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Behind the veil in Saudi Arabia

Saturday, 27 August, 2016

“On every vacant lot in time appears the jumble of brownish brick, the metal spines of scaffolding, the sheets of plate glass; then last of all the marble, the most popular facing material, held on to the plain walls behind it with some sort of adhesive. From a distance it lends a spurious air of antiquity to the scene.” Hilary Mantel’s Saudi Arabia, as depicted in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, is a place of impersonal ugliness and stifling heat, a kingdom of sexual repression, corruption and violence.

Andrew Shore, a civil engineer, accepts a lucrative package from a British firm that has been commissioned to erect an opulent office building for the Saudi government. When his contrary, independent wife, Frances — a cartographer by trade — arrives in Jeddah to join Andrew, she’s instantly disquieted by the city and soon finds herself despising this masked society peopled by expats, who are mostly alcohol-sodden mercenaries, evasive Muslim neighbours and cruel, capricious officialdom. Confined in her apartment for most of the day, she begins to hear sounds of suffering from the supposedly empty flat above. Shopping provides some relief, but not much:

In the supermarket, Francis bought mangos. She put them in a plastic bag and handed them to a Filipino. He weighed them, twisted the bag closed, gave it back to her, but he did not even glance her way. Around her, women plucked tins from shelves. Women with layers of thick black cloth were their faces should be; only their hands reached out, heavy with gold.

She caught up with Andrew, laying her hand on the handle of the trolley beside his, careful not to touch.

“I didn’t know the veil was like this,” she whispered. “I thought you would see their eyes. How do they breathe? Don’t they feel stifled? Can they see where they’re going?

Andrew said, “These are the liberated ones. They get to go shopping.”

Thirty years after its original publication, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is still as disturbing as ever. Frances Shore is not a radical feminist but Hilary Mantel’s character is a dedicated opponent of fabricated separatism: “I would like to stride up to the next veiled woman I see and tear the black cloth from her face and rip it up before her eyes. I know that would be wrong, but I would like to do it.”

The naqab


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