Copyright © 2019, Dave Potter
Rashida was most surprised when her father called her and her mother into the men’s quarters following dinner. He only ever did that when there was something important to announce and so it was this time.
“My dearest daughter,” he began, “I have called you and your mother here because I have received a marriage proposal for you.” Her heart leapt at those words! She was eighteen now and had just finished her schooling at which she had been extremely successful, passing all her exams. So it was that she expected to be married soon; after all she was of age and fully educated, but even so, so soon!
“That is excellent news Iqbal!” exclaimed her mother.
“That is not all,” continued her father, “for you haven’t heard the best of it yet. The proposal is from none other than Bashir al-Taweel, the eldest son of Waleed al-Taweel.”
“Not the al-Taweels who own the largest chain of furniture stores in the country and are said to be worth over a billion dollars, Iqbal?”
“Allah be praised! You must accept, Rashida!”
“Wait, for there is a condition and the al-Taweels – who are a very pious and upright family – insist that it is made and that the choice to embrace it be done with free will. I agree with them, for it is a large condition Rashida; if you reject the proposal, I will not be angry.”
“What is it, father?”
“That upon marrying Bashir, you embrace full purdah and wear a purdah suit 24/7.”
That night Rashida tossed and turned in her bed. The proposal was a good one, of that there could be no doubt. The al-Taweels were so far above her family in wealth and status that it was a great honour to be asked. But embrace full purdah?! That was a big ask! She’d had a schoolfriend who’d gone down that path a year ago and Soraya had discussed potentially doing the same, but it was something that she had never even considered. She was a modest girl of course; always covering her hair and wearing a jilbab when with women; and then putting on a single-layer niqab and gloves around men and in public, but a purdah suit was something else. What would it be like? Would she be able to cope?
The following morning, she met with her father. “Have you decided yet?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know, dad. The honour is great, that is true, but I don’t even know what a purdah suit entails, let alone whether I could adopt to living in one.”
Her dad smiled. “That is understandable, and it is also something that your potential fiancé has foreseen. He gave me this note when he made the proposal. It gives the name of a shop – al-Moultazimoun Clothing in the Ad Dirah District – with the specifications of the purdah suit that he would expect you to wear – the Umm Safiyah type. He suggests that you go along there and try one on to see if you could live that way. How does that sound?”
“That sounds excellent, dad. It would really enable me to decide, one way or the other.”
“It is decided then. I do not have to work today, and this is a priority, so we shall drive over there straight after breakfast.”
The journey in the car to Ad Dirah was not far. Rashida sat in the back with her mother wondering what the purdah suit would be like. When they arrived at the al-Moultazimoun Clothing Store, they found that it was a large establishment with adequate parking at the rear. Thus, they parked the car and then entered the shop. A male assistant greeted her father and asked him what they were after. He replied that they were thinking of buying a purdah suit and quickly they were directed to the lift and told to select the third floor.
At the third floor a veiled female assistant was waiting. She asked why they had come, and her father explained that they were looking for the purdah suits. “We have an extensive range of purdah suits, sir, from the extremely modest to the lighter designs. What level of modesty do you required precisely?” Her father then explained that Rashida had received a marriage proposal which, if she accepted, would require her to adopt full purdah in one of their suits. He handed the girl the card which she took in her gloved hand. “The Umm Safiyah, one of our moderate to light designs. Indeed, the al-Taweel family are some of our most regular and respected customers and we were forewarned that you may be coming here. We can accommodate the young lady’s needs, certainly. However, sir, as purdah suits require undressing and as they are essentially underwear, this area of the store is not permitted to male customers so, may I recommend that you retire to the café on the fifth floor for a complimentary drink and I shall send for you when your daughter here is ready?”
