Life Behind the Abaya: Under Cover in Saudi Arabia

My first reaction is to refuse to go - I will not visit Saudi Arabia if I am required to wear a 'burkha' (veil), when my husband need not observe any Islamic dress codes. However, curiosity ultimately wins over feminist indignation.

On arrival at Riyadh airport I am escorted very politely to the separate "Ladies Lounge", while husband proceeds to the main lounge. As I sit, I can't help but admire the paintings and other works of art, the velvet furnishings and ornate fittings. Almost like some royal palace. I catch myself thinking: Opulence doesn't necessarily mean gender equality.

I have brought along a 'burkha' with me, but even after we exit the airport and arrive at the Faisaliya Hotel, along one of the main boulevards of the city, no one asks me to put it on. The next morning, however, the management brings me a silky, embroidered black 'abaya' (as the 'burkha' is known in Saudi Arabia) with a polite suggestion that I may be "more comfortable" wearing it when I go out. "Comfortable?" I think. "In a 'burkha' that threatens to efface my personality and individuality?" I get the answer, but with a few surprises, over the next six days of my stay in Riyadh.

I am in the city as an invitee to an international award ceremony, conducted along the lines of the Nobel Prize, with prizes of $200,000, awarded annually to global achievers in science and medicine. At the lavishly decorated Prince Sultan Grand Ceremonial Hall, where the glittering ceremony is taking place, the women sit at separate tables. To my right is a woman who owns a large, flower importing business and, beside her, a woman who teaches economics at the university. On my left sits a woman, who heads a large NGO in Jeddah, spends part of the year in New York and was "a close friend of JRD Tata". Next to her is a young journalist, and completing the group at our table is a wealthy heiress, just back from her Swiss holiday. All are dressed in black 'abayas'. When the TV cameras pan towards our table, the young, exquisitely made-up businesswoman quickly draws her veil across her face, turns to me and says, "Tell me when the camera is off." She, like all the women at my table, speaks beautiful English. Why does she want to cover her face, I ask. "You wouldn't like to hitch up your sari and show your leg, right? Similarly, I don't like strangers staring at my face," she says.

The women sitting beside me have perfectly manicured hands, painted nails, matching glossy lipstick and eye shadow. If you put these on, I ask, doesn't the 'abaya' smother it all? The economics professor retorts, "Not at all. I put it on for my pleasure, just as I eat delicacies for my personal pleasure. I am not putting on make-up to attract men." So, are the western and eastern sexist norms merely variations of the commodification of women?

"You know," adds the heiress from Jeddah, "in the West, I have seen women dressed in near-identical business suits, at formal events. Is that any different?" For these women, the 'abaya' makes no difference.

And surprisingly, it somewhat feels the same way once I wear mine. Initially, I am resentful; thereafter it doesn't matter. In Riyadh there is air-conditioning everywhere - including in the taxis - and I don't feel hot under the extra layer of the veil.

The next morning as our group gathers, the wife of the award winner for medicine, who is an American, declares that she feels "comfortable" in her 'abaya'; "I don't have to worry about my crumpled skirt," she jokes. That day, we visit the national museum, the university and a medical hospital-cum-research centre. And even at the centre, there are women, dressed in, what else, but the 'abaya', engaged in great scientific experiments and using hi-tech equipment.

Another day, I decide to stroll through the gold market (just like the Zaveri Bazar in Mumbai but much grander) and pay a visit to the nearby mall. I am free to move around and no one restricts my entry anywhere. That day, I also discover first-hand that young Saudi girls have their own strategies to grab some fun despite the seclusion - every girl is equipped with a sophisticated mobile, and via the cellphone lots of banter with young men goes on, including courtship. As I sit in the segregated women's area in the mall, I watch in silent fascination, as a teenage girl sits down, whips out her mobile, and lifts her veil to give a glimpse of her face to her boyfriend with whom she is chatting animatedly. Trust modern technology - and youthful ingenuity - to circumvent restrictions! Does she like wearing the 'abaya', I ask. She swiftly replies, "It's like having to wear underwear, because it is considered 'decent'. Perhaps Serena Williams would play faster if she wore a bikini, but she doesn't, right?"

On our last day we are taken on a desert safari, where there is no segregation. Though clad in the mandatory 'abaya', I sit with a mixed group - men and women. It reminds me of a dinner party I had attended at the rich and opulent mansion of a conservative business family at Malabar Hill, Mumbai. There, imported drinks flowed freely for the men seated in the drawing room, but the daughter-in-law (clad in an expensive designer sari) attended to the guests with her 'ghoonghat' (the end of the sari used to cover the head) drawn decorously over her expensive, salon-maintained hair. "The 'ghoonghat' is to show respect to elders, which is part of our culture, why should I rebel?" she had retorted when I questioned her about her reaction to the conservative norms imposed by her in-laws.

So, I come to the conclusion that sexist codes that treat the female differently exist everywhere and in all cultures, only their manifestations differ. Take, for example, the fact that last year thousands of girls in the 'modern' West chose, for their graduation present, breast enhancement surgery paid for by parents.

Here's a poser for feminist analysis - how is this version of sexist social pressures any better than the mandatory covering of the female body? Why do we see less indignation over one set of socio-cultural norms, and more over the other?

Even at the dinner hosted by the genial Indian ambassador, M.O.H. Farookh, at his residence in the exclusive diplomatic enclave, the wives of the local Indian officials sit separately. Why? "Just by habit," they say. At dinner, however, men and women eat together.

So, at the end of six days of wearing an 'abaya', I ask myself whether the dress code made a difference. The truthful answer (which comes even to my feminist sensibilities as a surprise) is that it didn't. Marginally, yes, because women cannot travel without a male escort, and so on, but in the words of Lakshmi, an Indian living in Riyadh "one is equally handicapped in Delhi because of the all-pervasive goondaism". As for obliterating my personality, I am what I am, regardless of dress. And 'abayas' need not - and apparently do not - consign women to drabness, unless they want to break through major male bastions. Which is true of anywhere in the world.

I am glad I went. Even if I had to wear an 'abaya'.


More by :  Sakuntala Narsimhan

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