October 10, 2012

The Abaya

Clothes have never… ever… been my strong point.  

After 7 years of teaching, I realized the only clothes I was ever complimented on were the ones my sister Lindsey bought for me.  Clothes have ALWAYS been Lindsey’s strong point.  My hair cutting girl even told me once, “Your sister is so stylish!”  As in, “You’re actually related to her??”  I just can’t seem to put outfits or colors together.  It stresses me out, not as much as IKEA, but enough that when I lived in Houston I only bought my clothes from Express because I figured if Express stuck it on the hanger, I couldn't be too wrong in wearing it.  (Andrew's Note: Except here in Saudi, actually.  It turns out that just because it's on a mannequin in a store does not guarantee the person dressing it has color/fashion sense.  I trust the Express people in the US.  Here...not so much.)   Anyway, if I had a choice in the fall and didn't care what my hairdresser thought of me, I would wear a crazy soft, long sleeved shirt with loose jeans, Toms, and those mitten things that have the fingers cut off.  And maybe a really long scarf.  None of this would match.  Lindsey would roll her eyes.  (And Andrew would buy her a gift card to...anywhere.)  I kind of like it when Lindsey rolls her eyes.  Dressing to impress the people, whether they be family or students or friends around me has never been something I've enjoyed.  So you can imagine that a VERY small part of me was just kind of excited about the prospect of moving to a country where I could wear my pj's out in public without anyone realizing it!  For those of you wondering, wearing pj's INSIDE camp is frowned upon. Especially in the commissary   When shopping for milk.  When all of your husband's students seem to have simultaneously run out of milk.  

More details on what wearing an abaya is like later, just know that wearing one in public (off camp) has become a very big part of leaving-camp-procedures.  We've been here two months so far and are realizing more and more that Saudi Arabia is a country of contradictions.  Nowhere else will you find such devout religious followers coexisting with unimaginable wealth (among many other things that are banned but still exist).  Before we arrived here, we had many preconceived notions of what we would be experiencing.  Much of our expectations came from what we saw portrayed on American TV, online chatter, books, or from people in the US expressing their opinions but never having been in the Kingdom.  As a woman, I had even more trepidation about my new life in a country that supposedly does not hold up women’s rights to the rest of the world’s standards.  I would love to tell you that everything you hear about women’s rights and this closed-off society is just as you've heard, but I can’t.  I also would love to tell you that everything is much better than the Western media portrays it, but I can’t do that either!  What I can do is give you a perspective from inside the country as one who is living as an expat, on a camp, but who goes outside of the camp many times a week to go shopping, visit friends, eat at restaurants or travel. (You're such an expat :-)

Erin and I off camp catching a bus into town.
As a woman, the most visual statement of a lack of women’s rights is the mandatory wearing of the “abaya,” the long, black, polyester robe which covers your clothes, arms, legs and ankles.  Depending on what part of the country you are in, the “burka,” or head covering which only shows the eyes is also mandatory.  Abayas with the burka are expected to be worn by any Saudi woman in the area where we live, outside Ras Tanura and in the larger cities of Al-Kobar and Damman.  As an expat, we tend to be able to get away with only wearing the abaya when off camp.  As many have seen, the abaya hangs very loosely around the body and more or less gives one absolutely no shape whatsoever.  A woman could be pregnant and I wouldn't know it. (It floors me how Saudi kids (who, by the way, are allowed to run rampant in this country with the "they'll grow out of it" attitude from parents) can find their mom in a sea of floating female eyeballs.  I have no clue how they know who to run back to EVERY time!)  Abayas are worn whenever a woman leaves her house and in stricter households, are worn in the house as well.  Wearing one outside wouldn't be a big deal if, say, this was Russia.  The Arabian sun feels distinctly hotter here than anywhere else I've lived, and the abaya becomes somewhat of an oven under these conditions.  When I leave camp, I usually wear the thinnest tank top I own, pajama shorts and flip flops topped off with the abaya.  (Is she telling the truth?  Who knows?)  In all honesty though, I have to admit still feeling a bit exposed even with the abaya on.  The women in the malls here usually have designer jeans or pants on under the abaya so that absolutely no part of their ankles show if the abaya gets kicked up from walking.  The past few weeks I’ve switched to linen pants with a tank top underneath so that my ankles don’t show.  (Finally.  Hussy....)  It is amazing how a cultures’ attitudes towards covering of skin can make you feel exposed even when you are almost fully covered.  When I wear my linen pants under the abaya, I feel much more comfortable.  On a lighter note, the abaya is absolutely awesome to wear indoors because of how cold every store or restaurant is kept.  You don’t have to bring a jacket along!  (One bus ride back from Khobar was so cold I had to wrap her black head scarf around me.  I would insert a joke about a kid running up to me then yelling "Mommy!', but, seriously, it doesn't happen.)

