Dispatches from behind the Niqab: A day in the life of ...

Sunday, May 6th, 2012


Dispatches from beyond the niqab

A number of AUCians looked at Reem, left, as she walked through campus last week - Aya Mostafa

For two days I went around AUC's campus, sitting in the library, attending classes, eating in the plaza, chatting with friends, visiting my department's secretary - all my normal student activities, but from behind a heavy black niqab that rendered me invisible, unknown to my closest friends.

Some knew me from my voice. Others recognised me from my hands and my watch as I forgot to buy appropriate gloves for this social experiment that I did for The Caravan. We wanted to see how the AUC community would react to a female undergraduate student wearing the niqab on campus.

On the first morning, I went on my R7 bus, where a lot of people know me very well. As they all blankly eyed me passing through the aisle, I felt cold, I felt they knew me, and in a minute all the thoughts of what I expected of my day bombarded my head. I wanted to disappear.

When I arrived at AUC and as I waited in line for the security check, I could feel people looking at me curiously. The security man looked at my ID and then asked me if I can wait for a check by the security woman. I had to remind him of her name.

She took me aside and asked me to lift off the veil.

"I'm Reem," I said.

Her face went red, she took a step back, raised her hand to her mouth and said, "Did you do it?!"

I nodded.  I could feel everyone stealing looks at us. "Can you please not make me do this?" I said.

She let me go.

As I went into the library, I had to do another security check. I told the security that I just went through the outside gates and did a check, but they still required another one.

A lady working in the learning commons took me behind a partition.

She smiled and told me, "You're very pretty," and as I put down the niqab again she said, "May God reward you."

I then went about my usual routine. I like listening to music while working so I went to the laptops desk and asked the student there for headphones.

She quickly said, "They're all out, believe me."

It was nine o'clock in the morning and I usually found headphones then.

"Are you sure?" I said. She nodded with a smile. I thanked her and left.

My first class was survey of Arab history with Professor Hoda El Saadi. I took a deep breath while walking to class and when I arrived I put my hand on the door frame and paused looking at the students inside. They weren't a lot. They looked back at me as I walked in.

I sat beside Amal who knew me when I talked to her and looked at me strangely, but said nothing.

As I took out my notebook she dragged her chair to the two girls sitting behind us and I could hear them asking her if it was me and why I donned the niqab. Amal didn't know.

When El Saadi came in she looked at me several times, and got to know who I was when she checked the attendance. She then carried on with class normally.

However, all the students went deadly silent when I talked in class - even though I was the very same person who participated in the same room, on the same subject, with the same people without the niqab just a weak earlier.

Later, in my own journalism and mass communication department, a colleague urged me to go speak with Chair of the Department Mervat Abou Oaf.

I suddenly remembered I interviewed Abou Oaf recently for The Caravan for a feature on Egyptian talk shows.

"Dr Mervat, don't you remember me? I interviewed you for The Caravan a few weeks ago. Dr Amani was with us too," I said in her office.

Abou Oaf looked at me in surprise, then indifferently.

"No, I don't know you, take off your veil," she said.

When I lifted the veil to reveal my face, Abou Oaf still didn't remember me.

When I told her that this was an undercover story for The Caravan she told me a story about a student she taught who used to wear the niqab.

"I asked her to sit at the back of the class and take off her face veil," she said, "Otherwise, how can I assess if she understands what I'm saying, if she's asleep or awake?"

"She was a very sweet girl, I had no problem with her, she was veiled before that and decided to wear the niqab," Abou Oaf added, "But I had to see interaction between me and her."

Abou Oaf said that she would do the same thing again if another student who wears the niqab joined her classes.

I then had an Arabic reporting class with Professor Rasha El Ibiary, who was shocked and upset that the Salafi movement she doesn't support appears to have landed in her classes at AUC.

El Ibiary, herself veiled, said that she doesn't like the idea of someone seeing everything and denying that right to those around her. She also argued that the niqab is not an integral part of Islam, and that it usually troubles who wears it and thus she should spare herself.

However, the class I had been waiting for was my course on "The Writer and the State" with Professor El Sayed Fadl who always expressed his disagreement with "Political Islam."

