December 3, 2008

The suburbs around where we live have a large Middle Eastern population, and one of the grocery shops I go to is right next to a Muslim school. So I am quite use to seeing women in the Hijab, and wearing head to toe clothes. There aren’t as many women which have the extra scarf across their face so you can only see their eyes. Whenever I serve one I always feel a bit uneasy – I think it’s mainly because I get so much of my information about people from their body language; when that goes and I can only rely on voice I feel a bit lost.

I may have mentioned before that on Saturdays I work at a candle and home deco store. A few weeks ago I had a different experience which I can’t seem to shake.

A couple came in with a young girl. The wife was wearing the full hijab with a scarf across her face. She didn’t speak English so her husband was translating for us. They were looking at our scented oils and trying to pick a scent they liked. After describing what they liked I picked one and offered it to her. Instead of smelling it under her scarf she pulled the scarf down and smelt it.

I had never seen someone do this before and I didn’t want to do anything offensive so I lowered my eyes and sort of took a step back- trying to work out if I should leave or stay. Her husband noticed my subtle movements and smiled - “its okay, its fine around women.” I felt a bit ashamed that he could read me so easily.
“It’s more a cultural thing anyway. Islam only says that women should wear the Hijab around the face. We are from Saudi Arabia – which is why she wears the . . . (I can’t remember what he called it), but it’s only around other men.”

His wife was looking at him questioningly, so he explained what had happened to her, I could tell from his gestures he was saying the same thing he had said to me. She smiled, turned to me, nodded and laughed.

It was a nice laugh; a friendly one, that reached her eyes and lit up her face. She didn’t look much older than me and I suddenly got this feeling that in a different time or place we could have been friends. If I had met her in a more social environment, if I wasn’t the shop assistant and she wasn’t the customer; if she could speak English or I could speak Arabic we could have gotten to know each other.

We continued around the shop, trying to find the things that suited their needs. I was fascinated by the way she could know if there was another man in the store – without even looking around (or doing it very subtly). If she pulled the scarf down to smell the candle I could look around and see that it was only women (besides her husband) in the store, but when she held the candle under her scarf I looked around and there was a man.

I keep wishing they would come in again, but I haven't seen them since.

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