The Unexpected Side of the Veil

Many years ago, I thought as probably many young Americans did, that the coverings Muslim women wore were oppressive. That is was unfair to force women to dress in baggy tent cloaks and cover their hair and faces. Eventually, I embraced the idea that a woman being free to wear whatever she wants should include covering as much of herself as she wants. I still don’t think I agree with the forced adoption of the abaya in Saudi, but I also don’t like the niqab ban in France. Turns out, wearing an Islamic style face veil in France gets you a 200 Euro fine, ouch!

When I went shopping for my own Abaya and hijab, I went into it with the expectation that it was a sort of necessary inconvenience. If I wanted to go to Saudi, I had to obey the laws and respect the culture. And the shopping experience itself helped me to a new understanding that the covering garments were culturally appreciated as beautiful, sort of the same way that seeing a woman in a nice dress or a man in a nice suit is: it shows a care for your appearance, not in this case by showing it off, but by protecting it for the right person.

You see, that’s the positive aspect of abaya/hijab/niqab wearing that I hear most often from Muslima. There is of course the call for modesty (for men and women) in the Quran, but there isn’t a specific dress code anywhere in the religion, so what qualifies as modest varies from culture to culture. (Although, I do understand that there is a specific mention of covering the bosom/chest.) Additionally, they’re supposed to not show-off their beauty to anyone but their husband, but there is no description of what showing off means or of what exactly is “her beauty”. Is that her hair? her face? her legs? her ass? who knows?

Other Muslima say that they like to wear it because it keeps men from looking at them like sex objects. I’m not sure this is realistic. The men here still try to pick up girls, they hurl their phone numbers at them from car windows, plaster their social media accounts as bumper stickers on their cars, and wander around malls with their blue-tooth connections open, signalling single ladies with a subtle hand sign or hat tip that they’re available. The abaya may keep men from seeing a woman’s body shape (to a point, cause the wind plasters those things right down like a bodysuit), but it doesn’t stop men from passing around dirty pictures like they have done since the dawn of time and fantasizing about the women they can’t have.

Some Muslima even talk about how much they like chatting online with men because they know the man must be interested in their words and personality because he can’t see their face or body. I absolutely believe that men all over the world are capable of appreciating a woman for her mind and personality. But I have a really hard time believing that the internet is full of sexually frustrated young Muslim men who are interested in these women for their minds. So, I’ll just be holding off judgement on the objectification prevention aspect of the abaya. Maybe some men can weigh in on this one.

Many Muslima say that they like to wear the coverings because it keeps anyone from seeing their beauty but those whom they choose. This seems almost romantic when they talk about it, guarding their beauty for the man they love, but I’m not sure about this one either. They barely get a chance to meet, often only see each other once or twice while chaperoned and then phone or online conversations to “get to know one another” before the wedding. I’m not saying love can’t grow out of an arranged marriage, but it does seem overly Disney Princess to imagine that you’re hiding your beauty for your true love’s eyes only.

On the other hand, I have to say that as an American woman, I get pretty fed up with the notion that my beauty is on display for everyone all the time. There’s an expectation in America (and probably large chunks of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America) that we should be dressing up every day. That it is our duty to look good not for ourselves, or even just our husbands or boyfriends, but for every man whose field of vision we will enter that day. The idea that if I choose to go out of the house in comfy jeans and t-shirt with no make-up and my hair in a casual bun that I must not be feeling well (best case scenario) or that I’m a lesbian who doesn’t want to turn men on (not even the worst case, but you get the idea). Leaving aside the fact that lesbians might want to turn women on with their looks, its totally ridiculous that we can’t have casual days without there being some big reason other than “I wanted to be comfortable” or “I like how I feel about myself in this”.

*Seattle may be an exception, cause people there dress in PJs and yoga pants. It’s been accused of being a fashion blind city and I love it to pieces, because I can’t stand the idea of wearing makeup every day.

Recently there has been a photo movement  which encourages Muslima to take a selfie in their hijab (with or without niqab) with the hashtag #damnIlookgood. The idea is to raise awareness that women who cover their hair and faces still feel beautiful and confident and want to capture that feeling to share with their friends and their future selves. All reasons we take selfies in the West, too.