Rashida’s dad left and the two women remained with the assistant. She beckoned them to follow her to the changing rooms, pointing out some of the displays on the way. “This suit here is the Umm Soraya, the lightest we have. It is made of the same breathable material as our burkinis and allows both sight and speech. Here though, is the Umm Amaani, one of our stricter designs. As you can see, there is no possibility for sight but hearing and speech are also fully prevented. The rubber is thick also, a full 4mm which further prevents movement and induces modesty.”
Rashida looked at the suit and shuddered. Surely no one could be expected to live in something like that?!
They got to the changing room and Rashida was ordered to strip completely. This was a trifle embarrassing since the shop assistant was a stranger, but she realised that it was necessary to fully don the suit. As she removed her clothes, the assistant commented, “Your long hair is lovely, Miss al-Juhani, but if you were to embrace full purdah it would have to go. The Umm Safiyah suit, like all our purdah suits, is designed for the wearer to be bald. However, for the purposes of today, it can be tied back, and the ponytail pushed through a hole that we have provided especially on our demonstration suit as many girls considering embracing this pious lifestyle also have long hair.”
When she was naked, Rashid covered up her private area, but the assistant seemed nonplussed as if it were normal for her to witness such an intimate sight. Instead, she brought out a bottle of baby oil, donned a pair of rubber gloves, and started to rub her customer all over. The feel of the stranger’s hands rubbing the oil into her body excited Rashida in a way that she did not fully understand, and she gasped whilst below she grew moist, although thankfully, no one noticed due to the wetness covering her skin due to the oil.
When fully oiled, the suit was brought out. It was made of black rubber and the assistant let Rashida and her mother feel it between their fingers. “2.5mm thick, far less than the Umm Soraya, but still a good thickness,” she commented.
The fitting started with the feet. Rashida placed hers in the suit and it was worked up her legs, the assistant smoothing it over as she went. When they got to the crotch there were holes over her two intimate holes which, she assumed, was to allow for toilet purposes. Even though the fitting had only just begun, three things struck Rashida: the heat, the tightness and the smell of rubber. Would those three things become a regular part of her life in the future?
Over her torso the suit went, with a zip at the back which was zipped up when they got to the neck. Her breasts had separate cups to hold them, almost like a built-in bra except that these covered the entire breast save for a hole at the centre of each one, through which her nipples poked out. The contrast between the heat inside the suit and the breeze outside, caused those nipples to harden which embarrassed the young girl somewhat.
Rashida was somewhat disappointed to discover when the suit was fitted over her arms that each sleeve ended in a sort of mitten. This wasn’t padded so she had some dexterity, but it was a single paddle save for the thumb which meant that doing things with her hands was now far more difficult.
Her hands were left alone, and the hood was now seen to. This required some careful fitting as it had an elaborate internal gag which had to be positioned in her mouth precisely (there were special moulds to accommodate her teeth) and then inflated. This was not a pleasant process as the assistant proceeded to inflate it far more than Rashida thought necessary, her jaw being jacked open to the maximum and causing a little pain. However, it did effectively silence her for when she tried to speak, only the slightest groan was possible. A silent life; could she manage such a thing?
The rest of the hood was then fitted, it going over her face and being zipped up at the back, her ponytail carefully threaded through the aforementioned hole that would not be there should she choose to embrace such a suit permanently. Inside, the rubber pressed in all around while the gag forced her cheeks out. The smell was overpowering, but that was naught compared to the effect on her sight, for the eyeholes were not large, a mere centimetre across and then covered with a mirrored lens to hide the humanity behind them. This eliminated much of her peripheral vision and caused the world to become darker, covered with a grey sheen. Most disconcerting though, was how her sight, now behind a lens, seemed second-hand, like she was watching the TV. Indeed, coupled with the diminished sense of touch and her seclusion from the world, her whole life seemed to be experienced second-hand.
Two things that were not affected however, were here hearing and her breathing and for this she was grateful. She’d heard that some of the stricter purdah suits incorporated breathing tubes that went down the nostrils and she certainly didn’t fancy that.
