Umrah 2011 (Part 3) - My Niqab Experience in Mecca

While in Mecca I wore the niqab (face-veil) except when I was in ihram. It was my first time and the experience gave me an insight into what it's like to be a niqabi. Granted, I wasn't as anxious about wearing niqab in Saudi Arabia than I was with the hijab in New Zealand because almost every other women wore niqab in Saudi. I felt it was important for me to wear it there for privacy, safety and health reasons (there is construction work going on in the city of Mecca and around the al-Masjid al-Haram therefore there's a lot of dust and debris). In my personal experience men in Saudi, not necessarily Saudi men because there are many foreign workers over there, are disrespectful towards women who don't wear the niqab. I'm not saying this happens to all women but it's not unusual for them to stare and leer and/or physically harass women especially when they don't see a mahram (male family member) with them. At first I thought this happened to me because these men knew I wasn't an Arab (and therefore had less respect for me? I don't know!) but after reading this I can see it's most likely that it happens to Arabs too but maybe to a lesser extent. 

I don't intend to give Mecca a disgraceful reputation by sharing this with my readers. I only want women to be fully aware of the situation in Saudi Arabia before going there to perform the Umrah or Hajj pilgrimage or to live there. I don't believe the way many things work in that country reflect the teachings of Islam and I need to say that. Non-Muslims tend to look at how a certain culture addresses a situation and then apply broadbrush strokes to the rest of the global Muslim community. For instance, an Arab Muslim doesn't necessarily behave like a Malaysian Muslim or an American Muslim. Furthermore, Muslims don't always behave according to Islamic teachings. We live in an imperfect world but if we tried to improve ourselves I am sure this world would be a better place.

So here goes my story. I must admit I felt violated by some of the things that happened to me when I was in Saudi. Men will "accidentally" bump into me and then say, "You're pretty" in Malay (many of them have learned Malay vocabulary, especially shopkeepers). Shopkeepers have openly said to my Mum, "Your daughters are beautiful" or "I'm giving you a discount because your daughters are beautiful".  I doubt this happened to niqabis so I decided I'd wear it. As I expected, I did get harassed the few times I didn't because I was in ihram (there's a hadith that says women are not allowed to cover their face when they are in the state of ihram). Men not only kept staring at me but one even physically touched me by placing his hands on my waist when I was shopping in a mall with my family. Shocked by his action I didn't know how to respond. Of course, I wanted to yell out What the hell?! but I didn't and a part of me wished that I did.

I know for a fact that there are women out there who will say, "Well it's your fault because you didn't cover your face." What happened to men who are supposed to lower their gaze? Is it not good enough that I was wearing a loose abaya and of course, a hijab? Here's another shocker: men still looked at me like I was a piece of meat even when I had the niqab on. I don't get that at all. How much more unattractive can I look? Unfortunately, some Muslim men weren't raised well enough to follow Islamic principles. I say its lack of education and lack of iman. There is no justification for the mistreatment of women in Islam. None whatsoever. They do as they please because they think they can get away with it but they forget that God knows everything that they do and what is inside their hearts and minds.

And those who annoy believing men and women undeservedly, bear (on themselves) a calumny and a glaring sin.
{Surah al-Ahzab, verse 58}

I think apart from culture, personal safety is a big reason why women wear niqab in the Middle East. However, I am aware Muslim women mainly wear it for religious reasons. The Mothers of the Believers (wives of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) covered their face in front of ajnabi men (non-mahram marriageable men).  It is understood that they did so to avoid causing  fitna (temptation) as they had the responsibility of educating Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam as they were some of the closest people to the Prophet (peace be upon him) if not the closest. It was important for men and women alike to take them seriously and not be distracted by their beauty.

