Saudi Blogger Rana Jarbou's Niqab Experiment

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Lots of folks in the West have questions about Islam and about life in a Muslim country. For instance, questions like "what exactly are Muslim women required to wear?" You might be surprised that the answer is not that straightforward sometimes. Take Rana Jarbou, she's a thirty year old who at different times has lived in America, Bahrain, and Lebanon, as well as Saudi Arabia itself. As a Muslim, Rana usually wears the hijab, a head scarf that covers all or part of her hair. She does not normally wear the niqab. The niqab is a cloth that covers a woman's face which is common in Saudi Arabia. But Rana says that she grew tired of people staring at her when her face or her hair were exposed. So she tried an experiment. She wore the full niqab.

Rana Jarbou: I went into the coffee I go to like almost everyday and I just couldn't say hello because it was kind of, I don't to explain to them about my experiments, so I just had to, it felt weird and I would go to places where I usually go to and I see people I'm usually familiar with and I had to just avoid and not interact with them. And they probably have no idea that was who I am under all the blackness. So that to me was the heaviest part of the experiment because it felt like our interaction as humans is so limited because of this piece of cloth. So it's not really a protection; it's actually even more of a safety hazard than protection or modesty.

Mullins: What do you mean? How so?

Jarbou: I mean if we all wore scarves, I mean if we all wore masks, or if we all wore the niqab, I mean then no one us could be identified, so it actually gives arise to, you know, you can commit crime easier, I mean I can go and graffiti on a wall and no one would know who I am and I can run.

Mullins: Although at the same time what we hear is according to the tradition, one of the things that the full-face veil does is to keep women safe, that it's a protective device. Did you not feel though somewhat safer in the way people, particularly men, treated you?

Jarbou: Not at all because I basically realized with this experiment that there's a subtle language that is made easier with this piece of cloth. I mean when I walk down a park, people still try to pick up women and even they try to whisper to me. And then I spoke to people about this, Saudis, and they told me yeah, this doesn't change, you know, this still happens, they still interact, they still meet up, and the fact that they wear the niqab is only making it easier because their name or their reputation is concealed.

Mullins: It's a little strange though because nobody knows who you are, so if you're being, say, propositioned, they could be propositioning anybody.

Jarbou: That's exactly why it makes it easier.

Mullins: So is there any case where you really did feel safer though?

Jarbou: No, not safer. At first, it felt just liberating for me to walk without being stared at because that's what I'm used to in reality. I get stared at a lot because I'm definitely not your usual person strolling on the streets. So I felt like, "OK, nobody's staring at me." That was the first day, I felt a difference, but otherwise I didn't feel any safer. I mean it was the same.

Mullins: Did you feel more Muslim when you were wearing the full head scarf, the abaya, the face covering entirely, your face covered entirely?

Jarbou: Absolutely not. The niqab has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. It's a traditional and cultural practice. The niqab is completely different from the hijab. The hijab is covering your hair and it exposes your face. The niqab does not expose your face. The hijab is, according to some interpretations, imposed in Islam. The niqab, on the other hand, is not. It's not an Islamic practice.

Mullins: Rana Jarbou, thank you very much.

Jarbou: Thank you.

Mullins: Rana Jarbou is a blogger in Saudi Arabia. We have a link to her blog about her niqab experiment at