How to Dress When Visiting Saudi Arabia

Adjusting to 10 [ten] hour time change and a dramatically different climate is a journey unto itself. My body responded by deciding this simply meant she didn’t need to sleep more than four [4] hours a night in the first week.

At first, focused on the distress of losing rhythm. This improved nothing.
Instead, opted to roll with it.
Lying in bed until Anna & Tim wake and prepare for school, Sunday-Thursday (weekends here are Friday [day for prayer] and Saturday), enjoying their company and knowledge. Tim alluded to some nearby Oases and wisely indicated the nearest cell phone tower as a point of orientation. Google Maps did the rest.

As they left in the mornings, I followed them out, to wander about in the still cool (relative term) mornings.

Oh but what to wear?

The only time we are asked to wear abayas is when entering their holy places, the mosques. Here, we were visiting the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

The only time we were asked to cover was entering the mosques.
Here, we were visiting the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

I’ve always been shyly curious about Islamic dress. Reticent to form an opinion as I see such being on par with a white person extrapolating on minority oppression or a straight person critiquing gay struggle.

Making space for Otherness in personal narrative is difficult; a stretch, with no inkling of the degree of flexibility it will exact. Though, the moment we stop trying, brittleness begins.
We are also responsible to be stewards, to challenge, inform, and broaden our understanding. Every person is entitled to their own perspective.
Such is my opinion.
And this is my blog.

So, while I am excited to get to telling you about my walks amoung the date trees and generally try to keep things non-political and comfortable for all readers, I have something to say.

Last Christmas my mother, who has lived in Saudi Arabia for the past 2 [two] years, gave Sister and I each an abaya and shayla (also referred to as hijab).
It hung in the back of my closet between a kimono and dobok.

I am amazed at the variety of applications here. Some cover from the nose down, still others wear a veil over their entire face, though most I have seen in the UAE show the whole face. Some women wear only the shayla, others just the abaya.  Abayas come in all cuts and color, brilliant patterns, traditional black, hemmed and decorated black. All different, each denoting a culture, faith, tribe, the variety which I can hardly comprehend.

From a recent conversation, to quote a friend, “To quote a guy I met somewhere in the middle east in explanation for all the different ways. ‘god does love diversity’.”

A glimpse of a perspective from the other side came from a Saudi woman talking about visiting Thailand. She was taken aback by the scantly clad women. “At first I was worried they were cold, without enough clothing. Then I thought, ‘does no one treasure them enough to cover them?'”

A few of the many variety of Muslim Headgear for women.

To address the Western idea that covering is oppression, they do not see it as such and it is not necessarily true. Rather, it is an expression of who they are, where they come from and what they believe.

Each morning many western women ‘put on their faces.’ Some wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without make-up.

Well, instead of eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, blush, rouge, and lipstick it’s abayas, shaylas, chador, niqab, and burkas.

This is not to say the women here don’t use make-up. They do eyeliner and fashion something fierce.

Either way, cat’s out of the bag, we do it mostly for you, boys. Be it covering or cover-up, we do it because we care that our men think we are beautiful because that makes us feel beautiful. It is incredibly hard to step out of this and I am fascinated, witnessing an increasing number of women become aware of and challenge such expectations in themselves and others.

Exploring the streets and pathways of this ancient city, I have found the abaya liberating. When in the city and with my sister and brother-in-law, I do not feel the need to cover; in these instance, groups of men will stare unapologetically. Wandering the streets and neighborhoods alone in abaya and shayla I pass groups of construction workers and they do not gawk or cat call nearly as much as, say, those in Spain, where I felt uncomfortable walking the mile home from school because it passed several construction sites. Moving with confidence, I am free to wander as I please, feeling quite safe. I do not look at the men and they do not harass me. In covering, I feel more respectful of the culture and move about with greater ease.

I do find it interesting that sexist notions (ex. women have no sense of direction, know nothing about cars, are only interested in shopping, etc) seem pretty universal. A few examples from this past week:

Pathways and walls from the remains of a standing, ancient edifice.

Pathways and walls from the remains of a standing, ancient edifice.

I was discouraged from ambling through one Oasis because there was a turn in the pathways and I would most certainly get lost. Was granted permission to pass so long as I didn’t go far and did not turn. Proceeded onward and of course made turns, the guard found me some ten [10] minutes later seeming genuinely concerned. He was equally surprised as we conversed while walking and I led us back the way I had come.

Anna was disrespected and treated as if she did not know her own mind in pursuing the purchase of a vehicle, as the bank agent attempted to manipulate her into purchasing a vehicle for twice the price from his friend’s car lot or some location which would pay him a referral commission, rather than the vehicle she had specifically chosen.

I asked for directions to a nearby watchtower and was told it does not exist, I should probably go home. I insisted and the guard, after consulting with his friend, said the best route would be to go back to the nearest main road. And get a taxi to City Center. Where there is shopping and a touristy watchtower.
I asked to proceed on into the grounds and he stepped out of my way, sweeping his hand across the landscape as if to say, “good luck, lady.” I quickly found some impressive and expansive ruins and was able to clamber around on them to my heart’s content.

In sum, I say, go get ’em, ladies. You do you, however you see fit and wear whatever fits! We are each made beautiful by being fully ourselves. Unique is strong and lovely.

2 thoughts on “How to Dress When Visiting Saudi Arabia

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