Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To Wear or Not to Wear the Robe and Veil

Me in my Abaya (and really bad hair)
Before moving to Saudi Arabia, I skyped, emailed and phoned numerous women who had lived at KAUST or were still living there. I wanted to know what it was like to be a woman living in the area – and if I would have to wear the abaya and jihab (the robe and veil). The answer was “yes” and “no.”

On the KAUST campus, which is really a village, I would not have to wear the robe. I could wear my normal western clothes to work, I could wear shorts to work out, and I could wear a bikini to the beach if I wanted to – although they recommended a one-piece or tankini just to respectful to the other cultures also living on the campus. 

However, I'm just going to tell you that I did spend $100 on a boring bathing suit and I never wore it the whole time I lived at KAUST. When I went snorkeling, I  usually wore my bikini bottom with a surfer's rash guard top just because it was so hot and I was afraid of getting sunburned.  

At the campus there were women's only pools and bathing decks where you can wear whatever you want. And even in the family pools, there was a mix of bathing suits.

So when did I have to follow the rules and be covered?  When I left the campus.  So when I went to the city of Jeddah, I would have to wear the abaya (the robe -- which doesn't have to be black by the way). The veil was optional. I didn’t have to wear it, but was handy to have with me just in case. In fact, I only wore the veil if by myself and the only Westerner in the area -- and not because I had too, but because my blonde hair was such a novelty to people that I usually got second looks and people often wanted to take their photo with me. So I covered in an attempt to "blend."


Clair Sale, who has been my lifesaver for the trip, told me the one thing she wished she had with her on the plane was the robe. So I bought one ….in Phoenix.

It was hard to find because if you’ve been to Phoenix, you don’t see anyone wearing them. I googled Halal meat shops in the city and found Alzohour Market on Yelp. I went there and asked the woman if she knew where to buy abayas in the area. She happened to have a selection.

And yes, I did consider buying on online, but I didn’t know my size and because I’m tall, I was afraid it would be too short.

The woman showed me a bunch of abayas and I was a little shocked at how expensive they were. My budget was $25, but the cheapest they had were $100. I was also surprised how decorative they were. When I checked the online news for Jeddah to see what people wore, they looked like they were wearing plain black ones. The woman assured that I would want one with something on it – and that there were designer abayas and everything. I trusted her and found one with gold sleeves that I actually love. I feel like a judge or high priestess in it.

So now I’m at Heathrow with my fancy abaya stuffed in my knapsack. My plane for Jeddah is arriving in an hour. Do I wear it now? Do I stay western? Do I wait and put it on just before we land?

I looked around the gate and every person there was dressed in the robe. The women were in black and the men in white. There wasn’t one Western person in the group. Hmm…robe it is.

PS. While I suffered the 6 hours wearing the robe and trying to sleep on the red-eye to Jeddah without strangling myself with the veil, it turned out it wasn’t necessary. About an hour before we landed the pilot came on the speaker and said we were entering Saudi air space. He said that they would now stop serving alcohol (crap, should have taken advantage of the free wine until then) and that if we wanted, it was time to put the customary robes for the landing.

Next time I’ll be more relaxed. But I was glad Clair told me to pack it. I did feel less of an outsider with it on.

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