I frankly expected Fadl to discuss the niqab issue in class. I made up a whole scenario in my head where the very socially diverse students in my Arabic literature class would participate.

When Fadl came in and looked at me he asked, "Are you a new student?"

I will never forget the amount of times I and my colleagues told him that I was "Reem Gehad" and his face was still blank with incomprehension. I was smiling alone under the niqab when he said, "That's a new development, Reem," and then carried on with the class as usual.

I passed a note to my friend saying, "Is that it?"

She laughed. I insisted to bring this out again. I raised my hand to comment on a presentation a colleague was doing. As I started talking, a number of students started laughing, but then Fadl seriously raised his hand and they stopped.

I made a comment about the invalidity of the argument another student was using. We talked and that was it.

At the end, I went to Fadl and asked, "Professor, did you ever have a student who wore the niqab in your classes at AUC?"

"Never," he replied.

I asked him about his opinion and he said, "This isn't the first time you know me, Reem. If my daughter wanted to wear the niqab I wouldn't be happy, but I won't stop her."

I then told him about my experiment for The Caravan and we started having a more elaborate discussion with a number of students who stayed after class. He asked about how other people have been responding.

"We cannot listen to each other anymore," he commented, "And we have a serious problem of values and morals."

Walking back to the newsroom, I met Marina Barsoum who's also a reporter for The Caravan. She was with a friend who stared at me as I talked to Marina.

Later, Marina told me that her friend was surprised that I was an undergraduate student, and that she was disgusted. She told her sarcastically, "She's very nice keda amongst us."

She wasn't the only one. I received hostile looks all the time. I could notice it more when I bought a sandwich from Tarwi'a and walked around the plaza and in the library eating it beneath my niqab.

When I walked with my friends, their friends were reluctant to stand with us and talk. When I joked with a friend once in the library, the student sitting next to him, who knew neither of us, kept listening to us and then looked at him and asked, "What does she want?"

In my department's office, one of the staff there asked me if I got married. She said that usually her friends who got veiled or wore the niqab were under the influences of their fiancés or husbands.

Indeed, one of my friends later told me that he thought I had gotten to know a Salafi who "manipulated my mind."

I went into all my classes without prior explanations to my professors. The only exception was Professor Ronnie Close, my photography professor, who is spending his first semester in Cairo.

A few days earlier, I was in Tahrir shooting photos for my final project and I had talked to Close about the Salafis there and how some of them were unwelcoming. He warned me and told me to take care.

I then showed up that morning at his office with the niqab. He knew me almost instantly from my voice. He did not seem surprised like my other professors, which made me surprised - I didn't have a plan for that.

"Did you convert? Is this since Friday?!" he asked light-heartedly.

I then told him about the undercover story.

In class, however, most girls asked me about the reason behind wearing the niqab. They argued against it asking me questions like, "Do you know that it has no basis in Islam?"

It seemed to me that they related it to the fundamental Islamic movement in Egypt, and that I had done something they had been afraid would eventually happen.

I also felt that they subconsciously expected me to be aggressive, quickly saying ready comments like, "Don't get me wrong," or "Don't be annoyed," or "I'm sorry, I'm only asking."

When I told them the truth at the end of class one girl put her hand on her chest and breathed in relief.

When I finally changed into my normal clothes before leaving campus, I did not feel freer or more liberated, as I had anticipated. I just like I was back to being myself.

Wearing the niqab was very inconvenient because I couldn't smile at people. I saw people I knew, a lot of them, and I had to call them to talk to them.

I also found it difficult to breathe. I kept getting an urge, especially on the second day, to lift up the veil and take in great balls of fresh air to fill my lungs, but I couldn't. And I think this was what made me so exhausted by the time the day ended.

On Day one, I had sent a text message to the editor-in-chief: "This is the worst thing I've ever done in my life."

But having done it now, I am sure it was far from any horrible experience I might face.

Now I know that whenever I see a woman wearing the niqab at AUC, or any place with a similar community, I am going to smile at her.

I am going to smile, even if I don't see her smiling back, because I now know very well the looks that she receives. I know the treatment she endures, and thanks to my fellow reporters at The Caravan, I know what people say behind her back.