Rashida had assumed that she was now dressed, but she was mistaken. Around her middle was placed a leather garment that was fastened at the front and then laced at the back. It squeezed her waist and made her a little short of breath but improved her figure somewhat. “This is called a corset,” explained the assistant. “It is included as part of the suit because it helps you maintain your posture and also makes your body more alluring for your husband. As your husband will never see your face or hear your voice, this is one of the key ways you can build a bond with him. It also has the added purpose of covering your breasts and preventing lewd fondling.” Rashida now noticed that the corset incorporated two cups, larger than her breasts, that went over her boobs. These were rigid and so, through them, no touching of her breasts was possible; another modesty measure.
An item was now fitted around her neck which the assistant said was also about posture. This was a high plastic collar which, although not laced like the corset, kept her neck rigid and also hid both the zip fastener for her hood and the main part of the suit. Wearing it, the whole ensemble was effectively locked on and irremovable.
Next came a pair of underpants in rubber that covered the holes over her intimate areas and then, to Rashida’s shock and dismay, the assistant took her arms one by one and manoeuvred them behind her back, fastening them in place across the small of her back, wrist to elbow using some sort of belts attached to the suit. This posture, not easy to achieve, forced her breasts out further in a rather provocative way.
“Now the suit is on, Miss al-Juhani but, as I said earlier, this is only your underwear. Please walk around a little to see how it feels.”
Rashida strolled around the large changing room area. The suit felt extremely strange and disconcerting. The rubber squeaked when she moved, and she could feel the baby oil slipping about between her skin and the suit. The slightest movement caused the heat to rise which troubled her – she was hot already and as she moved only got hotter still. How would she cope out of the air conditioning in the hot Saudi sun? More troubling though, was something that she had not noticed previously: the two ankles were connected by a thick rubber strap. It was flexible to a degree, but prevented her from taking her usual longer strides, instead transforming her walk into a feminine mince. It was yet another element of control over her life.
She walked about the room, looking through the mirrored lenses, experiencing everything second-hand as if she were in a computer game or dream. A dream that would become her reality soon? She did not know if she could live like this and accept Waleed al-Taweel’s proposal, even though it was a great honour. Inside the purdah suit she felt confined and restricted, no more so than her arms. It was weird not having them for balance, not being able to use her hands to touch and hold things. She did not like it, just as she did not like the rubber that pressed in all over and the corset that squeezed her middle.
When she had done a few laps of the room, the assistant put her gloved hand on her shoulder and said, “We shall get you dressed now, Miss al-Juhani, and then you are to go out in the suit. Your fiancé asked in his note that you wear an outfit similar to those worn by his sisters, mother and other female al-Taweel family members. I have one here ready.”
Most of the outfit was pretty standard. There were stockings to cover her rubber-clad feet and a loose jilbab that differed from her usual ones only in that it had no sleeves or hand holes. Then a headscarf was wrapped around her head, framing her rubber face, before a three-layer niqab was fitted. None of the layers, Rashida was disappointed to discover, incorporated an eye slit. “The first layer is for in the house with your husband or fellow female family members; the second for other male members of the family or when greater sight is required, and the third when outside or in public gatherings.” All three layers were flipped down initially, and they almost blinded their wearer, Rashida only being able to distinguish between light and dark. Then, a knee-length khimar was fitted over the top and the veils threaded through the face hole, before the outer two were flipped back, restoring her sight albeit with a slight blur.
The assistant led her to a mirror. Reflected back was a cone of black satin-like material, obviously pious and wealthy. But could that be her for the rest of her life?
“We at al-Moultazimoun Clothing naturally want to sell our clothing items, but we want people to be happy with them as we prefer regular loyal customers over many years than those who make a purchase and then regret it. Therefore, we suggest you wear the suit for several hours to see how you cope with it. As it is not suitable to walk in the sun in such an outfit, I suggest, Mrs. al-Juhani, that your husband drives you and your daughter to the al-Nakheel Mall and you get to know the suit there.”
