Face to Face

Saudi Activist Manal Al-Sharif on Why She Removed the Veil

One of Saudi Arabia’s preeminent activists, who led the right-to-drive movement, describes her decision to take off the niqab.

No piece of cloth throughout history has sparked more controversy as the veil. Many Muslim women are forced to wear it daily. The hijab has a spectrum, of course, from its most radical embodiments, the niqab, which covers the entire face, to loose fitting headscarves.

Saudi Arabia comes come second only to Iran in using the power of the stick (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or the religious police) to impose a particular form and color of hejab on all our women. And when I say all our women, I mean all: Saudi and non-Saudi, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The sheer size of the country means that each and every region of Saudi Arabia contains a great diversity of cultures, dialects and religious sects. Until the seventies, women here were free to wear almost whatever they wanted. Bedouin women wore bright clothes and burqas, the parting of their hair and their kohl-lined eyes left exposed. The women of the city donned their abayas, the fabric drawn in around their waists. The Arab women wore their colored hejabs, and the non-Muslim women dressed modestly and without a veil.

The women in my father’s village, Tarfa, to the north-west of Mecca, wore bright clothes with pink and white scarves wrapped around their heads and necks. Like the Bedouins, they left their faces and the parting of their hair exposed.

This all changed when the state-supported wave of religious fanaticism struck our society. The black abaya and facial covering was imposed on all female government employees, and on schools and universities. And the black hejab was imposed on all non-Saudi women, regardless of their religion or creed. It was unthinkable to see a woman in my hometown, Mecca, who did not wear the niqab; revealing your face was a social taboo and was haram in the eyes of religion. Leaflets were widely distributed during that era saying that facial covering was what separated the Muslim woman from the infidel. The fanaticism spread even to children: even before I took off my niqab for good, a ten-year-old-girl next to me on a plane called me an “infidel” when I lifted my veil to eat a meal.

One leaflets distributed during the period of Islamic awakening read:

“My Muslim sister; today, you face a relentless and cunning war waged by the enemies of Islam with the purpose of reaching you and removing you from your impenetrable fortress. One of the things that these enemies of Islam are trying to discredit and eliminate is the hejab. Some of them even said that the situation in the East would not be righted until the hejab had been raised from the woman’s face and used to cover the Koran!”

This same ideology was exported out of Saudi Arabia by the power of the petrodollar. I remember the days of the Bosnian war (1992—1995), when Saudi Arabia sent convoys of aid to those besieged in Sarajevo. The people in charge of the convoys distributed the hejab to the besieged women along with the cartons of food.

It came to the point where the only acceptable interpretation of Islamic hejab in Saudi was for woman to shroud her face and body completely in black. Though, to anyone from outside our borders, one Saudi woman appeared utterly indistinguishable from the next, Saudis developed a unique ability to recognize the woman who languished in the blackness. My father knew me apart from the dozens of other girls outside the school or university walls; he never mixed me up with another girl. Similarly, we never failed to recognize our relatives or friends if we came across them in the mall or mosque.

We developed a great sensitivity to the characteristics and attributes of those around us: their voices, the way they arranged their niqab, their eyes, their gait, and even the type of abaya and handbag and shoe they wore. And young men developed a sense for the age of a girl and her physique, purely from the way she walked.

After that came the nineties, which brought with it satellite channels, and after that the turn of the millennium, which heralded the evolution of new forms of communication: the internet and smart phones. At last we had access to views that challenged the status quo—the single opinion that had so long been presented to us as the only correct choice. It was the only one, we were told, which follows the way of the Prophet and truly represents Islam. Our conservative society began to posit questions and raise doubts about things that had—by the power of religion and with the blessing of the state—been so long imposed on us as givens.

One of the first things to be questioned was the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of hejab, but for me personally, that didn’t make the matter any easier. When I decided to remove the niqab in 2002, I faced a bitter war with my family and society. My mother wore the niqab during the period of the Islamic awakening, and though she relinquished it on our travels outside Saudi, she opposed the fact that I had taken it off at home. The reason was social, not religious: “My daughter, no one will marry you if you show your face!”

If the people I passed on the streets of Mecca knew me to be a Saudi, I’d face harsh and disapproving looks. One day I was performing tawaf, and the observer—whose job was to regulate the movements of people around the Kaaba—berated me loudly about my lack of niqab every time I passed him. “Cover your face, woman!” he shouted. The third time, I used my finger to indicate the people around me: “All these women with uncovered faces; are they disobedient too? Or is it only me that’s sinning, because I am Saudi?” I completed the rest of my circuits without hearing another word.

Though I didn’t wear the niqab in the street or in my place of work, I had to borrow a friend’s niqab to enter the courtroom, since women were not allowed to enter government facilities—courts in particular—with their faces uncovered. I was forced to bring two male “identity verifiers” to assert who I was, despite the fact that I carried my ID card with me.

While the uncovering of women’s faces might have been the biggest change to happen to Saudi society, it wasn’t the only one women dared to make. A group of girls in Jeddah began to wear colored abayas; soon, robes in grey, navy blue and dark brown could be seen in the city’s abaya shops. When these same colors began to appear in Riyadh, the religious police launched a campaign of confiscating them from the shops. “If this was their reaction to brown and grey,” I wondered, “how would they react to the sight of pink or red?” I wanted to try it out.

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I went to the shop I usually dealt with and asked if they could make me a colorful abaya, but the owner flatly refused: “If a colored abaya was seen in my shop, I would be questioned and harassed by the men of the religious police!” But my friends pointed me to one of the shops that was happy to custom-make colorful designs and deliver them to its customers out of sight of the religious police.

The other change was in the symbolism of the abaya—its significance was no longer of a religious and social nature only. Rather, it came to be treated wholly as a fashion item, with trends that came and went over time just as with any other item of clothing. We saw the emergence of fashion designers who specialized in creating abayas. They held fashion shows to promote their latest lines.

Depending on the fame of the designer, the quality of the fabric and the materials used in the embroidery, the prices could be as high as tens of thousands of riyals apiece. Different types of abaya emerged for different occasions: the abaya intended for work or for going to the mall was characterized by its practicality, and the abayas for special occasions were characterized by their embroidery and luxurious design. There were even abayas for winter and summer.

In spite of all these changes, the force of the state continued to impose the black abaya in public. Advocates claimed that it helped to preserve virtue and to affirm the application of Sharia law. What they conveniently overlooked was that the imposition of a certain type of dress on one section of the population was a precedent that had never before been set in the whole of the country’s history. The form and color of clothes had long been left to the society to decide for themselves, and the authorities had cared little about how it looked as long as it was decent.

The imposition of the black abaya is unnatural: it represents nothing but an obstruction on normal life and on the natural evolution that occurs in people’s manner and form of dress, something that has occurred throughout history on the basis of people’s needs and changing circumstances.

Manal al Sharif was arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia and is one of the Kingdom’s most famous women’s rights activists

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