I expressed a desire to find some kind of middle ground for modesty in dress and behavior and the ability to still have friends of the opposite gender. It sure would be nice to be able to dress in a way that made me comfortable and not feel sexually objectified without being called ugly, fat, tired, sick or butch. To be able to feel beautiful and confident without feeling like I’m on display, and then be able to break out the sexy when I choose and for whom I choose. Seriously, how cool would that be. But, I really like my guy friends. It drives me crazy that every dude in this country who talks to me in anything other than a strictly professional capacity ends up coming across like that creepy drunk in the bar who makes you beg your gay friend to pretend to be your boyfriend. And I feel like this is a direct consequence of not being allowed to talk to girls their whole lives. So, middle ground.

In the end, though, these are all aspects of the veil that I’d read about or heard about in some form before coming here. The experience certainly adds depth to my understanding of these motivations, but none of them were wholly unexpected.

What was unexpected was the feeling of safety, security and protectedness that the veil imparted to me.

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When I first arrived here, I had an overwhelming desire to meet the bare minimum of the legal requirements. I would wear the abaya, but I knew it wasn’t legally required for Western women to cover their hair, and dang its hot in September here. It was explained to me swiftly that Tabuk is a more conservative town, so it would be a “good idea” to wear my hijab as well. Two of the ladies I work with also wear the niqab (face veil) as well. Only one chooses to veil for religious reasons. The other one started off not wearing the veil here, but experienced so much harassment from men that she started veiling in self-defense.

Sadly, she probably got more harassment because she is African-American and her skin tone (while light) is still more similar to someone of Arabic or African nationality than Caucasian, so the Saudi’s are more likely to think she’s a third class expat than a first class one. Sad but true, they are pretty bigoted against certain nationalities and tend to forget that there are black people all over the world.

At the time she told me about this, I had experienced nothing but positive interactions with the people I’d met in Saudi, men and women, so I felt very far removed from the possibility of experiencing similar problems. But over the course of the next several weeks, events in my life changed my perspective.

I’ve only worn the niqab once, but I remember feeling that it made me invisible, like I was looking out from behind a two-way mirror. This was actually a little trippy and kind of empowering, but not enough to make me want to wear the niqab all the time.

Then there was the unfortunate experience with the hotel manager. Cause few things make you feel more vulnerable and unsafe than the guy with the master key and all the close circuit tv cameras in the building walking around your apartment, touching your stuff and leering at you. It was pointed out to me at great length that the way I dressed and who I talked to was very crucial to my reputation here in Saudi, and that if I was seen as easy or loose (already well on my way just by being American) that it would be seen as an invitation for advances from other men. Showing your hair or smiling at man can be perceived as easy and loose behavior, by the way. And worse, if my reputation gets too bad, then other people will believe that I invited it (was asking for it) instead of holding the man accountable for being a skeezebag.

The “white knight” in the above linked post who so violently defended my honor against the hotel manager also turned out to be way more psycho than I originally realized. Violent behavior was not limited to defending young women’s honor, and he’s caused so many fights and traffic accidents that he’s wanted by the police! My normal friendly behavior and Facebook friend acceptance led to some very awkward electronic communication, even though I have not seen him since that day. Including invitations to join the Communist Party, pictures of car wrecks he caused, stories about ISIS beheadings (apparently he sent the video of the beheadings to one of the male teachers here), pictures of hickies he’s gotten, and multiple public threats to murder someone on my behalf.

And speaking of Facebook, I’ve had to make statements on the Saudi Facebook pages I’m on to the effect that I will not befriend any men living in Saudi, and that I will not go places or visit or otherwise hang out with men in Saudi. In the first place, my personal facebook page is generally limited to people I’ve met in person. I don’t like having anonymous people of either gender reading about things I’m trying to share with my friends and family. In the second, its a huge problem to be friendly with guys here. The pages are great, cause its a public forum where we can talk and exchange ideas and be protected by the moderators and the presence of other readers. But dudes who want to private message or friend me are mostly just looking for easy loose American women. No thank you.

Worse, I’ve had people try to bully me into not being “such a prude” about talking to guys (blocked, btw), and dudes who deliberately had vague profiles. In one post while I was in Jeddah, I said I was going back to the beach and any ladies who would like to share a taxi were welcome, but sorry no men. Someone PM’d me about sharing a taxi and I didn’t realize for a while that it wasn’t a lady. I got upset and tried to terminate the conversation, ended up having to say I felt like I’d been lied to since I’d specifically said no men and he’d responded anyway, and he kept pushing me to meet him at the beach.

