Behind the Veil

March 7, 2011
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In the country of Saudi Arabia most women are denied education. In the rare cases in which they are permitted to enter an educational institution the family must be of great wealth or nobility. Many Saudi women are now taking a stand and protesting this rule that has been forced against them for hundreds of years. “Women should have jobs just like men. We should be allowed to read and write. Isn’t it enough that we are not even able to show our true identities?” Says a Saudi woman. Many women who have gone to great lengths to protest have been silenced. How far will these women go to get what is rightfully theirs?

As I looked up from my paper tears bubbled in my eyes. Like a trigger had been pulled, my mind filled with memories of my childhood. As I stared out the window of my room memories of my sister began playing in my head like a movie. If only I had helped her or stopped her. Something that has haunted me throughout my entire life.

” Anna, did u see those girls on that paper? The one wearing doctor’s clothes?”

It was a regular, warm night and as usual my sister Layla was doing my hair before we went to be. And of course telling me stories of her day.

“She looked so happy and with a big smile on her face. Maybe one day I could be like an American woman and have my face on the front of a paper!” The excitement in her voice was unmistakable. “Those women have money and freedom and not a care in the world! I envy those people so much.”

“But why should you be jealous of those women? Our lives aren’t that much different. Are they?”

As she ran her fingers through my long hair Layla sighed, “Look around us. We can’t dress like that; we sleep on carpets on the floor. Americans probably sleep on the best beds in the world! Imagine being able to travel everywhere and do whatever we please. Spend all the money we want!”

“That would be wonderful!” A sudden wave of excitement filled my body, only shortly to be extinguished when reality hit me, “But we’ll never be able to live those lives. Papa doesn’t make enough money.”

“Don’t be so down! One day we’ll go to school. We’ll learn to read and write! We’ll have jobs and make money! One day the two of us are going to travel the world; we will leave this place where all women are the same!”

Layla tied off my hair and kissed me on the forehead. I could feel her energy and see the excitement in her eyes. I frowned at her skeptically, wondering what her next big scheme was going to be.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll free us both.”

That night I went to bed confused and startled by what Layla had told me. She was so serious yet there was no way she could seriously free us. She and I both knew that we would never attend school. Only our younger brothers Dylan and Armand would be given that privilege. What did she mean by “free us both”. I fell asleep with an unpleasant feeling of dread in my stomach.

Every week my whole family would travel to the city and spend the day at the market. Almost like a mini vacation. We would go and buy food and special treats if we were lucky. My sister and I put on our light summer garments, then on top of that our chadors. I will never forget the feeling of those long robes. They were black and hot, they made me feel unimportant because it made us all blend in with everyone around us. Also we had to cover our faces with a black headdress. It made it so much harder to breathe that I felt like I was suffocating behind a veil.

I didn’t dare tell Mamma or Papa about my feelings towards our garments. I knew that I had to wear them and complaining would only lead to a stern reprimanding. However, Layla had no trouble speaking her mind.

“But mamma,” she would say, “they are hot and uncomfortable why must I wear this horrible thing?”

“Don’t you dare speak to me that way! Imagine what your father would do if he heard you? Don’t whine about what you must wear. It is our custom.”

“Then why don’t men have to wear them?”

Layla would always push the line as much as she could. It seemed that she just couldn’t contain her opinions no matter the consequences. She was always the brave one.

In Saudi Arabia some of the women hold parties for all the women in the village. They are usually in secret, away from the men, in the basement of a store or in a hidden room. Mamma had gone to a few but this was me and my sister’s first time. I was so excited. It felt like I was growing up. Even though I was twelve I felt like a woman.

