A WEEK WITHIN AN ABAYA
by Peg Wheeler
based on a one week visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 2005
I went to Saudi Arabia with the intent of staying objective, of being sensitive and above all, respectful. I believed if I did so, I might discover some justification for the cultural tradition of keeping women covered head to toe in black. I hoped that when I came to the end of my week’s stay in Riyadh, that I might have gained some understanding, and not have to defer to the common notion that this was an unacceptably backward practice.
I and the few other women passengers donned the black abaya as the flight touched down at Daharan air field where we were to make our connection to Riyadh, and I became acutely aware of a sudden and inescapable sense of personal inconsequence. I was astounded at the pronounced absence of any degree of assertiveness on my part; I couldn’t even bring myself to make a suggestion that would have solved a confusing problem at the subsequent Riyadh arrival, since we had come in the domestic terminal but were probably expected to be at the international one. I felt very much a shadow. Was I overreacting? What was I doing there?
It had been on rather brief notice that I agreed to accompany my husband when he was invited on this nostalgic journey to Saudi Arabia after 45 years. He had been stationed there in 1960 on a military mission. Preliminary internet researching of potential lodging brought me to the website for Al Khozama Hotel. There I first saw the dress requirement. It was made clear that even foreign women were expected to wear the abaya while in the Kingdom. OK, this could be a little shopping quest at our stopover in Dubai. I could do this.
My friends had been aghast and they expressed concerns, first for my safety, and then for my sentence to “the ugly black dress.” I assured them I was willing to comply if only out of respect. Others suggested an opportunity to “ground truth” the practice. If nothing else, it was indeed an opportunity to observe and to learn, assuming I would be allowed out of the hotel to go along on Keith’s excursions. I had brought an extra book just in case.
The earliest of one of these excursions was to a newspaper interview by a bright, and articulate young journalist. After the obligatory questions for Keith, he seemed genuinely interested in my impressions about the treatment of Saudi women. I had been in the Kingdom less than a day, and was not ready to give any concluding statements on the topic. He seemed rather disappointed with my comment that it was not for me to say how women in Saudi Arabia should be treated. Moreover, I was beginning to wonder when I would see a Saudi woman. They were nonexistent in the work force as far as I had seen, and of course, they didn’t drive. I learned a mere 2% of Saudi women work, and consequently there is a serious need for immigrant labor.
Finally, At Keith’s evening presentation of his 1960 slides, I met a woman. She worked at the American Embassy. My first question was a concerned “Where are all the women!?” Her contrite answer was a simple “At the malls.” That made a bit of sense since I had not yet been to a mall. That same evening in this very new and grand hall, I needed a WC. Lo, in that ultra-modern, expansive and expensive building, there were none for women! I guessed this was “ground truthing.” I was forced to accept the aid of a friendly older man who offered to “stand guard” outside the men’s toilet to ensure my privacy. That was embarrassing for me, a western woman, what must it have been for him? He was admirably gracious.
The men with whom we had thus far been conversing, invariably prefaced any comment about women’s rights with an assurance that “things are changing.” And when I eventually had a few conversations with women, the same declaration was reiterated. Ok, I thought, it did take the US a whopping 125 years for women to get the vote and a world war to get us into the workplace. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is only just over 100 years old. People seem willing to wait if they can believe things will change. But how long will it take this time? Another 125 years?
But, what is it that has to change? I am utterly ignorant regarding the motives of the so called “religious police,” or Matawa, but I came to understand they do wield significant power and still have recognition as an official branch of government. This is despite the reassurance that some of this is waning, that “things are changing.” Old ideas can die hard and even fester into radicalism if they are challenged too soon, this much I know. Perhaps there is some clue in the unambiguous subtitle of the Matawa: -- The Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices. This has the very ring of something tradition-hardened, ancient, and long-held; thus by definition, important to some, and perhaps to many. The message is clear: the Kingdom’s law makers are not yet ready. What it will take, I cannot venture even a feeble guess; hopefully something less than a generation.
Meanwhile, I am prepared to say from my own “ground truthing” that while the abaya is a serious symptom of subjugation, it is not the whole problem. In fact, the abaya, by itself, is a lovely, stylish, graceful and altogether pleasing piece of wearable art. I was impressed with the quality of the fabric, its flow, and its variety. Additionally, it quite solved the problem of what to wear in the same way any uniform does. The men, in the main, also wore a uniform, a crisp white shirt dress with a handsome red checked or all white head cloth. There is of course, the inescapable law of nature that makes a woman’s black uniform, in the desert sun, the last of choices, while the men’s reflective white, most sensible.
No, the real problem in my estimation is the more insidious separating out of the women. Men and women essentially do not associate with one another in public. In actuality; with the possible exception of malls, a woman is not particularly welcome in public places (evidence the absence of toilets). Many restaurants have SINGLES written above their door. Translated, this means “no women.” Others have “family rooms” where women are allowed -- usually screened or behind a visual barricade and with conditions substantially inferior. These make no pretense at “separate but equal.”
This practice is particularly difficult for the young girl who is of a mind to have a say in choosing her own potential husband. There is no way in traditional Saudi society for young couples to become acquainted. If she must observe cultural restraints, she lives with the fear of “What if I don’t get a good one?” Then if she doesn’t “get a good one,” what are her choices? Herein, lies the trap and the potential for abuse which feeds the stereotype, and not without reason. It is, of course, understood that an appointed husband does not equate abusiveness any more than one that is self-selected, guarantees success.
If, at best, she doesn’t get a bad one, what does her life become? Shopping malls and family can be gratifying, but limiting. There remains the undeniable and mathematic fact that women represent 50% of the population -- a largely untapped resource that could bring immeasurable wealth to the Kingdom, (recall the current need for imported labor) and thence to the world, and not insignificantly, freedom and personal growth for individual women.- In today’s world of technological advances, and the rapid exchange of ideas and learning, it need not take a world war this time; it could be accomplished in a single generation.
It took several days outside the Kingdom, before I overcame a hesitation upon entering a public place. “Can I go in here?” What must a lifetime of this be like?
That “things are changing” is decidedly a given; that the practice of covering women is symptomatic of a larger human rights issue is undeniable. Yet, to the extent that my brief week’s experience is in any remote way representative of the life experience of the Saudi woman, I must respectfully plead and fervently urge that there soon become real opportunities for this patient and deserving half of the population. To deny the Kingdom the talents, skills, energies, wit, and perseverance of its women is to lose a treasure more vast than all the oil fields of the world.
Click on photos for larger images.