Between two mothers, a wall of fabric.

She was asleep on the bus, her chubby toddler legs spread wide, revealing a pair of white cotton panties beneath her miniskirt. Her silvery shoes rested on her mother’s lap as she burrowed her head into her father’s shirt.

My glance trailed across the rest of her little family, sitting across the bus aisle from me as we rode back from Disney World. Despite the Florida heat, the father was wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and long pants. Mom was covered head-to-toe in a black burka, with only her dark eyes peeking out. She spoke quietly to her husband in Arabic. An expensive-looking pair of dark-indigo blue jeans peeked out beneath the hem of her robe.

I thought about how hot she must have been all day, walking around the theme park in the sun in all those layers without even a hint of breeze to cool her.

She cradled her infant son in her arms and fiddled with a fold at the top of her burka. Without the reference of nose or chin, it looked like she was touching her shoulder, until her son began rooting, and I realized she was breastfeeding him.

I looked from daughter to mother. The daughter: about age four, in modern, adorable clothing, with her skirt hiked up around her waist. The mother: covered, silent, invisible.

Her slumbering children brought to mind my own young sons, tucked into bed at the hotel with their grandparents watching over them. My eyes skittered away.

I wanted to ask about her children, to explore our common bond. But the burka stopped my tongue.

Did she choose to wear it voluntarily, the way a very conservative Christian woman might choose to wear only long skirts and dresses? Did she feel safer and more comfortable inside her shroud?

Was she a victim of an oppressive society that brainwashed her into thinking she was lesser than her man, and therefore must not be seen or heard? Did she want to be invisible? Was I allowed to talk to her? Could I even tell her how beautiful I thought her sleeping children were, as I would with any other mother?

I busied myself studying the pattern in the blue and pink carpeting, then glanced at the Disney propaganda video being played on a loop on the bus’s four closed-circuit TVs. I looked at the ceiling and counted the florescent lights — trying, trying not to stare at the invisible woman seated across from me.

But I failed, and as I glanced her way one more time, I caught her eye.

Instinctively I smiled, and stretched my hand towards her daughter. “Your children are beautiful,” I said. She glanced at her husband and he translated for her.

“Thank you,” she answered. “I’m sorry; my English is not so good.”

I looked at her, but addressed her husband, telling him how her children reminded me of my own. He told me that they were from Saudi Arabia. The remainder of the bus ride passed quickly, consumed by friendly small talk.

As he talked about the university he was attending in Texas, I tried to imagine what it must be like to grow up as his daughter, free from all constraints, free to flash the world with her 4-year-old bottom. To be allowed to talk, and laugh, and wear cute clothes until … what? The onset of menstruation? Some pre-determined age?

How many years did she have left to breathe freely, to be cool and comfortable as she toured the world? For how much longer would she get to feel the sunshine on her skin and the breeze tickle the back of her neck?

We disembarked together at our hotel, their daughter still asleep and disheveled, their son cradled in his mother’s arms. My husband and I held hands.

And we parted, waving, and wishing each other Happy Holidays.

Article © 2009 by Stacey Duck