Saudi Arabia changed everything for me. It was soon after my family arrived in Jeddah, when I was fifteen years old, that I first wanted to wear a headscarf. Religion was everywhere. Less than a month after we arrived in Jeddah, we went on hajj, or pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam. Up until then, Mecca-the birthplace of Islam and the site of the Ka'aba, the cubical structure toward which Muslims pray five times a day-was a place I'd seen only in pictures hanging on the living room walls of family and friends. This trip was the first time I'd worn any kind of veil outside prayer time. I looked like a nun dressed in my white pilgrimage clothes.
One of the first rituals of the pilgrimage is tawwaf: circling the Ka'aba in order to pay respect to this sacred place and signal your intention to perform the hajj. Watching from above the hundreds upon thousands of Muslim men and women circle the Ka'aba is like watching a turntable spin, smooth and breathtaking in its motion. You're supposed to circle the Ka'aba seven times, and as I slowly walked around it, reciting prayers along with my family, in a moment of great significance and sanctity, I felt a hand on my ass. I had never before been touched on that part of my body (or anywhere else, for that matter) by a man. I could not run, and even if I had possessed the courage,
I could not turn around to confront the man who was groping me because the space was so crowded. I could not put into words what was happening to me. I could not understand how, at this holiest of holy places, the place we all turned to when we prayed, someeone could think to stick his hand on my ass and to keep it there until I managed to squirm away. He was persistent. Whenever I broke free, he persisted in groping my ass. I burst into tears, because that's all I could do. I did not have it in me to tell my parents the truth, so I told them the crowds were getting to me.
My mother and I had to wait for the women's turn. A Saudi policeman who was standing there signaled to the men to wait while we kissed the stone. As I bent toward the stone, the same policeman surreptitiously groped my breast. Surreptitiously: I came to learn during my years in Saudi Arabia and then in Egypt that this was how most men did it. That's how they got at your body - so surreptitiously that you ended up questioning your own sense of having been violated; your disgust at what happened; whether, in fact, fingers actually did poke through the underside of your seat on a bus or ever so lightly brush against your ass as the man to which those fingers belonged looked the other way.
If a policeman standing next to the Ka'aba in Mecca gropes my breast, what chance do I stand of complaining and getting anything done about it? Silence and shame are quick and early lessons. If a policeman who tells the men to stand aside so that women can kiss the black stone unhindered gropes my breast there, right next to the holiest site for Muslims, what chance do I or other women stand of fighting violations of our bodies?
The God of Virginity
Arab society still considers that the fine membrane which covers the aperture of the external genital organs is the most cherished and most important part of a girl's body, and is much more valuable than one of her eyes, or an arm, or a lower limb. An Arab family does not grieve as much at the loss of a girl's eye as it does if she happens to lose her virginity. In fact if the girl lost her life, it would be considered less of a catastrophe than if she lost her hymen.