Then there were the taxis in Jeddah. Yeesh. I got so fed up with the treatment I got there, marriage proposals, unwanted touching, pretending to get lost or demanding more money when I turned them down. Awful. Finally, I decided to see if my coworker’s experience would help me and made sure my hijab was properly and modestly fastened, and while it didn’t stop the harassment entirely, it cut way back, and I had drivers and shopkeepers who were much more polite and respectful.

One driver told me that he was very happy to see me wearing the hijab because usually Americans showed too much hair, and I had a Starbuck’s employee tell me that he thought I was Egyptian.

I started to notice more and more when I was being treated like a Muslim should treat a woman and when I was not. I started to realize that friendly smiles and handshakes were the Saudi equivalent of “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and grabbing my ass (or at least wrapping an arm around my waist). Behavior that I would not tolerate from strangers at all.

And then I started to realize that all the tension and apprehension that comes along with feeling like a sheep in a room full of wolves when skeezy men are on the prowl and you have to keep your guard up, ladies I know you’ve all felt this way at least once.. all that tight-shoulder-shallow-breath feeling went away when I put on the hijab.

It stopped being a sad or strange theoretical possibility that men harassed women here or that the veil made women invisible, and it became a solid visceral feeling of relief and safety. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

I don’t like my hijab, although the abaya is growing on me (mostly because it makes me feel like a Hogwart’s professor), but I do like the feeling of safety and freedom that it gives me while living here. Of course, I would prefer to be in a society where being friendly didn’t mean being sleezy, but the idea that there’s a piece of clothing that makes men at least act with respect toward the women they meet is pretty amazing, and the way it made me feel was totally unexpected.

Out on the Town: my first (few) social outings in Tabuk

I am sorry its been so long since the last post, and I further apologize for the length of these posts. So much is happening to me here in Saudi that I hardly every have the time I want to write, and when I do, I’ve got a ton to write about. Thanks for hangin’ in there my loyal friends and readers!

Dinner with the Bosses

Last Saturday, our country directors came to town and we all went out to dinner. This is a more difficult prospect than it might be in other countries, because the number of places that allow mixed gender groups to dine together is pretty limited. Our driver came to pick us up, of course, and we drove through some pretty heavy traffic (which I was later told was actually light traffic) to get to Maisalon.

Even though we were all foreigners, the table was still divided along gender lines, the black abaya clad women on one side of the table and the ‘normally’ dressed men on the other. The meal was a pre-set multi course affair. It started with a very nice soup that seemed to have maybe a chicken and rice motif, and a really delicious tapas plate of hummus, baba ganoush and sliced veggies.

I’m really glad this was the case, because the main course turned out to be a huge plate of meat with a side of rice. Fried prawns, meat on a stick, and some other anonymous looking fried meat things. Did I mention the hummus was really good?

All in all a fairly sedate affair, and I spent most of it chatting with my SD’s teenage son about anime and video games. Yay for not being a very good adult.

Casual Dinner with Friends

Tuesday afternoon, I had this great plan to go down to the Panda (grocery store) and load up on veggies so I could make myself some kind of vegetable stew, since all the restaurants around here are so meat heavy. Now, the shops are closed during the early afternoon, so I have to wait until after Asr (which starts around 4pm) to do anything after work. And then you have to hurry because Maghrib is like 90 minutes later.

Just as I’m getting ready to go, my doorbell rings. [redacted] and [redacted] are at the door and ask if I’d like to go out for dinner with them. Sure! Thinking they mean like to the shawarma place next door or something.

Oh, no.

We drove around so much of Tabuk, finally arriving at a Pizza Hut (quite near Maisalon, by the way). [redacted] is a very entertaining fellow. He’s half Russian and raised in the Czech Republic. While hanging out in my apartment or in his car, he doesn’t care what I’m wearing, but is quite insistent that when we are in public where any ‘religion man’ as he puts it might see us that I wear the niqab in addition to my abaya and hijab. Oh, and as it turns out, also any time we might get over charged for something if the shopkeeper thinks I’m American.

This was a challenge because I didn’t own a niqab. My hijab is also much smaller than most regular Saudi hijab, so I’m trying my best to wrap this thing around my hair and lower face, and consequently got quite a bit of it in my mouth.