Perhaps if the house wasn't kept so cold this picture wouldn't have been necessary.  
Erin and I buying our first abayas!  These colored ones are usually only worn by expats.  (Nerds.)
Not being a Saudi woman means I cannot speak for them, but I can make observations based on what I've seen in the past 2 months.  Saudis have money, and lots of it.  The malls here are filled with every top end designer store you find in the US and Europe and the women shop at them all the time.  In my opinion, the malls here are way better than in the US.  All the clothes, from the skimpy shorts to halter tops from every major store and brand are on display and sold to an eager clientele.  I don’t know, but I assume these women are wearing these clothes either under the abaya, at parties for women or at home.  But no matter what, they are always covered in public places because that is the law.  At my gym, a women’s only gym, the Saudi ladies wear the cutest workout clothes.  They look way better than me!  Every morning the Aramco workers come by to clean or fix things in the gym.  The minute the bell rings at the door for a man asking permission to enter the gym, the women all quickly put their abayas back on along with the burka.  They even ask me if it is okay for the men to come in (because they see that I didn't bring an abaya with me and want to make sure I’m comfortable in my workout clothes in front of the men).  I believe that these women grew up seeing their mothers wearing the abayas in public, and when they were old enough they wore the garb too.  It is such a steady part of the culture that I think these women feel comfortable in them because they grew up with them.  It isn't as we perceive as Western women that they are pressured into a submissive state by wearing the garment.  I think that not wearing an abaya for an Saudi woman would be akin to a western woman walking into a mall just in her bikini.  I say this in hopes that my friends back home and anyone reading this that doesn't live in Saudi Arabia will hopefully not judge this culture too quickly, as is really easy to do if you watch 2 minutes of CNN or MSNBC or whatever.  (From a male perspective, or at least my own, it's jarring at first but actually can be a little refreshing.  As someone who appreciates it when girls decide NOT to parade around in what amounts to 2 napkins and some dental floss at the mall, out with friends, or even at church,  it's nice as a Christian guy to see something more conservative.  I know that's an understatement with plenty of selfishness in it, but that's a positive for me personally.) 

What?!  You mean your daughter doesn't own the latest abaya-covered-Barbie??!
The people here are some of the kindest I've met in my travels.  They LOVE children.  My expat friends actually get through the airport customs line quicker if they have children because they are ushered to the front of the line so that the guards can wave and talk to the kids.  The cashier at our local commissary never smiles at me, but he always smiles at the children of other expats and asks them questions.  There is a lot more to this culture and to people in the Middle East in general than we as Americans perceive. 

I think some people in the US feel sorry for me being a woman in this culture.  I actually had friends say they would never live here if offered a job due to the way women are treated.  And I’ll say this, as a Western woman, I miss the freedoms that my culture allows…freedom to drive a car off camp, freedom to walk alone in the mall without getting looks from people because of my blonde hair, freedom to wear what I want without the ‘mutawah’ (religious police) stopping me and telling me to cover my head and ankles. (Tramp.)  But what I've had to realize living here is that under that large black abaya, there are real women with real lives.  While I definitely don’t understand the laws, I have to respect them and understand than most women here are products of the circumstances in which they were brought up.  Who am I to judge them or form opinions about something of which I've only been a part of for 2 months?  I don't think it's healthy to think that I'm better than them or that my culture is better than theirs, I think our cultures are very different and we as Americans do very little to take the time to understand the ins and outs of why the Middle East is the way it is.  (With some of that certainly stemming from the fact that Saudi is effectively shut off from the rest of the world in terms of people coming here to understand it.) 

Me.  At the mall.  Waiting for an available taxi.  
Dang.  My dad, on several occasions, has told me that just because I have an opinion I don't have to express it.  This is a prime example of me NOT heeding his advice.  Feel free to roll your eyes at me and come back next week for something a little lighter.  For those of you still reading, understand that this topic is such a huge one I felt the need to say something about it.  Maybe Andrew can lighten up the mood with a story from teaching.... husband??


But...!  (No.)

(This blog post is over, woman.  Don't you have a sandwich to make me??!)



  1. Well, I see a little box below that tells you someone from Houston read your blog.I did!! I did!! Thanks for sharing......so often we have preconceived ideas and judge....God forgive us!!

    Love and prayers!


  2. Great insight! So glad you didn't follow dad's advice this time and DID share your opinion!