Chador Etiquette

Travel Stories: In a Kuwaiti shopping mall, Christine Michaud learns that dressing like the locals is not as easy as it looks

“You might need a little practice,” Jihan told me, unable to conceal a smile as I furiously struggled with my safety pin in a vain attempt to cover up one last unruly blond lock. Leaving me looking more like a desert warrior than a modest lady, Jihan disappeared into the depths of her walk-in closet and re-emerged with a chador in hand.  She gently took the pin out of my clumsy fingers, expertly rearranged my rebellious headgear and secured it tightly under my chin. She then helped me put on the chador and had me turn to the full-length mirror. 

“A chador calls respect,” she said, talking to my reflection. “Although you are not required to wear it, it’ll make it easier for you to go unnoticed.” 

Easier for me to go unnoticed? I’m a husky five-foot-nine, blue-eyed blonde with chipmunk cheeks and a little curled up nose. That made me twice the size of Jihan with half her pigmentation. A total chameleon. 

I thanked Jihan profusely as she carefully folded “my” black hijab  and chador into a plastic bag. I could give both back whenever I returned, she insisted. Jihan accompanied me to the door, kissed me three times and wished me luck.  And may Allah watch over me.  In spite of my protests, the borrowed outfit was meticulously sprayed with holy water by my I-don’t-feel-this-trip-
your-hair-brown mother. Candles were lit and prayers were said for me all over the province.  And may God bless me.  The scorching sun was setting quickly over a skyline of towers and slender minarets. I knew Kuwaitis would soon pour out of their air-conditioned hideouts to enjoy the evening’s relieving coolness. And so would I. 

I pulled Jihan’s silk chador and hijab  from the bottom of my suitcase, pleased to find them both surprisingly wrinkle-free. Remembering the little Saudi lady’s detailed instructions, I proceeded to wrap up my blond head the Arab way.  Unfortunately, no matter what I did, the silky scarf slipped back, forth and sideways over and again. My uneven folds took turns coming loose and I completely lost sight of that center ply. After nearly slashing my jugular open with the pin, I had to face the facts: I couldn’t put on a hijab  decently if my life depended on it.  So much for the hijab, I decided, the chador would have to do. Throwing the silk cloak over a long black skirt and black top, I headed on out to my fancy mall. 

The mall was really nothing to rave about, at least not for someone who had been expecting golden elevators, crystal chandeliers, and wall-to-wall Persian carpets. Bare grey floors of composite marble, white gypsum walls, and neon lights were all I found. Sure, it was airy, new and modern, but in a disappointingly American way. Nonetheless, the mere fact of having a chador on made me happy, so I went on with my window shopping.  Yet the more I walked around, the more I got the uneasy feeling that everyone was intensely staring at me. First resorting to denial, I discarded the feeling as the product of a CNN-bred paranoia. 

The stares persisted throughout the mall. After the fifteen most self-conscious minutes of my life, I finally noticed that most women wore their chador pulled over the head, much like one does when pulling their coat over them in the rain. After a week in Kuwait, it made perfect sense to me that the curve of a woman’s neck would be considered too provocative a sight and had to be concealed under yet another veil.  “So that’s what it is, I’m wearing this thing like a tourist,” I thought to myself. Jihan had never been to Kuwait, maybe she didn’t know about this local trend.

I pulled the chador over my head.  The stares doubled and children started pointing at me. Now there was no mistaking: there was something distinctively odd about me and it was entertaining the mall’s entire clientele. What was these people’s problem anyway? I was all covered up like everybody else, what more did they expect me to do? I just didn’t get it.  Then I walked by a full-length mirror.  Jihan was a full nine inches shorter than me. Pulled up over my head as it now was, her chador barely covered my butt. What the whole mall was staring at was some freaky cross between E.T., Thor, and the Flying Nun.  But that was only half the story.  The Koran preaches that women should “not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known” (The Light, 24.31). In plain English, this means a gal shouldn’t walk in a fast heavy pace because it makes her boobs jiggle. 

Indeed, there is much more to wearing a chador than putting it on. I later learned—and witnessed—that a woman veiled from head to toe can actually be incredibly sensual, and sometimes outright sexy. The secret lies in the way she makes her veils flow about her when she walks. Her body will move in harmony with wind and light to let her soft silky robes flow sensually with her every step. Speed—or lack of—is therefore key.  Some veiled women even wear little bells around their hidden ankles and literally stop traffic when they stroll across busy intersections in a walking melody. Women the world over have an intrinsic need to please; veiled ladies have simply found their own way of being beautiful.  In light of all this, I could only be damned. Being as graceful and light-footed as my lumberjack grandfathers, there was nothing to do but accept that no number of veils could ever make me pass for a “believing woman.” 

The short but intense episode of horror that followed the sight of my own grotesque reflection only served to entertain the mall crowd some more. Without further ado, I tore the ludicrous black cloak off my head and back and I shoved it in my purse. As I stormed out of the mall through a forest of giggling black ghosts, Jihan’s words echoed through my mind: “A chador calls respect ... it’ll make it easier for you to go unnoticed ... easier for you to go unnoticed.” 

Don’t be fooled: all black ghosts were not created equal. Some are definitely spookier than others.

Christine Michaud has worked in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as a business consultant. She is currently working on a book based on her travelogue Cairo to Istanbul in a G-string. This story appears in the new Travelers' Tales book, "Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures: Funny Women Write from the Road."

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