[redacted] also loves to drive, and to make [redacted] nervous with his driving, smoking and swearing. This resulted in a pretty amusing drive watching [redacted] tease [redacted], listening to Lady Gaga on the stereo and watching the city transform from bland sand colored daytime to bright and colorful night.

After dinner, [redacted] asked him to take us to a shop called Alrifai, which does imported sweets, tea and coffee. I had no idea that the Lebanese made such good chocolate! I was also finally able to get some medium roast coffee, which is amazing. The coffee I bought from Panda was such a dark roast it was pitch black, which is not (pardon the metaphor mixing) my cup of tea.

Later on I picked up some of these little nougats. I was curious because they were covered in flower petals. Turns out to be a delicious nougat with pistachios. The flowers are rose, and I think it might also be made with rosewater because the rose flavor is very distinct and quite pleasant.  So much yum!

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Shopping Trip for the Teachers

Our contracts stipulate that we be provided with transportation to and from work, as well as two shopping trips a week. The later part wasn’t a high priority here because the hotel is walking distance from the Araqi Mall, where there’s a pretty good grocery store and plenty of other shops.

However, our SDs decided to get it off the ground this week, and we had our first work-sponsored shopping trip on Thursday afternoon. It turned out to just be me and [redacted], but we went out to a new Mall to check it out. We got there too soon after Asr so all the shops were still closed. We wandered around window shopping while we waited for everything to open. This mall had an even larger amusement park, both indoor and outdoor attractions for children.

More than half the shops were ‘Family Only’, meaning that single men are not allowed to enter them. Shopping malls may be the only place in the country where women have more freedom than men. [redacted] spotted a bath and body shop and headed in without noticing the sign. The women actually gestured to him to come in before I pointed it out. As we walked on, he told me he had never had an experience like that, but since the women saw him with me, they assumed that he was married and therefore safe.

I picked up some throw rugs for the apartment. I’ve been having trouble with tracking dust, and stuff, so I now have a foot mat at my bed and my most frequented sitting chair. And I also managed to get a new nose jewel. Originally I was told in no uncertain terms that face piercings were out, but this week I noticed that not only did my students wear nose studs, but that my SD did as well. So I got the go ahead and now have a little light blue gem, and feel a leeetle bit closer to Seattle.

Just as they were calling Maghrib and we were heading out, a clerk noticed [redacted] peering at the Alrifai stand and insisted on serving us before shutting down for prayer, so more delicious candy. I’m building a stash since I can’t eat more than a piece or two a day.

And speaking of sweets…

A Night at the Istraha

Thursday (last day of the work week btw, so think T.G.I.T.) I was invited to my first Istraha. This is a villa that Saudis rent out to have parties and relax in large groups. My friend [redacted], this delightful young Saudi woman who works in the administration part of my department, invited us. Her father had just had an angioplasty and his brothers were throwing this party to celebrate his recovery. Her whole local family was coming and she really wanted to introduce us (her American co-workers), and to share her family’s good fortune with us.

It felt a little strange, getting all dressed up, doing my make up, etc, then putting on the black tent and concealing all of it. [redacted] came with her father to pick me up from the hotel and we drove quite a ways, collecting my SD [redacted] and her family (in their own car) along the way.

A thing you have to understand about Saudi, there are no addresses. Streets have names, ok, but there aren’t building numbers and the postal system operates by landmarks. For example, my hotel is the Fawasel Hotel across from the Araqi Mall. Seriously, this is how the address is listed on their business card. So, [redacted] couldn’t just tell [redacted] where to meet them by address and then Google Map a route. They had to meet us at a landmark and then follow us.

The Saudi women are very tactile, so [redacted] held my hand as we rode in her father’s car. She told me about her family, her time in college, and her ideas about how to judge people for their good or bad actions and personalities, rather than religion or nationality.

Her father talked to me about the drug problem in Saudi. He told me about travelling to Amsterdam and seeing everyone smoking hash (his word), and how shocked he was that the government allowed it. I tactfully decided not to mention that Washington state had recently made the same decision.

Another thing to understand about Saudi is that it is a nocturnal culture. There’s a lot of sleeping in the afternoon, and nightlife doesn’t start until 9pm or later even though fajr is at 5am. I can’t quite adjust to this yet, so I go to bed around 9 so that I have 8 hrs when the call to prayer wakes me up. But for this gig, dinner wasn’t going to be served until 11pm, and at even fancier gigs dinner might be as late as 1 or 2 am.

