An American Girl in Riyadh

Posted by Tara Foley
October 12, 2007
Tara Foley at the U.S. Department of State

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.”

Comments

Comments

Arvind
|
California, USA
October 15, 2007

Arvind in California writes:
Very interesting perspective, thanks!
Having grown up in India (I'm male), I am quite comfortable with the practice of refraining from offering a handshake to women. It is quite similar to what you observed in Saudi Arabia, and out of respect, we offer our hands clapped together in a "Namaskar" gesture rather than a handshake (to women).

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:
@ Peter in California --
And @ Arvind in California. Thanks for writing. I think you both make a fair point, and I don't discount it. All I can say is that I'm relaying the situation as I experienced it. I think anytime we're treated differently based solely on one facet of our identity, like gender, it's bound to sting a little. In the specific situation I describe, the handshake scenario was part of an overall impression I felt that these gentlemen were not comfortable with the presence of women at the meeting. There was no -- Namaskar-like -- gesture here! Maybe the point is that declining to shake hands, as one part of overall behavior, can be used to signal that someone is not welcome, but may not always mean that by itself. Perhaps as I continue my travels, I will encounter more of the latter. These issues are rarely black and white, and our perceptions can change over time based on new experiences. I'll keep an open mind on the subject, and hearing about others' experiences is sure to be a part of that, so thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Syrian P.
|
Syria
October 12, 2007

SNP in Syria writes:
Tara, this is truly sanitized and typically diplomatic tale that everyone knows. ã..Women are strictly prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabiaã.ã very cruel and degrading. But not
as bad as the Sharia Laws implemented in Arabia with regard to women rights in marriage, children, obtaining a passport and travel. It will be shocking for you when you learn more.

The bright side is that burying newborn girls (brings shame to the father and family) alive in unmarked pot holes in the dessert sand, is only still practiced among the interior Bedouins to large extent. By the way, do they still arrange marriages to Seven year old girls!!! Enjoy your stay in Arabia.

Yaser
|
Saudi Arabia
October 12, 2007

Yaser in Saudi Arabia writes:

Thank You Tara.

@ SNP in Syria -- To "SNP" you said: "...burying newborn girls (brings shame to the father and family) alive in unmarked pot holes in the dessert sand, is only still practiced among the interior Bedouins to large extent."

Can you give me any proof of this claim?

Kashif
|
United States
October 13, 2007

Kashif in America writes:
Hey after living in America for a good part of my life i can say that it would be different and nice to live in Saudi Arabia. Here in America the girls are always distracting guys with the clothes they wear it gets annoying after awhile. I mean us guys are highly fickle as it is and having women around just adds to that fickleness. While the west and others may look down upon things like modesty as repressive, I find it refreshing considering that wherever I turn, it seems like women are showing off their legs like all the time. Please, no more women, leave my poor soul alone.

Ralph
|
Greece
October 13, 2007

Ralph in Greece writes:
Hi Tara, did you ever have any run ins with those religious police, Mutawa. I've heard they can be quite mean at times.

Murat
|
Turkey
October 13, 2007

Murat in Turkey writes:
"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." That's a very important point. Americans and other Westerners should clearly understand that, some practices like headscarves that seem to be "democratic rights" from an outsider's point of view, actually lead to a great oppression over the women of traditionally anti-democratic countries where bigotry still prevails. "Having that choice" is the issue that should be carefully monitored.

Peter
|
California, USA
October 15, 2007

Peter in California writes:
There are many ways, doubtless, in which women's equality is an issue in Saudiyya, but I don't see why you think the handshake issue is an instance. In some cultures it's fine for men to hold hands walking down the street. That's definitely not the case in the US, but that has nothing to do with issues of equality. That's how they feel about physical contact in public between unrelated men and women. I just don't see how this has anything to do with equality between the sexes or why anyone should feel slighted or insulted.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Peter in California --
And @ Arvind in California. Thanks for writing. I think you both make a fair point, and I don't discount it. All I can say is that I'm relaying the situation as I experienced it. I think anytime we're treated differently based solely on one facet of our identity, like gender, it's bound to sting a little. In the specific situation I describe, the handshake scenario was part of an overall impression I felt that these gentlemen were not comfortable with the presence of women at the meeting. There was no -- Namaskar-like -- gesture here! Maybe the point is that declining to shake hands, as one part of overall behavior, can be used to signal that someone is not welcome, but may not always mean that by itself. Perhaps as I continue my travels, I will encounter more of the latter. These issues are rarely black and white, and our perceptions can change over time based on new experiences. I'll keep an open mind on the subject, and hearing about others' experiences is sure to be a part of that, so thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Susannah
|
Canada
October 15, 2007

