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women oppression

Society, Where Am I (Going)?

I Wore an Abaya and Didn’t Feel Oppressed

July 25, 2015
his is me in an abaya. Still need to learn to tie the scarf right. And yes, that's a new hairstyle.

So I ordered an abaya from Amazon, and it came in the mail today. If you still don’t know, I’m moving to Saudi Arabia in just a few weeks. I decided to just get an abaya now so that I can wear it as soon as I get off the plane. I’ve read that sometimes people go straight to the mall after landing to get an abaya, but now I don’t have to worry about people staring at me as I walk through the mall to get one for the first time.

First, lets get something straight. An abaya is not a burqa, is not a chador, is not a hijab, is not a niqab, is not a…I know it’s a little confusing. I think this page on BBC explains the differences well enough. (If you know of a better resource, let me know.)

When I got back from DC today it was sitting on my bed in a DHL package. I immediately ripped it open and tried it on. It’s actually not bad. It’s like a long loose fitting dress. It’s very comfortable, not too heavy, and I like how it flows, though I don’t know how I’ll like it in 40 degree (C) desert weather. But if women in that part of the world can put up with it then I’m sure it’s doable. It covers my arms up to my wrists, and my legs down to my ankles. It has breast pockets, and pockets near the hips (YAY for pockets in women’s clothing!) and buttons from the collar bone to the waist.

So this is something I’ll have to wear anytime I’m in public or around men. I’ll be working at an institution for women, so when I get to work, I believe I’ll be able to take it off. Also, I think in the Diplomatic Quarter, a very nice part of town where all the foreign embassies are, I won’t have to wear it. But I’ll be wearing it much of the time. Being able to wear literally anything underneath is very convenient. I’m sure I’ll be doing errands and going to the mall in my pajamas.

I got my abaya from a company called East Essence. They have a website, but you can also order from their Amazon store. It came with a belt, but I don’t think I’ll wear it with the abaya. The city of Riyadh seems to be quite strict about the dress code, from what I’ve been reading on blogs and forums. From what I understand, abaya’s are about hiding skin as much as they are about hiding a woman’s figure. A belt would give me too much of a waist so it wouldn’t be culturally appropriate.

The abaya I bought. $27.99.  lLink

The abaya I bought. $27.99.
lLink

East Essence, and similar stores, have clothing and accessories that come in many styles and colors. They’re really beautiful, but in KSA, especially in the capital Riyadh, which is very conservative, only black is culturally acceptable. So I got a black abaya and a black pashmina scarf that I’ve been practicing wrapping as a hijab. But to be honest I’ll probably just end up throwing it around my head most of the time. I hear that foreigners are cut a little slack when it comes to the head covering.

So yeah, I kinda like the garment, and the only thing I’m worried about is the heat, especially since it’s black. And no, I don’t feel oppressed when I’m wearing it.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that. As an American, non-Saudi, non-Muslim, non-Arab woman, this garment has no cultural significance for me. I only bought so I can respect the culture that I will soon be living in. Otherwise I wouldn’t wear any sort of Islamic garment, not necessarily because I don’t like them, but because that would be cultural appropriation. As someone who is not culturally connected to the abaya, my opinion on how I feel when I’m wearing it is, in most cases, irrelevant.

But in this case, since I’m going to have to wear it, I thought I’d give my opinion for a couple reasons. 1) It might be helpful for future expats who are moving to KSA. 2)To highlight that it’s silly to call a woman oppressed based on what she wears, something Muslim feminists have been saying for years. (Side note, Femen can go to hell.)

I would guess that because it’s a part of their culture and something they grew up wearing, Saudi women love abayas. I came across this piece in the Huffington Post about a Saudi woman talking about her experience with abayas:

At one point in my teenage years, my gang of close friends and I designed and tailored our own special abayas with our logo — a small cat’s paw print on the back next to the letter of our first names. Mine had a huge purple “R” across the back, made up of shiny purple Swarovski crystals. I even wore a matching purple cap over my headscarf just for kicks.

But at the same time, we wanted to wear them when we felt like wearing them. Anything that is forced is hated and eventually people rebel against it.

One of my religious teachers in Saudi Arabia used to tell us: “Great fruits, like an apple, wear a protective cover to protect their insides from the harm of the outside.”

Of course, being teenagers, we would all protest that we were not fruits and we should be free to customize our abayas to reflect our personalities. There were times when my friends and I would get told off by the tough morality police in Jeddah for our more outlandish abayas, and, on one occasion, a whole group of us were chased down the street by a car packed with stick-carrying religious police because we were running to our cars (we were late — as usual) and our legs were showing as we ran…

Even though it doesn’t stop men from staring and cat calling, I do feel that an abaya somehow empowers women in the Gulf.