Her dad’s reaction when he saw his daughter in the suit was complimentary. “You shall surely enter Jannah dressed in such a manner!” he declared. Rashida did not doubt that he was right, but living in the suit was difficult. She was already feeling hot and claustrophobic and the loss of the use of her arms was hard indeed. She minced along behind him as they walked back to the car, sweat streaming from her and her sight greatly reduced now that the other layers of the niqab had been flipped down again.
The car journey was much pleasanter despite the fact that her restrained arms now dug into her back when she leaned into the seat. The rest gave her chance to recuperate and the cooling air con was a boon. As he drove, her father talked to her mother about how, if their daughter accepted al-Taweel’s offer, their hearts could rest easy as she would surely enter Jannah when she died and avoid the eternal fires of Jahannam. His words concerned her on two fronts. Firstly, she noticed that now she was silenced, restrained and hidden by the seat, the conversations did not include her; she was present but ignored, talked about and not to. The second concern was that the prize of gaining Jannah and avoiding Jahannam was not as appealing to her as removing the rubber suit. She had always been a pious and faithful girl but had never dwelled her thoughts much on the afterlife. Indeed, now that her whole lifestyle could potentially be geared up to satisfy the entry requirements of Jannah, she tried to imagine that place but failed. She thought of a garden with wine and trees and flowers and a cooling breeze, but somehow it didn’t seem real, as if it were an imaginary concept and not reality. Similarly, she struggled to realise Jahannam with its fires and suffering as well. What she had no trouble in thinking about though, was the present and the freedoms that the suit had stripped her of. She closed her eyes and wondered.
Inside the shopping mall it was not so bad. The air con was strong and so she could survive in the suit. But things were not good. With the three veils down, all she could make out was light and dark and extremely blurred outlines. As she minced along behind her parents – who now excluded her from their conversation except to give the occasional instruction – she thought of her usual visits to this mall and many others. She loved gazing at the displays in the windows, smelling the aroma of coffee or chocolate from the cafés and looking at the other shoppers, many of whom were not Saudis, but businesspeople from Europe, America, Africa, the Far East and other parts of the Arab World. Now though, she saw little and smelt nothing bar rubber. Is this what her life would be like in the future if she married Waleed al-Taweel? Would she even go to the mall much, or indeed, leave the house at all? In the purdah suit, going outside into the sunshine was nigh on impossible. Just walking from the car to the mall in the shade of the multi-storey car park had been unbearable. The heat was something else! So, instead, like a true purdah-observing wife, would she choose to stay indoors, waiting for the man who would never see her face to return home from work?
Her solitary, dark walk was interrupted by a new voice. “Iqbal! Is that you?”
Her father replied, “Ali, how are you? What a pleasant surprise!”
“I’m here buying some presents for my youngest daughter. She is six next week. And you?”
Her father explained about the proposal and the purdah suit and, as he did, Rashida remembered who the newcomer was: it was a guy who her dad worked with named Ali al-Zahrani. A few years ago they used to go around to his house for dinner and then the invitation was reciprocated, something that Rashida enjoyed as al-Zahrani had a daughter two years older than her. Her name was Zaynab and the two girls got on well.
“Embracing the purdah life, eh? Well, I am sure that your parents are so proud, Rashida. My own daughter has also embraced full purdah, although not entirely of her own volition. Two years ago, she married as you might recall. Anyway, last year her husband discovered his deen and decided to embrace a more pious lifestyle. He now sports a most impressive beard and demanded that Zaynab don a purdah suit, although hers is more serious that yours. He can control if she has sight and most of the time it is cut off; she only has an hour or two every evening. Her hearing is also curtailed. She cried as she was put into it and I must admit I felt for her, but a husband’s will is law and it is for her good as it guarantees her a place in Jannah. Anyway, I know that you will join her there one day, Rashida, inshallah.”
Ali left them a few moments later but Rashida was left thinking about a life without sight and hearing as well as arms.
