Friday, November 18, 2011

Thoughts on Wearing an Abaya

Wearing an abaya in public is one thing that really screams culture shock for me in Saudi Arabia. To be fair, I've tried to go into this situation with an open mind. I don't fully understand Islam or its practices. I don't understand how the Saudis interpret their religion and how it translates in cultural practices. It's easy to condemn what we don't know or understand. My impression of many of the native women I encountered in SA was that they are comfortable with the symbol and practice of wearing an abaya. I don't think it is a good practice generally for westerners or Americans to place their cultural values on a society and then judge that society which happens to follow different values. I learned this lesson in Sweden and have thought a lot about it and how it applies to any foreign experience.

However, since I'm relating my experiences in Saudi Arabia, it would dishonest to disregard the feelings I had about wearing an abaya. So what is an abaya? An abaya is a long, black, loose robe that covers a woman from her neck to her ankles. The sleeves are long, going to the wrist and the length should extend to the ankles at the very least. Saudi women do cover their hair with scarves or with the hijab. (Must look up the proper spelling for hijab). They are not required to veil their faces, but many do. Some wear the veil covering their mouths and noses with only their eyes visible, while others wear the veil covering their entire faces. (Which leaves me wondering how they manage to eat.) As a foreigner, I'm required to wear the abaya in public, but I do not have to wear a scarf over my hair. Ex-pat women have told me that it is a good practice to keep the scarf around your neck in case the religious police bother you.

As far as wearing the abaya goes, one should wear it in public, but is not required to wear it at home, in the presence of relatives. I think the question gets dicey when dealing with men who are not relatives. Women do not need to cover their clothes when they are together and inside a home.

So I first put on the abaya on the airplane when we landed in Riyadh. The material isn't heavy, but it settled on my shoulders like a slight burden. Stepping onto foreign soil and wearing an abaya is like no other experience I have ever had. Nothing screams things are different here than seeing women dressed like Hogwarts students while the men mill around in thobes and regular clothing. I am most definitely not in Kansas anymore!

To me, wearing the abaya is a stark reminder that the gender rules are different here. The cultural rules governing male/female interactions are strange and unfathomable. At first, I felt the bewildering sense of fear that I would look at a man the wrong way and be carted off to jail to await lashing or some other terrible punishment. The fear eased after five days in the country. I am well aware how important it is to understand those cultural rules which dictate interactions with one another. In Sweden, if I made a mistake, I risked a small degree of social alienation. A mistake here in SA could have serious consequences. So I am treading along, trying to figure it out, without making too many missteps.

I guess the abaya also symbolizes how different my life as a woman will be in SA. The independence that I have in the U.S. to drive, vote, make decisions and conduct my life without an escort are all gone. While I understand and accept the differences intellectually, the reality plays different on my emotions and sense of self.

Having related all this, I must tell you that I didn't have any problems at all in my interactions with Saudis. I had two very long, in-depth conversations with Saudi men where I was treated with dignity and respect. Whether or not that is the general feeling of Saudi men toward women, I don't know. I also suspect that my status as a married woman with children and married to a man that both of these men respected helped in the conversations.

I intend to really try and understand the cultural rules here regarding men and women. I hope that my fear was not justified and that I will come away having a better understanding of Saudi culture.

What do you think of the practice of wearing an abaya?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Shopping in the Kindgom

No blog about Saudi Arabia would be complete without at least one entry about the shopping. As in, shopping in the Kingdom is a BIG deal. There are malls everywhere. And the malls aren't just regular malls. They are filled with designer stores. For a small-time girl like myself, it is surprising to see stores like Prada, Louis Vuitton, or Bulgaria in a mall. I'm used to seeing those stores on 5th Avenue in New York City, but not in a mall. Isn't the mall where you go to the Gap or Aeropostale?

