figures nodded and then the other girl leaned over and flipped back the veils of her covered sister. When she saw what lay below, Marianne gave a sharp gasp, for behind the cloth, instead of a smiling human face, was a blank mask of shiny rubber, all in green, with small holes at the nostrils, two geometrical groups of holes over where the eyes should be and, at the mouth, a pair of obviously false red lips. And, if that were not shocking enough, going through the shiny rubber, presumably into the flesh of the girl beneath, were numerous piercings: studs in the cheeks, an ornate dahlia piercing above the faux lips, medusa piercings either side of the mouth and three golden rings at the nose, from which were hung golden chains that looped towards the ears, rather like Indian bridal jewellery which Agne had seen once at a Hindu friend’s wedding. And then, from these chains hung numerous golden pendants whilst, from the ring through the septum dangled a large emerald.
“What on earth…?” cried Marianne, stunned by what she was witnessing.
The rubber masked woman reached out a pair of gloved hands. In each one was a card. She seemed to hesitate, as if unsure of what to do, and then handed the left-hand card to Marianne.
Deep inside her rubber purdah suit, Agne was torn. On one card was written a warning: Beware! Get out of here whilst you still can! Do not drink the tea, it is drugged! Save yourself from a life of perverted restriction and domination!
And on the other the words that would allow her to prove herself, please her husband and become a mother: I wear a purdah suit, Mme. Depont. My husband insists on it. The suit keeps me silent and modest at all times. I would love to talk to you about my life as it is very different to your own.
Marianne took the proffered card and read the words written on it. Her eyes widened as she did so, then she smiled and picked up the glass of tea that was standing on the table. “I have not heard of a purdah suit before, please tell me more about your life…”
But even as she was speaking she began to notice something else; a drowsiness was overtaking her, she was struggling even to say the words on the tip of her tongue, indeed, she was struggling to even think.
Hanifa leaned over, placed her gloved hand on Marianne’s and said, “It will be alright, sister, it will all be alright. Allah has already blessed her with all the freedom she needs, and soon He shall bless you too…”
And as Marianne’s world went black, Saliha smiled into her gag, pleased that she had made the correct choice, pleased that she had finally put the troubling ghost of Agne to bed and already imagining the bump that would soon be growing in her belly.