They went into a couple of shops, including the DVD store that Rashida loved. Her dad promised her a film for trying on the suit. Unfortunately, she couldn’t express which one she would like, so her dad brought out a selection, lifted her outer veil and showed them to her one-by-one, with her nodding at the one she wanted and shaking her head to reject the others. None were what she would have chosen, but a couple looked mildly interesting, so she nodded at one of them. Then the veil was dropped again and darkness resumed.
They finished their trip at a café. Due to her gag, Rashida could not consume solids in the suit, so they thought this a good opportunity to try puréed food. She chose a dish involving sweet potato and chickpeas and, after it was put through a blender, her mum put a straw in it, slipped this under her veils, and inserted it into the hole in the gag. Sucking up food through a straw was nowhere near as satisfying as chewing on it but what choice did she have.
Whilst she sucked her parents carried on a conversation without her, almost as if she wasn’t there.
After the “meal” her mum decided that she might need the toilet, so she was led to the facilities and her mum guided her to the bowl, lifted up her jilbab and pulled down the rubber pants. As it was, Rashida did need to go so she did her business in darkness (for her veils had not been flipped back since they’d left the DVD shop) and waited. After a minute or so, her mum returned and asked if she was finished. She nodded and so her mum pressed a button on the wall. A jet of warm water shot into her bum and then a gust of hot air dried it. Then, her mum stood her up, pulled up her pants and let the jilbab cascade down before leading her out again.
They walked back to the car and then drove back to the shop. Inside they made their way up to the changing rooms and the suit was stripped away. Rashida felt so glad to be free of its embrace and flexed her arms with joy as the pressure on her shoulders relaxed and blood rushed back. She also flexed her jaw with pleasure but felt a little ashamed at how sweaty and smelly her body now was. Nonetheless, she redressed in her old outfit and they made their way home.
That night she was called into the men’s quarters again. This time only her dad was present. He looked at his daughter and said, “So, what is your decision? Do you accept the proposal or not?”
Did she accept? Her mind had been filled with nothing else but this question ever since she had been stripped of the purdah suit. She could almost feel the two figures on her shoulders. On the left was the djinn who told her to reject it. The suit and the lifestyle that it enforced was hard. To live secluded, silent, ignored and anonymous would be close to unbearable. To be naught more than a cone of cloth useful only for breeding children and staying pious; surely there could be a better future for her than that? A future where she could laugh and sing and use everything that she had learnt in school.
But on the other shoulder, that other figure told her not to be so hasty. The match was a good one and honoured her parents as much as her. In marrying al-Taweel and bearing his children, she would cause their hearts to be at rest and give them great pride. And besides, was it so bad? Waleed was not insisting on the strictest purdah suit and had been honest so far. He could have proposed and not told her the full truth, introducing her to the suit only after marriage. What then? An honest, pious man is hard to find and Waleed seemed to be as concerned about her place in Jannah as he was his own.
And if she did reject him, what then? More and more men were encouraging their wives to embrace full purdah and purdah suits, a rare and extreme fashion only twenty years ago, were now becoming mainstream. Even if she rejected Waleed, would the next suitor insist on the same or worse?
And even if they did not, what if they turned out to be like Zaynab’s husband, liberal upon marriage but then discovering his deen later on. Even if a husband did not insist on purdah before the wedding day, there was no guarantee that he would not decide upon it later and, as Ali had said, a husband’s will is law. Looked at from that angle, perhaps life in a purdah suit was unavoidable?
Even so, could she voluntarily agree to being sealed in rubber, rendered silent and armless, anonymous and unseen until she reached the grave, forever talked about and not to, her husband never seeing her face or hearing her voice. Could she really embrace that, even if Jannah beckoned at the end?
Or could she really reject it?
The two figures on her shoulders shouted at her, each trying to outdo the other. Then one voice rang clearer than the other and the decision was made.
She turned to her father and told him the decision she’d made.
14th-15th June, 2019