So, that day I was up at 5am, taught classes from 8 to 230, went shopping from 4 to 7 and then got picked up for the Istraha shortly after 8pm.

Like everything here, the Istraha is divided between men and women. Upon arrival, we entered a small side entrance and were promptly greeted by a flood of beautifully dressed women offering hugs, handshakes and kisses. Doffing our abayas and hijabs, we took a moment to adjust hair and clothing that had been concealed.

There was a courtyard where children played in the cooler night air. The women congregated in a large room, the walls lined with padded seating and movable arm cushions. We were introduced to everyone, kisses and handshakes. The ladies here had none of the restrictions that the girls at school face where dresses and sleeves must be worn long. There were short skirts and sleeveless tops, beautiful colors and jewelry.

It was amazing to watch these women. When there are men around, they’re all dressed in black with only the eyes showing, voices low and body language demmure. I’m pretty sure this is the only way most Westerners see Saudi women because the media images and video are all like this because they can’t allow themselves to be filmed in anything less if a man might see it. However, as soon as the men are safely on the other side of a wall, they come alive! Bright, beautiful and expressive, its a whole other world. I actually feel sorry for the men that they can never see how amazing their women really are.

We were offered round after round of the spiced Arabic coffee and sweet black tea. There were chocolates and toffees and some really neat baked goods. There was a kind of pastry made of vermicelli noodles with a cream cheese filling, and there are these cookies… these cookies. They’re called Mamoul, which means ‘stuffed’, and I’d had some store bought ones before, and they reminded me of a fig newton but with date instead of fig filling. However, these were homemade, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! The cookie was this crumbly butter shortbread and the date paste filling was still slightly warm with just a hint of cardamom. I asked [redacted] to tell her aunt how delicious they were, and completely forgot the tendency of Arabic cultures to gift someone with something if it is complimented. So I ended up with a small box of them to take home. Not that I’m complaining.

[redacted] is a beautiful person, inside and out. She smiles all the time and doesn’t hesitate to tell people what she thinks, good or bad, though most of it seems to be good. She’s not married yet, and I think she’s very lucky to have a father who isn’t forcing the issue.  She’s strong-willed, kind and very funny, so the time simply flew by as we enjoyed her company and the treats on offer.

We chatted and snacked for a couple hours then moved into another room for dinner. Dinner was a very traditional Saudi affair. In fact most of the women were in a different room. [redacted], as a hostess, had us as her special guests in a smaller room, along with her  sister and a cousin who was particularly interested to meet us, even though she spoke no English.

There was a plastic guard on the carpet, and a large platter with saffron rice and lamb in the middle. We all sat on the floor and dug in. There was no silverware, and no bread to use as a scoop. The tradition is to simply pick up the food that is nearest to you on the platter with your fingers. This is way harder than it looks with rice. [redacted] and her sister tried to give us lessons, a particular tactic by which you scoop up some rice and sort of squish it into a lump (this doesn’t actually happen), then push it to the tips of your fingers using your thumb and transfer this to your mouth, then delicately brush the remaining few grains of rice onto the plastic covered floor.

I can’t say that I succeeded in this approach, but I did manage to eat my fill nonetheless. The food was excellent. I am a sucker for lamb, and this was particularly well made, very tender and flavorful, even if I did have to wrestle it off the bones. I heard on the mens’ side they simply put the whole carcass on the rice platter, and at least they chopped it up for us.

Somewhere around midnight, I was stuffed full of sweets and lamb and having trouble keeping my eyes open, so we begged our goodbyes and I was able to catch a ride home with [redacted] and her husband, since [redacted] and her father were likely to be there for another 2 hours or more.

Sadly, I have no pictures to share, as it would have been very inappropriate to take pictures of the women not covered up, but I hope that the words paint a good picture for you.

A Friday Drive  & A White Knight 

The weekends and holy day are different here than non-Muslim countries. Friday is the holy day, so everyone goes to Mosque in the morning, then maybe a family dinner after Duhr. Kinda like Sunday in large parts of the US.

Again, I had a nice quiet day planned, finish my lesson plans, write a blog post, do some laundry and enjoy my high speed internet for the weekend (I got to take home the school’s hotspot router) to watch some netflix. Then a little light shopping on Saturday, I wanted to pick up a real niqab so I could make [redacted] more comfortable going out, and some more skirts for work since I only arrived with 3.

