As the heated debate about banning the face veil rages in France, a journalist with the women's magazine Marie Claire decided to put on the controversial cloth and walk the streets of Paris for five days.
In an article entitled "Ma semaine en Niqab" (My Week in a Niqab), published with photos in the May issue of Marie Claire, journalist Elizabeth Alexandre described her experience.
"I wanted to know what it feels to be fully veiled," she wrote. "I wanted to feel the fabric on my cheeks and forehead and see the world from this tiny slit. I also wanted to know how the world would see me."
In her article, Alexandre presented three conclusions from her veiled week. First she addressed how impractical and uncomfortable the full veil is, second she spoke of the sense of isolation it creates, and third she described the feelings of self-consciousness it aroused.
The first day she wore the long, loose dress, Alexandre was afraid that she might trip. Having a military walk, fast and serious, the journalist had to adjust and walk very slow in order to avoid falling.
"I felt as if I am inside a tent. I couldn't see my feet and when I walked the garment rolled around my legs and I had to slow down. I was terrified I was going to fall on my face."
She then went to a café where she found it very hard to drink her coffee or smoke a cigarette from under her veil.
"I had to keep lifting the veil in order to take sips from the coffee or to smoke. This was very difficult."
The full veil also proved impractical when Alexandre tried to read as couldn't wear her glasses because her entire face was covered. The fabric of the veil also rubbed against her eyelashes making it very inconvenient for her to blink.
Getting on the metro, Alexandre realized that people were reluctant to talk to her because they did not feel at ease talking to someone whose face they cannot see.
"They looked at me then looked away. I tried to start a conversation with the passengers, but I failed. I felt isolated."
When she went to her office in the magazine pretending she had decided to wear the face veil for real, her colleagues started treating her differently.
"I found out that I could neither see nor hear properly and that made team work nearly impossible."
She later went to the post office where two women were very friendly and warned her that her backpack was open. When the reception employee tried to bypass her, they informed her that Alexandre had come before them.
"I showed her my ID and the contents of my backpack, which she returned to me curtly. When I asked her if she would want to see my face, she yes in a very rough way. It was obvious that she was nervous."
In another incident, a little child started screaming upon seeing her.
Going back home and taking off the veil made Alexandre breathe a sigh of relief. She felt she was free.
"I discovered how the face veil isolates the woman as it turns her into someone who cannot interact with people. I felt that after only three days of wearing it."
On the fourth day, Alexandre drew the third conclusion: the full veil made her extremely self-conscious and overly sensitive about anything related to her body.
"I felt that I am both invisible and too visible. It felt like I was placed in a window ship and everyone was invited to watch."
Alexandre explained that wearing a full veil eliminated any feelings of vanity or self-esteem and made her ovely self-conscious whenever the smallest part of her body was revealed.
"A source of sin"
"Being totally covered made me feel that my body is a disgrace. All men around me turned into sexually obsessed beasts that want to devour me. It is then that I felt I need the veil to protect me from this imminent danger. For the first time in my life, I felt I was a sex bomb and a source of sin."
Alexandre added that the mystery the full veil evokes made people interested in what is beneath the garment.
While walking in the street, a young man approached her and said, "You are very beautiful. You are like women in myths." Another told her, "You are like a bag of surprises. Nobody knows what's inside."
"This secrecy gives free reign to everybody's imagination and makes people wonder about what the hidden parts look like."
On her last day, Alexandre met two Muslim women who told her that their mothers and grandmothers never wore the veil although they were deeply religious and that many women wear the full veil in order to attract attention.
"They told me that people should not confuse the niqab with the teaching of Islam and that it is a great religion that no one should tarnish. I felt deep respect for both of them and I left."
Alexandre went back home and bid farewell to the outfit that had become part of her life for five full days.
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)