Susannah in Canada writes:
I am really surprised by those on these blog entries who insist on some other version of your experience Tara other then what you encountered. Your entries are merely your observations. For those that seem intent on pulling punches where obviously they are not called for, seem to me, those who are chronically interested in stimulating conflict on a political level. If those reading, do not care for, or wish for a different take on your observations, they can quit reading. Thank you Tara for sharing of your experiences thus far. I find the information very interesting.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:
@ Susannah in Canada -- Thanks for writing. You bring up an important point. When people ask about my perception of Saudi Arabia, my answers will inherently involve talking about both Saudi culture and my background as an American woman.  We all see the world through the prism of our own background and experiences, bringing to the table a myriad of values and beliefs that we have developed throughout our lives.  That diversity of experiences and opinion is precisely what makes our global community so interesting, and travel so enriching.  I'm glad you enjoy the blog, and I hope we can continue our conversation!

Susan
|
Ohio, USA
October 15, 2007

Susan in Ohio writes:
I appreciate yours sharing of your experiences; I teach the country of Saudi Arabia to middle school children, and your comments will make the country more real to them. Thanks for an honest and positive evaluation.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:
@ Susan in Ohio -- Thanks for reading! I think it's fantastic that you're sharing our blog stories with your students. I hope they will share some of their own thoughts with us on the blog as they learn more about Saudi Arabia!

James
|
Virginia, USA
October 15, 2007

James in Virginia writes:
Nice stories. Hopefully this will help some younger folks see the value in public service.

You should make a habit of removing your security badges before getting photographed. This is the second picture published of you with all or part of the badge(s) visible.

I don't know your agency policy on this, but I'd imagine it's in there somewhere.

Yaser
|
Saudi Arabia
October 15, 2007

Yaser in Saudi Arabia writes:
Here is a video of a Saudi woman (a doctor) refraining from shaking hands with the Saudi king.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=4v-iT4yU6Nw

David
|
Virginia, USA
October 15, 2007

David in Virginia writes:
Unless you spend a very long time in another's culture, you can't understand what a thing means in the context of that culture. An absence of something in another's culture that we have in our own can say more about our culture than the other's.

Are there differences that are insignificant to us but meaningful to the other culture? Are there differences we don't even notice that are highly meaningful to the other culture?

I remember having lunch with an Indian friend. She told me that in her culture, one hand is for eating (bringing to the mouth), the other for touching items that may be "unclean." Clearly in this case my use of both hands while eating would have been more disturbing to my friend than to me. Her use of one hand would probably have gone unnoticed by me had she not brought it up.

Yaser
|
Saudi Arabia
October 16, 2007

Yaser in Saudi Arabia writes:
Tara,

I must agree with you that life outside the walls of the DQ is completely different but many people do not embrace these differences, myself included. I avoid the Saudi culture all together and I do commend you for enduring such a long stint in such a discriminatory world, but you are back in a more accepting environment where men and woman alike are honored to shake the hand of such a young professional.

I really enjoyed reading your blog and I wish you continued success - the world needs more woman like you. Riyadh misses you. Luckily I have tons of Snickers ice cream readily available to fill in the void.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Yaser in Saudi Arabia -- I thought that might be you! Welcome to the blog! Thank you for your kind words, and many thanks to you for the work you do in service to our country. I'm happy to be home in Washington, but I do miss everyone over at the Embassy – please say hello for me! Enjoy that Snickers ice cream, and stay in touch!

Martin
|
California, USA
October 16, 2007

Martin in California writes:
Glad you had fun! Do you speak Arabic?

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Martin in California -- I do speak Arabic, but I'm not fluent… yet. I studied Arabic for three years in university, including a summer of intensive study at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. Three years is not enough to become fluent in Arabic, but I'm still working on it! The State Department offers language classes for employees, so everyday I come into work early for a morning Arabic class. It's a lot of fun and it’s great to have this opportunity to refresh my knowledge of the language.

Navin
|
United Kingdom
October 16, 2007

Navin in U.K. writes:
I really liked the article... but i believe that the writer should have stayed longer than 4months in KSA to really experience it. I mean how much can you know about a place well enought in 4months. I stayed in Jeddah for a month, n being a man I found it very uncomfortable. But the last sentence sums up the whole experience...'the world looks a bit different from the other side of the abaya...'

