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?