Manama: “I will be at the Qiyam prayers,” Rasha said, referring to the midnight group prayers Muslims hold during the last ten days of Ramadan, the month of fasting.
Ahmad could not believe his ears. He had not expected her answer and felt utterly confused, unable to respond.
The thought that Rasha, the free-spirited unveiled young woman who always wore knee-length skirts, was a devout and practising Muslim who performed not only Taraweeh, the evening prayers in Ramadan, but also the Qiyam prayers, the ultimate indication of prayer devotion.
He had known Rasha for months, a colleague at their company in the capital Manama. She had impressed him and most of the staff with her positive professional and ethical attitudes, and he particularly liked the fact that she was friendly with all, invariably ready with a smile to assist and consistently willing with good faith to listen and talk.
When their director invited them to the ghabga, the late dinner reception hosted by their company, in mid-Ramadan, he thought he could spend some time with Rasha outside the confines of the office. He had drawn up plans in his head to sit next to her and looked eagerly forward to a highly enjoyable evening with her.
But now, with the information that she would not be there and that she would be instead at a mosque, his plans were irrevocably shattered.
“Most of the women wearing the hijab (veil) said that they would be at the ghabga, and Rasha, who does not wear it, would be at the mosque. I do not get it,” he murmured to himself as he later recalled the conversation with his colleague. “Is there something I cannot understand here? The contrast is far too puzzling for me.”
For Ahmad, a practising Muslim himself, the paradox was beyond his comprehension. Raised in a conservative family, he had always seen the world from the traditional perspective and often failed to connect with the perimeters now overwhelming modern society.
“I have often been in situations where people think that, because of my looks and open attitudes, I am not religiously committed,” Rasha said.
“Unfortunately, there is a strong belief that you are religious only if you wear certain clothes in a certain way. The opposite is also true. Some people believe that showing off lots of flesh is a sign of civilization and freedom and that wearing modest clothes is an expression of underdevelopment.”
She added that she kept the same wardrobe whether she was in Bahrain or in Europe where she often travelled with her family.
“I am truly bothered by the sight of Gulf women who wear ultra-conservative clothes at home, but promptly throw them away when they are in Europe or the US. I do understand that culture and geography are critical factors in the way people dress, but I like consistency. It all comes down to why you are wearing what you are wearing and whether religion or social norms guide you,” she said.
Several non-veiled women in the Gulf tend to wear the abaya — the traditional black coverall — when they go out or go to work during Ramadan, but remove it when the sacred month is over.
Mariam, a young Tunisian woman, said that she was fortunate that the focus on women’s clothes in her home country was not as sharp.
“I wear the hijab and I have cousins who do not. Yet, we go together to the beach and we swim without attracting the attention of anyone. There is no defiance from any of us and at the same time, no one tells me that it is wrong to go for a swim and no one tells my cousins that they must wear the hijab. There is room for everyone at the beach. We do appreciate this high level of tolerance that we hope to keep despite the dramatic developments unfolding in our country,” said the business graduate.