I'm not a big mall girl. Designer or discount stores don't really excite me. Unless the mall includes a good bookstore or craft store, I find myself bored and uncomfortable. And since I don't have a lot of money, nor the desire to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on one dress or pair of shoes, malls really aren't the place for me.

Nevertheless, you still have to visit a mall in the Kingdom. I went to a couple of different malls. I don't remember their names-though I probably will in the future. There are few features to these malls that are unique, other than the designer label stores. First, there is a sort of mini-mosque for prayer-time. During the different times of prayer, the mall is pretty empty. Some stores close during this time, while others stay open. Regardless if the store is open, you still can't make a purchase during prayer time. Secondly, there are no female clerks in the stores and no changing rooms. There are all kinds of really fancy dresses displayed in the windows. Which begs the question: where the heck are the women wearing these dresses???? I've heard some stories, but I'll write about that later. So if you want to buy a dress, you have to guess the size, buy it and then try it on at home. Third, there are floors that are women only. I think you can actually take off the abaya on this floor. I haven't visited a women-only floor so I can't tell you more. Lastly, there are different eating rooms and lines at the food court. Each little eatery has two lines: family/women and men. And then they have two different rooms for eating: women/families and men. The women/families room is screened off from view.

Talk about cultural differences!

And finally, I just want to say that getting on an escalator wearing an abaya is a little nerve-wracking. I was afraid that my robe would catch in the stairs and I would get in a terrible escalator accident. (But maybe I was over-reacting! I'm always a little nervous on an escalator anyhow!)

Stuck in Paris

On the way to Riyadh, we spent an excessively long time in the plane on the ground in New York. This delayed our arrival to Paris by about two hours, effectively causing us to completely miss our connecting flight to Riyadh. So we were stuck in Paris for about 24 hours.
After I got over the disappointment of not getting to Riyadh quickly (sarcasm!), we made our way to our hotel. I took a quick nap and then Brent and I decided to take the train into the city.

I am pleased to say that I can still navigate a train system. I was worried that after four years of not using public transportation daily that I would be rusty, but I suppose it is like riding a bicycle, you never quite lose the ability to manage. Our destination was the Musee D'Orsay. I love Impressionist paintings. Monet and Van Gogh are my favorite painters. Brent and I enjoyed the train ride. I love seeing places from the window of a train. I think Paris is a beautiful city, but seeing it from the window of train revealed the grittier parts of the city--graffiti and a harder urban edge with factories and utilitarian buildings. I like the contrast of the gritty with the pretty. It made Paris feel more real instead of a fairy-tale city.

We were so disappointed when we got to the museum because it was closed due to a strike. Evidently we weren't the only ones out of the loop. Other tourists milled around, expressing disappointment. Fortunately, there were some cool statues to enjoy. We walked around the museum admiring the statues and then crossed the street to the River Seine and enjoyed the view and the lights.

I was anxious to get some local color so we headed back toward the buildings and just strolled. At a local pharmacy, we browsed the selection (weird, I know, but I love visiting pharmacies in other countries). I found some pretty French lipstick and bought it.

It was so fun to walk around, holding my husband's hand, soaking up the atmosphere of Paris. Evidently we looked like normal people, instead of tourists, because we got stopped by a couple of people asking us for directions. I love blending in!

We saw quite a few scooters on the roads as people were driving home. I saw people carrying bouquets of flowers. I wondered if they were going out to dinner with friends. Brent and I imagined how funny it would be if I were to take up driving in a scooter with our five children. Just the thought of squeezing them all in a sidecar had us laughing so hard, we had to stop walking.

After wandering around for some time, we caught the next train back to our hotel where we enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant. It was such a lovely peaceful evening.

And really, who can complain about being stuck in Paris??

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Some views of Riyadh

Riyadh looks like a maze of beige, hence the title of my blog. It sort of reminds me of Las Vegas without the casinos and excess vegetation. Between the sand, sandy colored housing, and sandy sky, beige pretty much covers the color spectrum. I took these two pictures from my hotel room.

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