O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses,- until leave is given you,- for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when ye are invited, enter; and when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behaviour) annoys the Prophet: he is ashamed to dismiss you, but Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the truth. And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs. Nor is it right for you that ye should annoy Allah's Apostle, or that ye should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is in Allah's sight an enormity. {Surah al-Ahzab, verse 53}

There are differences in the interpretation of verses from the Holy Qur'an about whether it is obligatory or optional for all Muslim women to wear the face-veil. The majority of scholars say it was only commanded upon the wives of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wassalam but not obligatory upon other Muslim women. There are Muslims who oppose this and there are Muslims who are in support of this opinion. Allah knows best.

My personal opinion after wearing the niqab for a week is that its principle lies on the individual's choice and convictions. One can only recommend what is best for the situation but it's not right to impose the niqab, or the hijab for that matter, on any woman. The most important thing is to instill iman in her and then everything else will fall into place, God-willing. Tell me, how can you teach someone to be modest if you don't inspire them to have inner modesty? The hijab and niqab, if worn for the right reasons, for example, to protect one's haya (modesty, honour and humility) and of course to please Allah subhana wa taala, has many great benefits for the Muslim woman. At the same time, if a woman wears niqab but neglects her prayers, behaves rudely, gossips and slanders others, etc. then she really needs to start asking herself why she wears niqab in the first place. Haya is more than just physical modesty. It is reflected in one's mannerisms too. It's not easy to understand and embody the concept of haya, I don't think I've grasped it perfectly myself, but it is a very beautiful thing and I'm all for the hijab and niqab if it is worn to protect one's haya. I believe nothing bad can come from possessing haya. It is the lack of haya that has negative repercussions.

I know the niqab is a very controversial issue in the West. My take on the whole debate is that if you feel strongly about wearing the niqab then you might want to consider living in a Muslim country where people are more accepting of your choice. We can't blame non-Muslims for not understanding the concept of haya and niqab. To be able to see someone's face is an important aspect of social life in  the West but not in Muslim countries, especially Saudi. At the end of the day you have to choose your battles. If I were to live in a Middle Eastern country like Saudi Arabia I would definitely wear the niqab when I go out. There's no question about it. I actually liked wearing it because it made me feel very modest in terms of my appearance. Plus, I worried less about envy and the evil eye. Although, it has proven to be no guarantee when it comes to guarding women against men. The best thing is to be sincere with God and rely on Him for protection.

"Recite Surat Al-Ikhlas and Al-Mu`awwidhatain (Surat Al-Falaq and Surat An-Nas) three times at dawn and dusk. It will suffice you in all respects."
{Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi}
"Rasul Allah (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) used to seek refuge from the jinn as well as from the evil eye until Surah al-Falaq and an-Naas were revealed. When they were sent down, he utilised them and left other things." {Tirmidhi}


Wow, I never knew Arabian men are that bad. I am considering to work there as a nurse now I know what to do to protect myself from all this harassment.

Thanx my dear sister.
Chloe said…
Salam Sha :) I found this so interesting to read, what an experience to have had! Miss you xo
MoOn said…
Omra maqboola sis :)
Regarding the situation you passed through, am sorry to hear about your bad experience when not wearing a neqab.
I went to Makkah twice and a lot to Saudi in general and I know how bad it can get with the staring and following with their eyes. Luckily I never get harrased physically, I wear abaya and black Sheila (hair covering) in all our middle eastern countries including Makkah and I never covered my face
Salute u for doing so :)
MoOn said…
Nabila, am an Arab woman and am telling you not all our men are bad, not even half of them, that can be so stereotypical,
I even wrote about it once in my blog, cos an action of few guys should not be generalised to all
Shahirah Elaiza said…
Nabilah: I didn't say that the men who harassed me were Saudi men or Arab men. There are many other races in Saudi Arabia. And as Moon said, not all Arab men are bad but that doesn't mean you don't have to becareful when you are there. Malaysia and Saudi are like two different worlds lol. I wouldn't go there without a mahram, that's for sure. Even when I walked hand in hand with my Mum guys were still rude! I didn't face any problems when I walked with my older brother though. It makes a difference.

