Foreign Affairs Officer Tara Foley works in the Office of WMD Terrorism, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Here Tara shares her impressions of Saudi Arabia... Tara's previous post: My Time in Saudi Arabia
Let’s talk about one of the most contentious, complicated, and taboo topics in Saudi Arabia: women. In the KSA, even the most mundane aspects of daily life can stir up controversy when it comes to women. Working, education, wardrobe, driving, and even a visit to Starbucks are all areas of heated debate over women’s role in society. Of course there are two distinct aspects to this story: the experience of Western women, like me, and that of Saudi women themselves. I think that both perspectives are interesting and valuable in their own right. Some experiences between the two are shared, while others are significantly different. Perhaps more importantly, the experiences of individuals within the two groups vary significantly amongst themselves: Not every Saudi woman feels the same way about her role in society, and not every American woman has the same impression of Saudi Arabia. The stories I share with you here only reflect my own encounters and represent but a small window into a complex and nuanced issue. I’ll address some of the basic questions I’ve received about my own experiences as an American woman adapting to these new social and cultural mores. In my next post, I’ll share some of my impressions of the changing role of women within Saudi society.
To begin with, a brief sketch of the basics. Yes, I had to wear an abaya. No, I did not wear a headscarf, and not once did I get behind the wheel of a car while living in the Kingdom. These are three questions I am constantly asked by people wanting to know more about Saudi society’s views on women. Clothing and driving are by no means the only women’s issues in Saudi Arabia today; some may argue that they are less important than things like education and professional opportunities. I think it’s hard to separate one from the other, but I can understand the desire to do so. I also think people are interested in these details because they are visual signs of greater, less tangible questions people have about gender roles in an overlapping cultural, historical, and religious context that can be quite difficult to grasp. Furthermore, the clothing and driving issues both tap into something that I think lies at the heart of the larger concern: a general unease in Saudi society over a woman’s role the public arena. I’ll talk about that in the next post. For now, let me answer the questions everyone has been asking.
The abaya (ah-BUY-ah) is a long black robe covering the collar bone, ankles, and wrists that women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear over their clothing anytime they go out in public. I wore one every time I left the DQ (Diplomatic Quarter), except while conducting official business for the Embassy. While acting in an official capacity as a foreign diplomat, a conservative Western-style business suit is acceptable attire. So while I attended meetings at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in my pantsuit and pearls, the abaya was an essential part of my day while grocery shopping, meeting friends for coffee, or any other foray into the public sphere.
To my surprise, I did not have to wear a hijab (headscarf) in the Kingdom. Saudi law requires that Muslim women cover their hair, but non-Muslim women are exempt. Some Western women in Saudi do choose to wear a headscarf while in country. Some see it as a sign of respect, while others see it as a way simply to fly under the radar and not attract any unnecessary attention. Personally, I wore the abaya because it was required and expected of me, but declined the hijab in my daily activities. In other situations, I have donned a headscarf – visiting a mosque as a tourist in Cairo, for example. There, I covered as a sign of respect while I was a guest in a religious environment, much like when my grandmother and I wore long pants and long sleeves while visiting the Vatican in Rome. But in day to day life, I felt more comfortable presenting myself as I am, an American woman who doesn’t happen to believe in covering up my hair. I have great respect for women, Muslim or not, who choose to cover, whatever their reasons; but to me, the important part is in having that choice. Because I had the choice, I utilized it; I recognize, however, that many women do not have that opportunity.
As for driving, I spent four months in the passenger seat. Women are strictly prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Embassy, like many Saudi families, employs drivers so that Embassy officials can get around. The Embassy drivers are fantastic people who work hard to make our jobs and our lives a little bit easier. Still, it’s strange to have to “ask for a ride” anytime you want to go anywhere. Whether I was headed to the Ministry of Culture and Information or to the mall in Memlika Tower, I traveled in the back seat. This complete lack of freedom is frustrating, even infuriating at times. And I was only there for four months.
After clothing and driving, the next thing people want to know is how I was received by men in the Saudi government with whom I worked. If women are treated so differently, they ask, then how could I do my job effectively? With my counterparts in the Saudi government, I had overwhelmingly positive experiences of professional relationships built on mutual respect and cooperation. We worked together as equals, striding toward common goals. There are, of course, always exceptions. On my very first day in the Kingdom, I attended a meeting with some men who declined to shake my hand, or that of any other woman in the group. I’ve thought a lot about that first day and its meaning, and I spent some time discussing it with Muslim friends and colleagues. In my own cultural context, shaking hands is a sign of respect, a way to say hello, and signal that I see my acquaintance as an equal. The Saudi gentlemen I met that day were operating within their own cultural and religious context. From their point of view, they were expressing respect for me by refraining from physical contact. This is something that I comprehend intellectually, but struggle to truly understand in my heart. Culturally, it’s just ingrained in me. No matter how much I intellectualize it, it is very difficult for me to accept someone’s signal that they do not view me as an equal – even if that inequality is considered a sign of respect in itself. I slowly learned to let a Saudi man offer me his hand first, rather than automatically extending my own upon first meeting, in order to avoid awkward moments. Still, I’m not sure if I will ever truly come to peace with this issue. The good news, at least for me, is that this occurred only with a very slim minority of people I met. More often than not, a firm handshake was the beginning to a collegial and productive work experience with my Saudi colleagues.
Of course, abayas, hijabs, and handshakes are only the beginning. But they do mean a lot. The first time I wore my abaya, I felt clumsy with the long robe skimming my toes, trying to make sure I fastened all the snaps correctly. I disliked wearing it every time I put it on. But putting on the abaya was a necessary step for me to enter Saudi society, and the benefits of doing that outweighed, for me, my dislike of having to wear it in the first place. I think it was important for me to see Saudi Arabia from the inside, from the perspective of those that live there. I found that the world looks a little bit different on the other side of an abaya, but it’s certainly a view worth seeing.”