As the years went by something was happening to Layla. Her usual bright spark seemed to be fading. Anger and resentment seemed to rule her personality. It was as if a storm was clouding her whole personality.
Three years later in April we celebrated Layla’s seventeenth birthday. I took it upon myself to decorate the entire house. I hung different colored fabrics from our low ceilings and I decorated every available surface with a different table cloth. I even baked her cake, my mamma’s recipe. Soon the whole house was an explosion of color and the smell of warm vanilla cake filled every space.
However Layla didn’t get up that morning. I went and saw her lying in bed. She said she was sick but there was something more than that. Her eyes were glassy with tears and she had brought her knees up to her chest, wrapping herself up like a cocoon. Her skin was an eerie whitish color, it looked tired and wasted. She said it was the flu, but I knew it was worse than that. It was pure pitiful sadness.
A few weeks later I was walking by the kitchen
“Are you sick again?” I asked my sister one morning, it was another one of Layla’s bad days.
She looked at me with tired eyes, “Anna, do you know what today is?”
I stared at her with blank eyes, confusion written on my face.
“It’s Sam and Raj’s first day of school,” there was crispness in her voice that I didn’t understand. “Mamma is getting them all dressed up and preparing them to become men. She wants us to be proud of our little brothers, that they are finally ready to go to school. Such an honor.”
“Well then we should be proud of them. Right?” I responded timidly not knowing where this was going.
“Well yes but Anna think about it. I am seventeen and you are fifteen, much older than them but we are not able to go to school. We will never learn to read or how to count. Mamma and Papa are so proud of them but when are they ever proud of us? Are we going to be stuck in this house all day with no prospect of freedom or having a job? I want to be different, be educated. I want to live the life that all Saudi women dream about; I want to go to America!”
I was stunned. Layla spoke with a moving power that shook every part of me.
“I refuse to stay here and get married, waste my life away doing house work all the time. Have you noticed that mamma does nothing but cook, clean and attend to all of papa’s needs? Sometimes I feel so trapped, like there is no way out of this world. I can never have freedom. Everywhere I go I must be escorted, I am denied education and one of these days we will be married off to strange men we don’t know! Every night I pray for a way out but nothing ever changes. I am still trapped in a world that I despise!”
And with her last final words Layla stood up and stormed out of the room.
Layla’s speech in our bedroom startled me. She sounded so angry yet so determined. I knew it was a matter of days before she would act out again. She usually had small rebellions and nothing much came of it. But this time I could sense something much worse, like a volcano about to erupt.
And then it happened, just a few nights later.
I was sound asleep in my bed when I heard violent pounding on the door. My first reaction was than we were being robbed. The pounding grew louder and a man’s voice shouted, “Open the door!” And then I heard papa get up. I stood up and crept into the doorway of my room to see what was going on. Papa opened the door. I was staring at what my eyes couldn’t believe. There she was, being held by an angry police officer, a look of angry defeat on her face. There was Layla.
Once the police officer had left all hell broke loose. Papa grabbed Layla and pulled her to the floor. She screamed and tried to pull away but he was too strong for her.
“What have you done?” Papa bellowed so loudly that I felt the roof tremble.
“Let go of me!” Layla screamed.
Papa slapped her across the face. The noise was frightening. Mamma just stood there watching the scene, not even trying to stop her brutal husband. For if she did she would suffer the same fate.
“Answer me girl!” Papa seemed to be loosing patience. “where did you go!”
“I was trying to escape you! I was going to leave here and never return again! This place is so repressive and I want my own life, not one you choose for me! I will go to school! I will have a job, my own house my own life and there is no way I will marry that horrible man Armand!”
“You will do as you are told and you will appreciate what I have done for you! You will never leave this house again until Armand comes for you! You will be his wife and you shall never leave his side! Do I make myself clear?”
Layla wrenched her arm away from his grip and stalked off to our room. A red burning handprint visible on her cheek.
Weeks later Papa came home one day accompanied by a man. He looked to be in his fifties with jet black hair laced with streaks of grey. He had neither an ugly or attractive face, merely vigilant and unemotional. There was something about him, a chilly aura that surrounded him and embraced everyone that came close.
“Layla!” Papa called, “I have someone here to meet you.”
Layla came hurrying from outside where she had been looking after our brothers.
“Yes Papa?”
“This is Kanaan. He is a very wealthy man of the house of Sheba. We have some very important business to discuss with you young lady.”
Kanaan took Layla’s hand in his and kissed it.
“My beautiful Layla.” Kanaan’s voice sounded crisp yet not unkind, but there was something odd about the way he looked at her.
And with that papa escorted Layla and Kanaan of into the kitchen.
I sat in my room with my heart racing, I had suspected this would happen. We were both of age and it was just a matter of time before Papa would decide.
Suddenly a door slammed, there were footsteps running and the sound of repressed sobs. Then the back door closed. I knew the worst had happened, an engagement.
I rushed out of my room ignoring papa’s reasuurance to Kanaan that she would come around. I ran out the back door to the nearby tree on our property. Ever since we were little that tree had always had a magical way of comforting Layla when she was upset. I found her sitting under the tree sobbing.
“My life is over! I can’t do anything now! I’m going to be stuck here forever!”
Layla was sobbing so hard she could barely talk. I reached out my hand and patted her on the back. I knew now that it was up to me to keep our family together. Layla had broken and I had to pick up her pieces.
The wedding was in three weeks, the worst weeks of my poor sister’s life. All she could do was mope around the house like a zombie. She had lost all of her charm and sparkle. Kanaan would come and take her out. She hated him, the way he treated her, the way she had to gain his approval before doing anything.
Misery and sadness followed her around like a storm. We grew more and more distant as her depression got worse. There was no way to help her or make her smile. It was like talking to a corpse.
One night my worst fears came true. It was a cold night and I was fast asleep in bed. The wedding was only two days away and the whole family was feeling the stress. As I lay in bed I woke up to the horrible sound of an explosion and a scream. A bright orange light flashed outside and the screaming got worse and worse. I ran outside to see what had happened and I froze in my tracks. Amongst a big ball of fire Layla was screaming in the center of it.
I was shocked. I couldn’t move or think. Papa came running out screaming, mama grabbed my hand and pulled me inside with my brothers. The screaming was awful, it pierced my skin. I was crying hot tears. I has seen this coming and yet I could not help her, I did nothing but stand there and watch her suffer.
The screaming stopped and all fell quiet. Papa came into the house, teats down his cheeks. Mama burst into tears dropping to the floor. In that moment I realized that I would do everything in my power to fulfill my sister’s dream. To let her live through me, to carry on her will. I couldn’t save my sister but I would live out her dream.

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