I would congratulate the lady for her effort and perseverance... n i do hope all this has a positive outcome.

jacqueline
|
Florida, USA
October 16, 2007

Jacqueline in Florida writes:
I understand about the differences in culture. It was difficult for me to do handshake and giving hugs to people or any other ways of showing respect and friendliness especially in public, I still do at times. Back home, i was teaching in a school which consist of about 90% of the students and teachers are Muslims, so i am very aware of their religious belief. Outside my career life, affection are not to be shown in public plus handshake is not in our culture. And our dress code at work are to be followed strictly. I am used to it and honestly i do miss it as it made life simple. Anyway, I am glad that you had the opportunity to experience those four months at a different country. Everyone should travel as much as they can to see the world and to learn more about others as it will definitely help us to be a better person, more understanding and appreciative.

Jeannette
|
Maryland, USA
October 16, 2007

Jeannette in Maryland writes:
Tara, Thank you for your candidness. Having lived in many other countries myself, I appreciate your experiences fully. I teach Spanish in a high school where I am always trying to get the students to imagine themselves living in a different culture. It can be so hard for them to fathom!!! I will be sharing your blog with them, especially my students who are considering applying to be exchange students. I know it will be extraordinarily helpful to them to start thinking differently.

Gerard
|
Maryland, USA
October 18, 2007

Gerald in Maryland writes:

Have you ever seen the movie Syriana? Is it really like that there?

Kathleen
|
Massachusetts, USA
October 18, 2007

Kathleen in Massachusetts writes:

Keep on writing! We are waiting to hear more. Loved the piece on the radio this morning.

Dominique
|
California, USA
October 18, 2007

Dominique in California writes:

Thanks for sharing your experiences. It is the episode about men declining to shake hands with a woman that interested me most today.
I wonder what my reaction would have been in such circumstances. However, I'm not sure the issue there is equality between both genders. It is definitely a cultural matter which should have been expected; this one or another. It makes the foreign exchange more interesting.
We cannot carry our culture and manners with us everywhere. We must expect differences.

Where I come from, it is expected and polite to shake hands with eveyone you talk to. In the U.S. it seems that men only shake hands when women take the initiative. This was like offending to me when I first moved here. But my experience is only mine, right? It may not even be so everywhere in the US... US men may never have denied shaking hands with you, just because you've always known the "etiquette" expected here. All seems to be about cultural knowledge.
Please continue writing.

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
October 19, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Hi Tara. Given your job description, I'd like to ask what your impressions are of the Saudi government's concerns are regarding Iran, both with respect to proliferation, and any safety concerns they may have in regards to the nuclear power plant Russia is building in such an earthquake prone region. Thanks.

Cory
|
Greece
October 19, 2007

Cory in Greece writes:

I'm an American living in Athens, and I'm treated differently even though this is supposed to be an EU country. Sometimes clerks won't put change in my hand at the grocery store, never mind strangers not shaking my hand. In addition, there is a lot of staring, whispering and outright rude comments made as people walk by. Since getting engaged to a Greek man, I've become nearly invisible even though I speak Greek and have been here a decade on my own -- they only speak to him and ignore anything I'm saying. I found this same treatment in the north of India, as well.

I'd enjoy wearing a hijab because then people cannot discriminate against me according to ethnicity, race, nationality or personal bias, then it'd only be because I'm a woman. I'm not saying that's OK; I'm saying it's the lesser of evils.

When I was in Egypt for a month, I wished I had a hijab and/or abaya because it was terribly unpleasant to look down and have people trying to touch me (a non-no, but they tried anyway). I was already covered from head to toe with baggy clothes in scorching 100F heat, but it wasn't enough. Only when I walked with a male friend was I able to finally see the sites and look around the same block I'd walked 14 times for the first time.

Certainly your eyes are fresh when in a new country and sees things that people take for granted after living there some time. But only a few months is not enough to learn the essential intimacies of any country or culture.

Ralph
|
Greece
October 19, 2007

Ralph in Greece writes:

@ James in Virginia -- I'm sure that Tara and the State Dept know the policies regarding their badges (security, entrance or otherwise). I'm sure that by flipping the badge over, no one other than mind readers should be able to read anything. And, regarding the first photo, I'm sure that any information that is able to be seen would not compromise anyone or it would not be allowed to be shown in this photo.

Let's give the folks at State, DoD, etc some credit.