Chloe: Wassalam, I knew you'd be interested in this topic. It was certainly an experience and I learned a lot from it. I miss you too and I hope everything's going great for you in Welly <3

Moon: JazakAllah sis =) I'm glad you never had to go through what I did. Even when I wore the black abaya and shayla plus the black niqab men still stared. It made me feel very frustrated and uncomfortable. But in the Masjid this didn't happen, alhamdulillah. I was told I should also cover my eyes and my hands by wearing gloves so people cannot see my eyes and tell what is my skin tone and therefore will not be attracted. Oh gosh, what a challenge during summer! It's a bit too much, in my opinion. I'm hoping it's not like this in other cities like Jeddah and Riyadh.
MoOn said…
The staring is all over Saudi Arabia , men stare at me and I have kids and they can flirt as well if my husband is not visible to them, but I ignore or scold them hehe
Thanx sis Sha & Moon,
I will keep that in mind to protect myself if I still thinking to go there. If anything happened its all 'takdir' & maybe Allah just testing me.

aishah amin said…
I had the similar experience when I was there for umrah, only worse;(
sab said…
sis, really interesting entry. same goes to me when i went there before.

this is my first comment here in your blog, just being silent reader before this.

your previous entry with the pictures of Mecca and Madina really beautiful.

love your blog, keep writing!

Anonymous said…
Good post.

'Haya is more than just physical modesty. It is reflected in one's mannerisms too.' Very true!

In my opinion, the niqab is more a cultural than religious symbol. I think it's a good reflection of the darker side of some societies when women feel compelled to wear the niqab due to incessant harassment. It's unfortunate that men forget their part of the deal about lowering their gaze. It's extremely unfair to blame women for not covering their faces in order to be 'protected'. That is not the teaching of Islam.

I do believe a women has the right to dress as she pleases, whether it means wearing the hijab or the niqab or neither. But I don't necessarily agree with the religious reasons given for wearing the niqab. But as they say, to each his own.
Amnah said…
Sha, you brought back so many memories from my trip to Mecca for hajj. I was so distrubed by the behavior of the shopkeepers and workers surrounding the Haraam. My second day there I bought a niqaab and wore it the entire time. When I noticed that the men continued to stare at my eyes, I would bring the very top layer and completely cover my eyes so that nothing showed at all. May Allah guide us all on the straight path.
Salaams Shah!

You look great in Niqab mashaAllah, really makes your eyes stand out =)

Gulf men in my opinion are the worst of all muslim men. They have resorted back to their pre-islamic ways of drinking, mistreating and oppressing women, promiscuity and so on. Women could cover their whole body, including their face, eyes etc and still muslim men would find something sexual about them. These men blame women for them not being able to control their desires. Some men will even go as far as blaming a woman in niqab whose eyes are exposed as seducing him and tell her she must cover her eyes. How can she seduce the man with her eyes if HIS eyes are lowered? Thats because these muslim men make excuses for their behavior. Allah has ordered both men and women to lower their gaze and be modest yet men seem to think it just applies to women. Anyway, alhamdulillah overall your experience was great! =)
Elisa said…
Salaam bella!
What an interesting post! Thank you for sharing it with us. Now I feel more inclined to wearing niqab when and if I ever go to Saudi! God bless you, dear!
SaLuff said…
For once I'm going to agree with the anon! I think it's sad you had to wear it to prevent harassment. I pray Allah swt forgives those disgusting men who harass the women. Someone should only wear niqab if they want, they shouldn't HAVE to. This makes me so sad about the city that is so important to Islam!
R S said…
In MY experience, Arab men are just..... disgusting. I mean, sorry to SAY but it's true. Especially the ones that come to Malaysia on holiday, they seriously 'prey' on our women! They're pretty barbaric and disrespectful and it's weird how there's this mentality among many Malay Muslims that to be a true Muslim you've to 'Arabise' yourself. That's not what Islam is about! It's following the Quran according to your life. I mean wearing a niqab somewhere in M'sia is pretty weird because it's not OUR culture but I'm seeing a few Malaysians doing that these days. I respect them of course. I don't know their intentions but I'm sure they've good reasons.