Just as I have ensconced myself in the comfy chair with my tablet to one side loaded up with Buffy reruns and my laptop to the right of me loaded up with lesson plans and ESL resource websites, once more, my doorbell rings.

[redacted] and [redacted]. Now. [redacted] has an excuse. I sent him an email about the hotel manager. See, earlier on Thursday, in the teeny space between shopping and Istraha, I had asked if the hotel cleaner could change the sheets in my room. I didn’t really expect much beyond that, so my room was kind of a mess. I still don’t have enough hangers or a clothes hamper, so clothes are all over the place. But this doesn’t seem like an issue for sheet changing.

When the cleaner shows up, the hotel manager is with him. At first I thought maybe it was a thing so I wouldn’t be alone in the room with a man, and the door was left open, but the situation got creepy and uncomfortable pretty fast. The manager kept insisting that the cleaner do more things, which meant that they were picking up my clothes and things. He wandered around my room, looking at and even sometimes picking up my things, he kept trying to make conversation and sorta hitting on me. Then after they left and I took my abaya off, he found an excuse to come back and see me in my tank top.

I told [redacted] about it at the Istraha, and she suggested I tell [redacted], who is both a man and lives in the hotel and would be able to do something about it.

So [redacted] came by Friday to check on me and talk about what had happened. When [redacted] heard the story he got really angry. In Saudi, women are to be sheltered and protected, so what amounts to a little creeper vibe that women in the West deal with frequently is really inappropriate behavior here. So he charged out of the room and back downstairs to confront the manager who then was dragged back up to apologize to me.

I appreciate the sentiment here, but of course by having two guys confront and threaten the manager of the place I live has just created a pretty severe atmosphere of resentment from this guy that I have to see every day… things guys just don’t take into consideration, this is why we don’t get hostile when dudes are doing the unwelcome flirting verging on harassment thing because it just makes every subsequent encounter with said dude unbelievably unpleasant.

For example, today I went downstairs to get some water and he pretended not to understand me despite the fact that I used both English and Arabic until I literally walked over and pointed at the water. He just kept barking at me ‘one or two’ and wouldn’t listen when I tried to ask about what size the bottles were or how much they cost. Then he tried to sell me the tiny bottles in the fridge instead of the big bottle that I was pointing to. So he’s gone from being a skeezy creeper who wanted to help me to try and impress and ingratiate to being an angry bitter passive aggressive jerk.

Anyway. Back to Friday.

After telling off the manager, [redacted] and [redacted] hung out for a while, then took off for a break. We agreed to go out shopping later on and get some food. I got a little more work done before [redacted] came back on his own, [redacted] having begged off due to a ‘headache’ I’m not entirely sure had actually manifested and may simply have been a desire to hide inside, which my own itrovert half is starting to sympathize with.

So, I tuck the hijab back over my face and we head out. Most of the shops are still closed because its only like one in the afternoon, but we managed to find a place I could get a real niqab and stop doing the crazy face wrap.

I noticed a really interesting phenomenon while we were driving around. The streets were crowded with cars so I was still wearing the niqab. As we crawled through slow traffic and stopped at red lights, I looked out the window at the cars around us and I realized that none of the men in the other cars could see me, just this black blob. Suddenly I felt… safer, more at ease. I could look at them but none of them could gawp at me. For the first time since arriving I understood why the American women I worked with had chosen to wear the niqab even though it is not required. I’m not saying I want to wear it all the time, but now I’m glad I own one, and can put it up like a shield whenever I want.

We wandered around looking for open shops and found a few, I got a new skirt too. We picked up some lunch and came back to the hotel to eat, then headed out again after Asr.

Once the shops were open, we were able to go find me a new abaya, its a front closing kind with much wider sleeves, way way easier to put on than the over the head one I bought in Seattle. Inside the shops, [redacted] took the lead. He warned me to keep my voice very low so that the shopkeepers wouldn’t hear my English. He got me a pretty good discount, though, I got what was priced as a 220 riyal abaya plus a new larger hijab and a more comfy niqab all for 180.

