Hijab, niqab, burqa: The issue of women’s bodies, and how much it’s okay to show – or not – resonates with almost everyone I know, no matter what their religion, nationality or gender.
As for me, I have always felt it’s important to respect every woman’s choice, even if I’m not sure just how much choice she actually has. And personally, I have never wanted to show much skin, even growing up in sunny beach-culture Southern California.
The one thing I have always cared about is connecting with other people. That happens with a smile, a greeting, and especially with the meeting of the eyes.
Recently in Sudan, I had the chance to make friends with several women who wore niqab – the face veil that conceals everything but the eyes. I quickly discovered that I could see each of these women smiling at me, and that we could connect easily, because the eyes are such a powerful channel for reaching and touching each other. That said, I was so pleased when each of these niqab-wearing women chose the moment for me to see her face. It was an act of trust and friendship each time, one that touched my heart.
Arriving in Siwa Oasis a few days ago, I noticed women wearing a full face covering. These Siwan women wear a distinctive gray patterned shawl draped over their heads, with a long piece of black cloth hanging right in front of the face.
The sight of these fully veiled women startled me in a way that niqab-wearing women never have. I felt I was looking at ghosts, that inside each gray shawl was an eerie non-presence – that the real person inside the veil had been obliterated.
Almost immediately, I pushed back against this feeling. No, I told myself. She can hide herself if she wants to, but I am not going to ignore her. She is a presence; she is there.
Everywhere I have gone on this trip so far, people have stared at me, sometimes with open curiosity (especially children), but often with a still, blank look on their faces. At first, this made me uncomfortable, but I quickly decided I would respond with a smile straight into the person’s eyes, and with an appropriate greeting. I started out with “vanakkam” in Tamil Nadu, then “namaste” in Andhra Pradesh, then “salaam aleikum” in Sudan and Egypt. Everywhere I have done this, the result has been the same: A sudden, startled smile, a light springing into the eyes, and a return of my greeting. And quite often, the person or group of people will stop, ask us where we’re from, and chat for a few minutes. (Especially true in Sudan and in Siwa.)
So I decided to do the same thing with the fully veiled women here in Siwa. Now as I pass a woman, or women, I smile not only at the babies and children, but at each woman, too. I look straight into where I feel her eyes are, as if my eyes and my smile could penetrate that dark blankness and connect to her eyes, looking out at me.
Today, for the first time, I received my reward. Three fully veiled women passed us below the Shali this morning, each carrying a small child. I smiled at the adorable toddler in one lady’s arms, and at her older child, and then I looked straight into her face, as if to tell her: Your children are lovely, and so are you. “Sabah al kheer,” I said – “good morning” – and raised my hand in a wave. She waved back.