Lately, it's been happening to me with increasing frequency. And sometimes it is downright terrifying. I am driving on some poorly lit road at night when a figure cloaked in black darts in front of my car, a few inches ahead of my headlights, and crosses over to the other side.
Slamming the brakes with gut-wrenching G-force worthy of a MIG-29 pilot, and with chilling emotions coursing through me, I fervently pray that I have not played any part in causing harm or injury to another living soul.
Just as I pull over to compose myself, I notice a fleeting shadow of a woman all cloaked in black in the rear view mirror. On this dark and lonely street, fate has luckily decreed that she cross safely over to the other side unharmed.
And then anger overwhelms me. Moments after uttering a few unmentionable expletives, I wonder why for heaven's sake was this figure so oblivious to the harm that could have befallen her? Was she stupid enough to assume that motorists drive with night vision gear and would be able to see her dark figure and slow down? Or did she believe that being a woman would automatically grant her the right of safe passage across a street?
But then as always, the mind begins to conjure up possible scenarios and sympathy takes over. She may have been out to get food for her children. Or was visiting a sick relative, and had no other means of getting around.
Perhaps she was rushing to aid ailing parents thus throwing caution to the wind, and had no man to help her in this male-dominated society.
Was it really her mistake? If she had the resources to own a car and could drive, would she have exposed herself to such mortal danger? Is it really her fault, or one created by the social customs of a bygone era to create the illusion of modesty?
Sad state of affairs
In this land of unchecked road warriors, I am usually a defensive driver and this one got away safely. I hate to think just how many women have been struck down by passing motorists just because they were draped in black.
And why only in black? Any grade school student would tell you that the colour black absorbs ultraviolet rays faster than any other colour, which makes it mighty uncomfortable in this part of the world for the wearer of such clothing when temperatures from a searing sun can often reach around 50 degrees Celsius.
In many Gulf countries, it is not uncommon to see a sizeable portion of the fairer sex draped in abayas that are primarily black in colour. Muslim women in other parts of the world do not always follow similar patterns.
In Morocco, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, white, light blue and other gentler colours are often used for modesty. This also allows some relief from the harsh sun.
In Saudi Arabia, the Commission for the Promotion of Good and the Prevention of Evil (the Vice Cops) is ever so vigilant particularly when it comes to matters that relate to women. The commission acts as the kingdom's morality police, enforcing a strict code of behaviour, and has in recent times gained notoriety in an unforgiving media for excesses that have threatened Saudi men and women alike.
Cases of Commission members abducting women who were deemed to be showing too much skin from beneath their full-length black abayas in public, or have their eyes exposed or else had to gall to move around with designs on their abayas had resulted in women being unceremoniously whisked to a commission office for hours of humiliating interrogation.
Decades of such unchecked behaviour by Commission members has resulted in a flat plain black tent of a cover, so to speak, adopted by most of these terrified women as the safest of options to avoid such unpleasant encounters, while they continued to suffer in the hot sun.
Modesty comes in all colours. Why not brown or sky blue, purple or powder pink for that matter? Or at least have a bit of colour running through their abayas to protect them in such situations. Why should one gender or body dictate the attire of another?
Why not allow women the freedom to determine their modesty comfort zone, and dress accordingly. And for their own safety! Why men have this assumption that they know what is always best or most pious?
If they do have to cross the streets unescorted and at night for now, the least that women should be allowed to do is sew up some luminescent stripes over their black abayas. In a sea of black, let there be some colour. Else it could lead to tragic endings.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.