While I have no idea who decided that women should be in black and men in white, I have no complaints. Black has remarkable slimming powers — and it goes well with any purse or pair of shoes.

I’d say that clothing can represent oppression, but they do not equal oppression. Lets take bras, for example. From when we’re preteens with boobs the size of mosquito bites, we start with training bras, then we upgrade to regular bras, and we wear them for the rest of our lives. They’re uncomfortable as fuck, and many people, including myself, would rather not wear them. But for some reason, our society thinks that free flowing, slightly droopy boobs rolling around under your shirt are indecent.  Now what if an alien race from Kepler 452b (aka Earth 2.0) came to Earth, saw that many people wear bras, and deemed us all oppressed just because we do? Same thing with high heels. I mean these are shoes that are so damn uncomfortable because they literally force your feet into an awkward, unnatural shape, yet people wear them all the time, to feel sexy, to be professional, to be accepted. Maybe you can say that bras, high heels, and certain types of clothing are small examples of women’s/feminine presenting people’s oppression as a whole. I honestly think that’s fair. What’s not fair in the case of Islamic clothing is putting so much emphasis on this article of clothing when we talk about oppression, avoiding nuance when talking about Islamic clothing and oppression, and ignoring/silencing Arab/Muslim women when talking about oppression.

To reiterate, when talking about oppression of Saudi women, I think it’s important to:

1) Don’t put so much emphasis on what they wear. 
So, we should recognize that abayas are just one part of Saudi culture, as high heels are just one part of female/femme culture. There are other ways that women in both these groups (which may overlap, btw) are oppressed, for example: street harassment, rape, and domestic violence.

Also, we shouldn’t hold prejudice or assumptions against people based on what they wear. Unfortunately, since 9/11, we do. Which is why France has bans on face coverings, and hijabs for girls in school. And why Muslims in the US, or those who are mistaken for Muslims, are victims of harassment and hate crimes.

We shouldn’t assume that women in KSA don’t want to wear islamic clothing, something that has cultural and religious significance for them. People like the activists in Femen, who believe in “liberating” Muslim women by getting them to remove their clothing, are being disrespectful to their culture and speaking over the people they are trying to “save.”. Femen, and I think many westerners, equate oppression with clothing, and that’s wrong.

2.)Nuance is important.

We should acknowledge that many Saudi women love wearing abayas, and they love their culture the way it is. If a Saudi woman says that she believes it’s right to have to ask her husband if she can get a job, or go to school, guess what, that’s her opinion. And if another Saudi woman says she wants more gender equality in her country, but she also loves wearing abayas and going to sex segregated restaurants, guess what, that’s her opinion too. One Saudi female activist, Manal Al-Sharif, who was jailed for driving, told Fox News host Sean Hannity, “if freedom is wearing a bikini, I don’t want that, to be frank with you.” She both appreciates the modest dress of women in her culture, and thinks that women should be able to drive. It’s possible to believe both of these things at the same time.
3. They don’t need to be saved.

Muslim women don’t need to be saved by benevolent westerners. Believe it or not, there are some great Muslim activists and feminists, like Al-Sharif, who was mentioned above. In Saudi Arabia, there are women who are working to gain voting rights, the right to drive, the right to participate in politics, among other things.

Note: I’m not trying to pretend that Saudi Arabia is a leading example for women’s rights; of course it’s not.  But I do think it’s important to counteract the dominant media narrative that #AllSaudiWomen or #AllMuslimWomen are oppressed and trapped. Just from watching a few YouTube videos, I’ve learned so much that has changed my perception on women in Saudi Arabia.

In this interview with Sean Hannity, Manal Al-Sharif dispels some common stereotypes about Saudi life, while recognizing that the country has a long way to go on women’s rights. She also talks about how it’s not fair to compare Western women with Saudi women, and rightfully takes offense to Hannity saying that Western women are more liberated than Saudi women.


Just an update about my job: Today I went to DC to get my medical exams done and get my visa application started. I think my ETA is still mid August. If you’re wondering about the degree attestation, medical check, and visa process, don’t ask me because my company arranged for a visa agency to take care of everything for me.

PS, is it weird that I feel less anxious about moving to Saudi Arabia than moving to Korea? (I’ve never been to Korea, but before this job came along, I was sure that my next teaching job would be there.) I think I know why this is, but I’ll save it for another blog post.

In the comments, tell me:
Would you ever live in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or any place where there is a strict dress code?
Do you think that western media generally gives a far and accurate presentation of Saudi women?
What is your first impression of me in an abaya? Weirded out? Disgusted? Indifferent? How do you think I look? Should I bedazzle it to spice it up? (probably not).

If aliens from Kepler 452b came to Earth, what do you think they’d think of us?

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