Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Western Woman in Saudi Arabia: The Basics

I drafted this post last week and meant to get it up earlier, but kept forgetting to take a picture of myself in my abaya. Well, I'm posting it today (with a crappy picture of me) because of some of the press I have seen regarding what First Lady Michelle Obama wore (or didn't wear) when she and the President traveled to Riyadh to meet with King Salman.
The outfit in question.
Note: Michelle Obama is not the only woman in this photo.
Most western women in this country, at least in Jeddah (Riyadh is more conservative) do not wear the niqab and most do not wear a headscarf (unless chased by the religious police, which happened to me. Read about that encounter in my earlier post detailing my first souk night). I have seen plenty of non-western women without the niqab as well.

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I have read several articles calling her a badass for not wearing the niqab. Michelle Obama is a badass, but not for this reason. I also do not wear a niqab or a headscarf. I am also a badass, but not for this reason. Foreign women do not wear a veil. Michelle Obama is foreign, thus she didn't wear one. I am a foreign woman in Saudi Arabia. I do not wear the niqab. I do not wear a headscarf. I haven't seen anyone mention the fact that Mrs. Obama wore PANTS. Holy cow! PANTS! And no abaya. Thank you Michelle Obama! Saudi Arabia, while way behind the rest of the world on women's rights-- all human rights for that matter-- isn't the place most Americans think it is. Read on to find out the basics of what life is like for a western woman in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some basics for friends and family who didn't hear my spiel before we moved here last month. It's also a refresher for those who did, but were too overwhelmed to fully retain the information. This is also a place I think I might point people when I get tired of repeating said spiel over and over and over and over...

We live on an international compound. The religious police (mutaween) are not allowed on this compound, so it’s just like living in the U.S. in terms of what we wear, how we act etc… It is truly international. We’ve gotten to know Germans, Danes, Brazilians, Japanese, Serbians, South Africans, Kiwis and Filipinos. It’s very nice, but not as dog friendly as we’d like.

Off the compound, it’s all Saudi Arabia. This is how it affects me:
I wear an abaya. It’s a long, flowy, figure-concealing black dress. Many westerners wear abayas with a good bit of design, so they are not just all black. If I am traveling from the compound directly to the school or the Consulate, I don’t wear the abaya in the car. I usually carry it in case we want to make a stop en route. I wear it in the car on the way to other destinations just because putting it on is just one more time consuming step to get out of the car (I’m almost always getting at least one kid out of a car seat).
A basic abaya I bought second hand at a souk.
This one snaps, I'm still hunting for one that zips.
I do not have to wear the niqab, the face veil that many Saudi women wear. I have seen a lot women here without it, many of whom appear to be Saudi. FYI: The terms niqab and burqa are often incorrectly used interchangeably; a niqab covers the face while a burqa covers the whole body from the top of the head to the ground.


I am not supposed to wear the hijab because it is a religious garment. I, like most western women, do carry a scarf I can put over my head in case I run in to the religious police, feel uncomfortable or get hassled. I do get stares. Frankly, though, that could be less about my wild hair than my pale white skin or my blonde and red-headed children.

The official counsel from the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia is that he will support us no matter what we wear. It’s just a matter of how much I want to be stared at and hassled. Even Greg doesn't wear shorts in public. There have been a few women at post that never wore an abaya, getting away with just a long skirt and long sleeves. Personally, I think the abaya will be cooler in the heat of summer.

I cannot drive. The compound we live on isn't large enough to warrant driving and women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia. Luckily, the office Greg works for has several drivers and cars assigned to it. There is almost always someone available to take me to the market or an event. It does require logistical coordination, though. I admit this is the biggest bother to me. I cannot just hop in my car and meet a friend for lunch, grab some milk at the market or just drive around to get to know the place. It’s also a hassle to take the kids’ car seats in an out all the time, especially since many of the Consulate cars are old and have a limited number of seats with the latch system.

There are five calls to prayer every day and while not all shops close, I cannot purchase anything for about 20-30 minutes after the prayer call. This basically means I try to get my shopping done between the time the kids go to school and noon. That’s the longest stretch during the day that there’s no call to prayer.

I have not traveled outside the country yet. But, when I go somewhere without Greg, particularly with the kids, I have to have a letter saying I’m allowed to go and take the kids. Many Consulate women take one of the expediters with them to avoid hassle.

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We have not been to the beach yet because it has been fairly cool. But, when we go, we will pay to go to a western beach. Otherwise, it would be Muslim swimwear for me.
Not ugly, but not what I call beachwear.
I carry a permit, called an iqama, with me that identifies me as a diplomat. It has a picture of me and the kids. Should I be hassled by the religious police, it’s my best friend.

Other ways we are affected:
  • We cannot buy pork or alcohol on the local market. I say on the local market because being a diplomat has some privileges. I’ll leave it at that.
  • We cannot travel to Mecca or Medina, they are open only to Muslims.
  • Neither of us could work on the Saudi economy (for a Saudi employer) without giving up our diplomatic status
  • During Ramadan we cannot consume food or beverages in public in the daytime. That usually includes having a bottle of water in the car. Again, being a diplomat (riding in a car with Dip plates) has some privileges. 
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