Overall this has been a wonderful read! Loved it! I love how you're educating us on very important issues.
khawla B. said…
Thanks for the post Shahira! i think this is a very important isuue in our muslim society, i agree with Sluff i think the solution here is not covering yourself more than you already are (the next step will be just staying at home under the pretext of protecting women) but i have to say that this is not hapening only in Arabia Saudi, it´s in all arab countries (i´m arabic), there is this feeling of superiority that men have, they only respect you if there is a mahram with you!I know that´s easier said than done but if all the women pretend that nothing is hapening when they are being harassed nothing will ever change.

I´m not saying that all the men are the same, but most of them, yes. I´m glad to know that in Malasia things are diferent, Islam there seems to be deferent(i´m seriously considering marrying a malasian guy hahah :D)
Any way, i wish that some day inshallah, with all those revolutions in arab world, there will be a real equality between men and women.
thank u again for the post!
Anonymous said…
what would happen if KSA allows girls to be free with their own dress? sex USA or Europe?.

all in KSA, whether expatriate or local arabs, they were scared of doing such things before TV was introduced in that country...there was no cinema theaters even in 1990' also now.And everyone was following islamic traditions strictly in that country then.
shaytan has many faces and one of them is TV.
MoOn said…
Makkah is so multicultural, the shopkeepers are from different backgrounds but they wear the thob and speak with a Saudi accent most of the time, they can be yemenis or from the Indian subcontinent, you cannot think of them all as middle eastern men hunting for ladies
Laila said…
I agree with you Sluff! I think the same, I wish some thay womens could decide if they want or don't want to wear it.
Shahirah Elaiza said…
Aishah: That's horrible =( It's very disappointing to hear that worse things happen to people that you know.

SZ: Thanks for commenting. I'm sorry to hear you've faced a similar experience.

Anon: It's like when you hear stories about rape victims... some of the first questions people will ask are -"Who was she with? What was she wearing?" Do men really not have any self-control?

Amnah: Ameen. I think KSA can be a really oppressive place for women because even when they're dressed modestly the circumstances push them to go through extremes in order to have a basic human right - safety.

Rene: Yup alhamdulillah my overall experience was good. Still, I can't help but feel disappointed with the way some people behave in these Holy Cities. These people need an attitude change.

Elisa: Yes definitely wear it when you're there! You're too gorgeous mashaAllah lol

Sluff: LOL, yeah Anons leave the most "interesting" comments. Yes, women should only wear niqab when they want to... but in KSA you'd end up WANTING TO because of the incessant staring. It's sad when grotesque things happen in these Holy Cities because we know Islam preaches the opposite to what these people do.

RS: LOL. Awww this has turned out to be an Arab-men-bashing-session. To be fair, this can happen in any country and by any race. It just so happens that it occurs in KSA a lot more. And as Moon said, there are many other races and cultures in Medina and Mecca, esp. from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia etc.

On top of that, I find people from rough backgrounds, regardless of race and religion, are more capable of these things. My Arab guy friends in NZ would never dare to harass me. Education plays an important role in someone's character.

khawla B.: I completely agree with you when you said that keeping silent and pretending nothing happened is not going to change anything. Unfortunately the moment a woman tries to speak up in countries like KSA, men don't take them seriously! The next step would probably be to change the double standards that exist in Arab countries.

Anon: LOL. Lewd behaviour in KSA existed way before television was invented. Yes, sure, the media is influential but as human beings it is our responsibility to know between right and wrong. We are not a passive audience. As Muslims we need to start evaluating ourselves and being self-critical. Shaytan can only penetrate our minds and hearts when we are weak.

This is exactly how I feel about the situation --> 'Awaken' by Maher Zain:
I’m walking with my head lowered in shame from my place
I’m walking with my head lowered from my race
Yes it’s easy to blame everything on the west
When in fact all focus should be on ourselves

Moon: Agreed.