We got some iced mochas and drove out on the highway toward Medina, a pretty empty road with some mountains and farmland. There was a checkpoint on the way where police were checking for illegal materials, but they just waved us on through. [redacted] said it was because I was with him, and looked like a real Saudi woman, so they just assumed he was a responsible young man, but if he’d been alone they might have stopped and questioned him.

He explained to me that the black tent get up, niqab and all, means freedom for me as a woman in Saudi. I don’t think I could have ever taken a sentence like that seriously before I got here, but seeing how easy everything is when I’m veiled and following a man around, I’m starting to see what he means.

We chatted and joked and listened to music on the drive. At some point I became curious how he could just drive around all day, so I asked about the price of gas (petrol) in Saudi. He told me its cheaper than water! A litre of water is about 1 riyal, but a litre of gas is about half a riyal! No wonder driving around is a valid form of entertainment for so many young men.

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I got to see a spectacular sunset on the way back into the city, and we stopped at a really upscale shopping area where I got very confused about dress sizes. You’re not allowed to try anything on in Saudi, so you’re supposed to be able to just know if something is going to fit. And bad enough trying to find sizes in America, where I might wear anything from a 12 to an 18 depending on the brand, I don’t even have any clue what the numbers on these dresses mean!

I got a 34, which does fit, but is a teeny bit snug once I tried it on at home. American sizes are supposedly waist size minus 20, so a 14 is supposed to be a 34 inch waist. This isn’t really true anymore, but its how its started and I thought maybe that was what this 34 meant. But then I looked  up some sizing charts online and European sizes which look like those numbers are totally way off because a 34 is like a size 6 or 8  in American and there is just NO way that I could wear an 8 and only think it was a little snug. So, I’m at a loss. My new solution is to take the only non elastic waisted skirt I already own and hold it up to myself and see how fits across the front of my waist so I can try to judge skirt waist size by just holding it up to myself…. sigh.

The whole shopping experience was very surreal, since I was dressed in my full Saudi gear veil included, and [redacted] had asked me to speak very quietly inside the shops. He took charge of the entire expedition, spinning stories about me being British and himself working for the Embassy to impress shopkeepers and get us a discount. I think it would drive me crazy to live my whole life like that, and I’m still planning to do some shopping on my own where I can just take my time and look around, but it was interesting, and a little reassuring to know that if I need a man to go to bat for me in this male dominated culture, I can call [redacted] to the rescue.

Busy Bee’s Day Off

So, there you have it, another whirlwind week in the Magic Kingdom. Today has been pretty laid back. Apparently its “Black Saturday” here, which is the payday before a major holiday, so I’m kicking back, finishing up my work, doing that laundry and catching all of you up on the adventure!

One more week then I’m off to Jeddah for Eid! Thanks for reading and have a great day!

Abaya Shopping in Seattle

So, I decided that I should buy an abaya before heading over to Saudi Arabia. Although many people in Saudi said that I could enter the Kingdom dressed simply in conservative clothing and a head scarf then go abaya shopping once I was there, I personally felt that the awkward stares in the airport combined with the fact that I did not know how soon after my arrival I would be able to go shopping or be expected to show up at work meant that having at least one acceptable outfit before leaving.

Searching the internet and asking around lead me to find that there are a few “boutique” shops that sell Islamic clothing around, and the prices range from 70-200$. ouch. Online shops were less expensive, but having zero experience in wearing abayas, I was quite hesitant to order something, no matter how descriptive the measurements were.

Finally, I discovered a tiny little Somalian shop in White Center. I GPSed my way down there last Friday (completely forgetting this was the weekly holy day *facepalm*), and pulled into a very empty parking lot with several small immigrant run shops. There was a lady in abaya/hijab sitting on the curb in front of the shop with her cell phone tucked up under her hijab so as to reach her ear without exposing it. She nodded politely at me as I passed her, presumably thinking that I was heading to one of the other shops. When I tried the door of the Somalian store, and peered in the window disappointed that it was locked, she looked up in surprise.

“Oh! you wanted to come here?” she exclaimed, “What do you need to buy?” I explained that I needed to buy an abaya for my upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, and she grinned broadly, quickly opening up the shop and escorting me inside. “Of course, you need black.” she said, her English was good, but clearly accented and marked by the occasional misplacing of small articles and prepositions that many EFL learners struggle with.

