Where’s The Beef?
By Nadeem F. Paracha
19 January, 2014
I didn't want to look, but I just couldn't help it. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but my curiosity got the better of me. As I sat at a restaurant in Dubai having lunch, on the table next to me was a young Arab couple.
The guy was in a T-shirt and khaki shorts but the woman was covered in a head-to-toe black Abaya. It was one of those that also cut across a woman's face, leaving only her eyes visible. A Niqab, I think, it's called.
Though this wasn't the first time I had seen a woman draped this way in Dubai because they are quite a common sight in the city, especially at malls, where they can be seen shopping at all the expensive designer outlets with their hubbies in toe.
Nor was this the first time I'd seen such a woman at a restaurant. But since I've always been curious to figure out exactly how such women have their food in public is what made me glance at this particular woman.
The couple had ordered beef burgers and two glasses of cola. As the guy put aside his glitzy mobile phone and almost immediately attacked his juicy burger, the woman slowly pulled her glass of cola right underneath her covered face.
She then slightly lifted her face mask from the chin area; just enough to let the straw sticking out from her glass of cola to reach her still covered mouth.
The whole exercise looked cumbersome, if not downright suffocating. Well, who was I to judge. It seemed to be her choice and the guy looked mighty pleased.
I kept glancing towards her. Because now the question was, how will she eat her fat burger, loaded with two beef patties, lots of cheese, tomatoes and lettuce? Surely she would, for a moment at least, release her mouth to take a clear bite of the delicious looking burger.
But, no, sir, this young Arab lady was no moral slouch like her more liberal non-Arab sisters. Instead of compromising her modesty (sans the exhibition of not -very-modest things like designer handbag, gold watch, etc.), she slid the burger underneath the loose black cloth covering her mouth and nose, and crunch!
I refused to look beyond this. But I do remember asking myself, this just cannot be a very normal thing to do. Was it?
A friend of mine who works as a journalist in Dubai told me that indeed this is quite the norm with many Arab women in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. But he added: ‘All of us (non-Arabs) working here try not to notice, even though we do talk about it. They are the privileged class here, we're just the workforce’.
Well, one either has to be filthy rich and privileged to survive after indulging in such cumbersome displays of modesty and morality, or one has to be completely cuckoo.
But whose decision is it? Do these Arab women eat in public through their Abayas and Niqabs voluntarily, or are asked to do so by their men?
There are two theories. The more popular (and gossipy) one that I came across was that it is the well-to-do Arab women who do this as a way to repay their husband’s lavish spending on them.
So, in a manner of speaking, the men spend big on their women so they could please their idea of female modesty?
The second theory is less soap-operatic. Many Arab and non-Arab Muslim women authors who have written in detail on the rise of things like the Hijab, the Abayas and the Niqab among upper and middle-class women in the Muslim world suggest that the rise in this respect is a continuation of an old tradition in which Islamic jurists (after the demise of the holy Prophet PBUH), began to dish out rules and laws keeping in mind only the tribal male point of view.
These authors suggest that Islam and its prophet had actually liberated women and raised their status in a tribal society, but after the prophet's death, jurists (all of whom were male), mixed laws drawn from the Quran with pre-Islamic tribal customs and traditions.
These Muslim women authors believe that given the choice, most Arab women would reject the many restrictive customs enforced upon them. These writers are of the view that women in most Muslim societies have off and on rebelled against the men’s idea of morality, and if the quiet rebellion taking shape in Saudi Arabia — where women are breaking the law by driving cars — is anything to go by, then there is every likelihood that even the most conservative Arab women might again start questioning customs they believe are not of their making, nor directly linked to any particular Islamic decree.
I asked my friend whether those affluent and middle-class Pakistani women in Arab countries who have adopted certain conservative customs of the Arab women can also be seen chomping food through Niqabs. Because I have yet to see one doing so in Pakistan.
He said it is true that many Pakistani women settled in oil-rich Arab countries have replaced their South Asian moorings with Arabic pretences, but he has yet to see one eating a burger from behind a Niqab.
Imagine a working-class or even a middle-class woman having to do this in Pakistan. She would have to get her modesty masks washed over and over again, running up painfully high detergent and laundry bills; that is, if they didn't die of malnutrition first.