Laila: They can decide whether they want to wear it or not but in some countries they are compelled to. In Saudi Arabia, I feel a bit more safe when I do. There's no point in putting myself in a threatening situation for the sake of "choice". That's how I feel, at least.
washi said…
I have to agree with one of the sisters that you look beautiful in niqab mashaAllah. Very interesting post for me as I didn't have any of these experiences on my travels to the Middle East, including on haj. Maybe people are more spiritual around haj time? My Arab hubby says these things don't happen to me coz I'm from a country with a high crime rate, and by necessity - from travelling in our public metro system - have developed a very street-smart-no-nonsense attitude and men would be too scared to approach me :D
Shahirah Elaiza said…
Washi: That's a very cool theory. Would love to possess an inkling of what you have!
yatie chomeyl said…
Thanks for sharing your honest experience about this. mind if I share this in my blog too?
Shahirah Elaiza said…
yatie: Sure
Qusay said…
Sorry for having such a not so pleasant experience, we have many problems regarding that issue.

People stare, mostly because their parents never told them not to stare (or point) most come from small areas where everyone was known.. that is not an excuse though.

The extreme segregation made some men think it is ok to behave like construction workers (for the lack of a better metaphor) and think that any woman not accompanied by a man must be an easy target.

Sorry again for what you experienced... maybe they saw your modeling pictures in that magazine and recognized you ;)

A friend of mine was in a local commercial a few years ago, and in the height of it, he went to Makkah, he got stared at, and some people joked around with him as they passed him by.
♥Soso♥ said…
Reading this.. I can totally relate

great post sis
Anonymous said…
I don’t think has anything to do with Islam & covering up. It is a cultural thing and there is no respect for women, they’re only seen as pieces of meat. A friend who is currently working and living in Cairo says regardless of whether you wear a niqab or shorts you will still get harassed, from the teenage schoolboy to the grandad. It seems to have gotten worse since the revolution.
Change can only come when mothers and fathers start teaching their children to honour and respect women.
Mona Zenhom said…
Unfortunately it's the actions of the men and that alone that's given them such a bad reputation. Good post, Sha, thanks for sharing.
Just read it..I'm sorry about the thing happened to you..yeah..arabic men always like that..:)!!because in their opinion..we..malay women..are graceful..not like arabic women..been through that..coz I'm stdying in Egypt..and many of them..ever tell me that..they wanna marry malay women instead of arabic women..and if the thing happened to you in the future..just said harami..or haramu alaik..there will be people helping you..and I had an experience of arabic men rubbing my ass..urghh!!dont want to remember tht..:(!!
alexchan said…
Sounds like Saudi men are less repectful to women than their counterparts in their neighbouring countries. By the way is it niqabi or is it niqabiah (being the feminine form of the word)? Hahaha!
Anonymous said…

sometimes shopkeepers sweet talk?
hi ur so handsome, buy more stuffs K ^^
Misha said…
Loved reading about your Umrah experience, especially the photos. I hope you were able to enjoy your trip; may Allah (SWT) allow the rest of us to go soon as well!
... said…
Salam, and I quote, "says women are not allowed to cover their face when they are in the state of ihram" -- why not?? I can't seem to comprehend this part. hurm.
Laila said…
Reading the coments I realized that it's the second time I read this post, but I didn't remember it, so here I am comenting again with another perspective.

It was a great article to read, really interesting. And as sad as it is, most of the arab men behave like that with women, whether they wear hijab, niqab or nothing. I thin it is because they see us as their potential wives (?) or maybe it's because of the social context, that may still see the women as an object (?)
I don't really know but it's sad to see it happends. May Allah protect all the women from any harm.
And then, all we can do is protect ourselves as much as we can (ie: wearing the hijab or even the niqab, going out with a mahram) and ask Allah to protect us.
Shahirah Elaiza said…
@Laila, upbringing, level of fear of Allah swt & knowledge of Islam are all important factors that impact our behaviour. My 2 cents :)