Thursday, March 10, 2011

Abaya Anguish

I have a confession to make. I wore an abaya today. For the first time since October. And without any external pressures. It was a decision I anguished over and am still uneasy with, and I resented every minute I was wearing it, but I think it was the right thing for right now.

(I am frustrated because I just wrote this entire post, at which time my computer froze. When I restarted, all of my sticky notes had disappeared. Nothing too vital, but it's a pain to have to rewrite this. Apologies if it doesn't flow well, as the second telling loses a little of the emotion.)

Many expat women I know here have a love-hate relationship with their abayas. Plural, because no woman owns just one. (Except me, thus far.) They hate them because of the necessity of wearing them, the underlying cultural mores behind said necessity, and the difficulty/danger factor of wearing meters of heavy, draping, long, black fabric. (Escalators are a safety hazard, and many an abaya has been accidentally dipped into a plate of food. And don't get me started on stairs.) Or at least these are some of the reasons I hate the abaya.

The love part is because it's easy. Because it doesn't matter what you wear underneath. Because it cuts down on potential for harassment. Because it makes it easier to blend in to the crowd. Though, really, I am never going to completely blend in anywhere except Eastern Europe.

After Ramadan ended, I started experimenting with not wearing an abaya. From the beginning I've never worn one for official functions or while working, like many of my female American counterparts. Once I went out a few times to different places and didn't meet any resistance or problems, I stopped wearing it altogether. It's been over five months. I actually had to search for the stupid thing to wear it today. And until recently, I never did have any problems.

Recently, I've had a couple of unpleasant encounters and a reality check about the existence of mutawwa. And these made me rethink my approach.

A few weeks ago in a restaurant (one I'd been to before, without an abaya) told me to put one on or leave. My companions and I tried to argue, but it was futile. I finally compromised and draped a scarf around me. I always carry a scary for just such occasions.

For the record, it's not like I'm showing a lot of skin when I don't wear an abaya. Much of the time I'm wearing a suit. The rest of the time, I wear longer sleeves, long pants, high necklines, and often a pashmina as well. I'm not trying to offend anyone or be under-dressed. I'm just trying to live a relatively normal life in normal(ish) clothes. Scandal is the last thing I want.

Last week, I went to a local wireless/internet store to recharge my internet, something I have to do monthly. It's a hassle. Every time. And more than often involves lots of waiting and often driving to one, two, or even three additional locations before someone can help me. It's my least favorite part of every month. But I've done it every month, always without an abaya. This time, though, one of the employees very politely tried to talk around the fact I wasn't wearing an abaya and asked me to leave. In the nicest possible way and without ever saying any of these words. I think the euphemism was "the guard is always watching." I feigned oblivion and soldiered on. The obvious discomfort of said employee did ensure prompt and efficient service, though. They wanted me out of there, and quickly.

I know that on both of these occasions the employees in question didn't have a personal problem with me not wearing an abaya. They were worried about what would happen if anyone caught them letting me in. Anyone being the mutawwa, the religious police. And while I have still never seen a real, live mutawwa, they're in the news a lot lately. They raided the International Book Fair in Riyadh last week, surprising and angering even the Minister of Culture and Information, who was visiting the Fair at the time. Friends who were there told me it was a scary experience.

Even though life continues as normal here, despite rumors and speculation about various protests and demonstrations and what have you, there's a bit of a sea change. I'm sensing an increased climate of restriction, conservatism, and fear. I don't know whether or not it's justified, but it's palpable. So it was these two incidents and this heightened state of awareness that led me to today's decision. I said it earlier, and I'll say it again: it was truly an anguished decision. It made me sad and mad and broke my streak, so to speak. But I think it was an important social and personal experiment. (Or at least that's how I justify it to myself.)

I spent several hours at IKEA today, and it was enough of a hassle, without worrying about what I was wearing and who was around me. Shopping here is a pain anyway. I have to plan ahead and call a driver to take me there. And then estimate how long I'll be and/or call the dispatcher to arrange for a pickup later on. And work around prayer times, when everything closes for 30 minutes. Five times a day. Most big stores let you stay in and shop during prayer, but there is no sales help and no way to pay or leave. And deal with the language barrier - many retail workers don't seem to speak English or Arabic well. And they're all men. Which actually is weird after a while, for some reason. And everything takes longer than I think. And there are literal herds of people to navigate around, including hundreds of children who seem intent on always being in the way. And few people are polite or acknowledge you when they almost run into you. And then wait in monstrous lines with no organized queues and lots of cutting. And I know I already mentioned prayer, but unless you're shopping between 5am-12pm (and most stores don't open until 10-11) or after 9-9:30pm, you're going to be interrupted by prayer at least once. And then once I've paid, I have to find my driver. And they're always wonderful, and they always help me lug my purchases to my second-story apartment, but I always feel guilty, even if I don't ask them to do that. Today, with my awkward 38kg linen closet flat pack, was particularly tough. And then you realize a quick trip to the store has taken four hours. So add in the constant worry that you'll be called out for what you're wearing, and the whole thing is exhausting.

So I wore an abaya. And I may do it again. But I'm never going to like it.

And now it's time to make a quiche-omelette hybrid recommended by a colleague. And to assemble my new linen closet. I will not be wearing an abaya for either activity.


Robert said...

Wow. I dont know what to say. This would be such a crazy difference between life at home and life in Saudi. Here you are just being "different" There you are nearly crucified for wearing "normal" clothes....Keep your head up Sadie. You may not change a country all at once...but you can always change one person at a time ;) I do love this seems to be one of my favorites. Stay safe.

not_too_creative said...

This is one of your best posts ever. Do male FSOs ever wear thawbs in solidarity with female FSOs pressured into adopting local dress?

Liz who's no longer in Riyadh said...

It's the suck, I know. I actually chose to wear abaya and hijab while in Riyadh, for a variety of reasons that have to do with me and that really shouldn't be anyone else's business. But at the last Riyadh Book Fair, I wore a conservative black suit because I was a professional and a diplomat and doing otherwise didn't feel right in the situation. I will never forget being pull aside, condescended to, and harassed by the fair organizers, as though I wasn't there to provide a service for their attendees. I actually prefer straight-up muttawa "cover your face" to the volunteers to the volunteers who oh-so-helpfully pop up to shame you, point you to the other line after you've been waiting patiently 10 minutes, or otherwise involve themselves in somthing that's none of their business. At least the muttawa have a government mandate!

But I feel you. Suck.

Becky said...

That would be so hard. I really don't know how I would handle being in that situation. Such a conflict. This would be harder for me than all the housing issues and diseases and stuff in the world. Thank you for writing it down and sharing. This is one of those things people don't realize about working overseas. I have a lot of respect for you for dealing with all of that and still being willing to be there and do your job. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

As a fellow FSO, I'm proud we have people like you who are willing to work in these times in places like this. We're lucky to have you.

Sara said...

I know what it means to take measures to make life abroad easier. I'm sorry that you're in a culture that's so oppressive.