Suddenly it became a dress up game. We were like little girls trying on fancy dresses as she pulled out abaya after abaya for me to try. Initially, I had felt very strongly that I would prefer an abaya that buttoned or zipped up the front, because the idea of shuffling in and out of an over the head floor length gown several times a day seemed so unappealing. My school does not require us to wear the abaya for work, but we have to wear them between home and work, so I would have to put it on and off at least twice every day. However, the front buttoning abaya styles were clearly designed for women less busty than myself, and the buttons strained across my chest.

“If you wear a long hijab,” she informed me, “it will not show.” Nonetheless, i decided I would at least try some over the head styles before I gave in to that compromise. Some were indeed very difficult to put on, but these were mostly the fancy (and heavier weight material) “evening wear” abayas. I was quite surprised after trying several on that it became a simple matter to shrug them on and off over my clothes and hair.

I tried on at least a dozen, some were rejected outright for difficulty to put on, or ill fitting sleeves. I was amazed that such a simple garment could have such a wide variety of fits! For the ones that felt comfortable enough, I bustled back to the fitting room we weren’t bothering to use to look at myself in the mirror. All the while we chatted about my upcoming trip. I told her I was going to teach English, and she told me about her daughter who had been raised in America and wanted to return to the Arabic world to teach as well. This was a little sad, because most of the countries in the Middle East require a great deal of certification and experience to hire someone, which her daughter had not obtained yet.

Finally, we found a very light weight abaya with a very breathable fabric. It was a major relief, because just trying on some of the abayas in the shop, I was starting to sweat a little, even though Seattle heat is only in the low 80’s (that’s about 29 C), which is nothing compared to the heat I will be facing in Saudi. The abaya was a perfect fit; it didn’t even need to be hemmed,  and the sleeves bore a pattern of maroon and creme with tiny crystals picking out a flower and vine pattern above. It was perfect.

Now for the hijab. This is the head covering, not to be confused with the veil/face covering which is called a niqab. She asked me what kind I wanted, and I replied I had no idea, having never purchased or worn one before. Years before, for a class in grad-school, we had to attend a Mosque and write about the experience, but I had simply used a regular scarf to cover my head that day. Using a scarf suited for Seattle in the Saudi summer was not going to work. Additionally, I hoped that there was something simple enough for me to put on correctly without having to master a complex folding, wrapping and tucking technique.

I expressed that it would be nice to have a hijab in a color that matched the accents on the sleeves of my abaya, for although the abaya must be black in Saudi, it can have colored trim, and the hijab may be colored. She found a creme colored swatch of cloth and helped me to put it on. So simple! It was a tube of cloth, wider at the shoulder end than the face end. You just push your face through like a turtleneck sweater, only instead of pulling it all the way over your head, you adjust the edge around your hairline.

10574270_10152225365041646_4307585225450516666_nI ducked back into the changing room with the mirror and tucked a few wisps of hair back under the hijab, then examined the complete picture. I was amazed at how different I looked. I could have been a completely different person, but somehow, the covering garments did not make me feel hidden or oppressed. I felt that these clothes were my cultural passport into my next adventure, affording me the ability to travel in and possibly even be accepted in the country I will call home for the next year.

I made a few final adjustments to the bottom collar of the hijab, settling it in a deep scoop across my collarbone then stepped back out into the main room smiling at my achievement. The shopkeeper immediately broke into a wide grin, “Oh!, you look so beautiful dressed this way!” she said to me. I thanked her for the compliment and all her help as she rang up my purchase. We chatted a little more about my departure date, and the upcoming Hajj, and her own dreams to make the pilgrimage some day.

As I drove home, I thought more about the compliment she had given me. It seems so difficult for me sometimes as a well-educated, liberal leaning American woman to remember that the clothes these women wear are not always prisons. Many women choose to dress in abaya and hijab, or even adding a niqab or going full burqa. Here in America, this Somalian woman surely chose her dress style, and to run a business catering to other women who do the same, for no Mutawaeen will ever find her here and shame her into covering her hair or hiding her body. Her compliment was genuine. She felt that in that moment, rather than concealing myself,  I truly embodied her own cultural ideal of feminine beauty.

I am extremely glad that I decided to buy my first abaya here in Seattle from a store and not online. Not only because it turned out to be necessary to try many on before finding the right fit, but because I got to touch lives with the vivacious Somalian lady with the nut-brown skin, infectious laugh, and deep sense for the beautiful that broadened my own.