We are currently at the Four Seasons – the one shaped like a bishop’s mitre. It has all the amenities including a beautiful pool and fully equipped gym – neither of which is available to me – a woman. I watch with envy as my male colleagues head for the pool after work. I return to my room to read until dinner.
The hotel is connected to one of the more extravagant malls and has an upscale food court. You order at the counter, normal enough, but here the counters are divided – a men’s side and a women’s side with a partition between. Once served, you carry your food either to the men’s dining area or to the ‘family’ dining area, the two separated by a wall
The religious police patrol the malls, so I pull my veil well forward. At least in the malls the air conditioning mitigates the black polyester. It’s a strangely colorless site – men in white, women in black against white marble walls.
Forget trying on your purchase before you buy it – there are no changing rooms in clothing stores for women. You hold the garment up to your abaya and guess. All the stores are staffed by men, the exception being stores selling lingerie. Their windows are completely curtained, no display of skimpy undies, of course, and only women are allowed inside.
In desperate need of a haircut, I go to a place recommended by the Embassy nurse – an American married to a Saudi. Hours – 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. I ring a bell to be admitted and am greeted by a large ‘No Men Allowed ‘ sign. The second floor salon is a little bit of Manila. The staff are Philipina, walls painted lavender with containers of artificial flowers everywhere. Lena is very nice and gives me a hair cut I can live with.
My hotel is right across the multi-laned highway from the shop and it seems ridiculous to call for a car and driver. I ignore Embassy instructions and start walking, looking for an intersection. The sidewalk gives out after half a block and I’m now much too close to cars whizzing by at breathtaking speeds. In the dark, I’m not sure they can see me in my black garb, nor am I sure I want to be seen – an infidel female in the dark walking beside a busy highway.
Suddenly, I feel very vulnerable.
I never do find an intersection, but dart across the highway. Once safely inside the hotel, I breathe again, shaken, realizing how reckless my simple decision to cross the street was.
It’s beginning to sink in – even with my superficial daily experiences – what it is like to be a Saudi woman. Officially, their status is that of minors, i.e., each Saudi woman must have a male guardian who approves all major facets of her life – travel, marriage, education, employment, and most of the minor ones. She may not drive a car or take public transportation on her own, including taxis.
The supposed purpose of the abaya is to protect men from the lust women automatically incite should a man see any part of their bodies, in other words, to make them invisible.
Even with my limited experience of the abaya, I, too, begin to feel invisible, diminished, fearful, but somehow protected from what would be the disgusted or leud stares I would certainly receive without it . It is a powerful tool.
Next – The Other Saudi Arabia