Sara
|
Saudi Arabia
October 22, 2007

Sara in Saudi Arabia writes:

Morning, Tara
I read your post & I know how you feel. My father is saudi & my mother is american, I'm 20 years old I've been living in KSA for the past 8 years.

I'm a muslim & I understand why I have to wear an abaya, it's a religious thing & has nothing to do with the gov's rules here. Maybe you might have felt it was because you "have" to wear it. I personally don't think it's fair to be forced to,if you're not a muslim.

You mentioned education & work oppertunities for women, & I never met a saudi woman who didn't go to school or had a chance to go to college. KSU is an example of that. It's a free college & they pay thier student (males & females) 800-1200 every month. It's sort of an allowance to encourage them to go to college.

I do agree with you on the driving issue. & it really is a topic alot of us saudi women talk about.
A couple of years ago, King Fahad agreed to let women drive, but one religious shaikh advised him not to, not for the fact that it's forbidden in Isam, because bedwins women who still live in the desert are allowed to drive, it was forbidden because they are worried that women won't be able to cope with driving alone.

Take care.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Sara in Saudi Arabia -- Good afternoon, Sara! You make a great point about educational and professional opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia. Many of the women I met in the KSA have advanced degrees and work in competitive fields. I touch upon that subject in my latest post Remember the Ladies in Riyadh. I hope you'll have a chance to check it out and let us know what you think. Thanks for your response!

ammar
|
Saudi Arabia
October 24, 2007

Ammar in Saudi Arabia writes:

good morning everyone sara thank you

Dakhil
|
Saudi Arabia
November 15, 2007

Dakhil in Saudi Arabia writes:

Well every time I see "Saudi Arabia" name mentioned In the web I see the lies about Saudis & Islam in general....I don't know why? Please leave us alone. We had enough of your "way of life" because you people see only your self like every nation before you who finally had left the life and left pain and sadness.

I'm not trying make you changing your opinion and thoughts about my country and of course you will not expect me to do so about yours, but why can't live with each other without saying things we already made our minds that it is the truth.

You always accusing Muslims that they can't live in your community, maybe you people couldn't stop talking about your opinion on them.

I’m sick of all that.
Cheers

---
Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Dakhil in Saudi Arabia:

I hope that you have not found lies about Saudi Arabia or Islam in my writing. I have studied Islam for a long time, and while it is not my religion of choice, I have great respect for its teachings and followers. We may disagree in some aspects of our opinions on these issues, but I have tried to present both the positive and the negative aspects of my experiences in an honest and open manner. I have never and never will say that Muslims are unable to live in any Western community. The Muslim community is a vibrant and vital part of American society as well as societies across the world.

I appreciate your concern for the bias that exists on both sides of the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. I, too, am sick of that. That’s why I think it’s important to have these conversations. Because the thing is, I *don't* already have things made up in my mind about what is the "truth" about Islam or the Middle East. Every time I travel or meet someone new, my perceptions of Islam and the Middle East develop and change – usually for the better. I think this is also usually true when people from other parts of the world visit the United States. I love hearing Arabs and Muslims tell me about their impressions of the United States, even when this includes criticism. It challenges me to maintain high standards for my country and to continually seek improvement in my own communities.

I hope that you’ll keep reading, Dakhil, and keep sharing your opinion with us. That’s what the blog is for!

Bader
|
Saudi Arabia
November 6, 2007

Bader in Saudi Arabia writes:

Good day Tara,

First of all, I have doubt that we met in a Brazilian consul party in Riyadh, were you there? Btw, my wife is Brazilian.

I just want to say that I found your comments objective, at the end, you were in a different country where the religion, culture and habits are different as well, and it is your right to not accept these differences as it's your choice to come over to Riyadh.

For the abaya & hijab, my Brazilian wife wear them during our stay in Saudi, but outside of kingdom shoes doesn't, it's a matter of respecting the society that we choose to come in, not that we come and try to impose our habit and culture.

For what's regards to women driving car, it's not a matter of religion as it's something for the society to decide, and in my opinion, the society is not ready and don't know if it's ever going to be ready, the main point is the mentality of some people here, and I'm not talking about the religious people, but what I'm talking about are the uneducated people who acts as they never sow women before and maybe you sow this kind of people.

Women jobs are a big issue and no one blamed except the government as they limited the women work fields, just a woman could work as a teacher, doctor or nurse, so the women in Saudi Arabia is unused power.

Thanks,
Bader

.

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