Reflections on a Week in Saudi Arabia

Guest Blogger: Else Hamayan

Dr. Else Hamayan, long-time friend of Nancy and her husband Roger, is a specialist in bilingual education. Roger met her when they were both working with refugees in SE Asia in the 1980s. She grew up in Lebanon, speaking Armenian and Arabic, spent many years in Canada and the U.S., and now lives in Argentina with her husband and daughter. While facilitating a workshop on bilingual education in Saudi Arabia, she shared these observations, which we would like to offer to our readers this week. She thanks Sarar Hany Maalouf for her editing assistance.

There are two seas in Saudi Arabia: the sea of black and the sea of white. It’s the first image that I saw on my one week trip to Saudi Arabia in August 2015 as an educational trainer. Upon exiting from baggage claim, I saw every female shrouded in black and the majority of males in white. Before landing I had slipped on my black abaya, just as one of the expat internet sites advised me to do. When I walked outside, I must admit that my first thought in the extremely humid heat was: “How clever of the males to claim the cooler white for themselves. This black abaya must be a nightmare during the day.” But the abaya turns out to be a most comfortable garment, even in black and even during the day, at least for a brief period of time.

I arrived at 2 a.m. at the airport and went to the short line of passport control for people entering the country for the first time. Apparently, not many people enter Saudi Arabia for the first time. The queue for return residents who were not Saudi citizens was long. I was behind four young Pakistani men who were also first timers. As soon as the passport control agent saw me at the back of the line, he beckoned me to the front. I knew there had to be some advantage to being a woman!

image-1Very few people spend any considerable time outdoors. Those who do are the laborers, most of whom are foreigners and seem to lead a harsh life in dire conditions. The foreign laborers make up a large proportion of the population, both in Saudi Arabia as well as in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). They are mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, and I assume are Muslim. The men are in construction or work as guards and drivers, either for individuals or for businesses. The women work inside the house as servants, child caregivers, or cooks.   These laborers are hard-working individuals living far from their families and in crowded dwellings.

One of the female administrators at the school where I worked for a week, Salma,* had offered to pick me up at the airport. I met Salma, a beautiful Palestinian in her early thirties, at a conference in Berlin the previous year. At the airport, she was shrouded in black, with only her face and hands as clues to her identity. Wearing the “niqab” which covers the face in addition to the abaya, women can get away with doing things they are not supposed to do, or being in places they are forbidden to go, hidden beneath the shroud of black. I wondered if either of the two women in my training sessions who wore the niqab had sent their servants to sit in while they went shopping!

For Salma to pick me up implied that her husband would have to be drafted since women are not allowed to drive. Later, this administrator commented about how hard it is to have to plan every move, to ensure that she gets driven to wherever she needs to go and get there on time, or to get picked up without having to wait a long time. I thought to myself: My sixteen-year old complains about having to depend on my husband and me to drive her places and pick her up. “I have to depend on you all the time,” she whines. My teenager also complains about how every move must be planned so that a ride can be arranged. No spontaneous decisions to go pick up some food or meet your friend for coffee. I wonder what it’s like to be a grown woman and feel that way.

Driving is against the law, but other areas of daily life also exclude women. Exercise is one such convention: it is assumed that women will not do any kind of exercise. The swimming pool at the hotel, as well as the exercise room, was not open for women, and this was at the Holiday Inn, an international chain! It is too hot outdoors to do any kind of vigorous exercise, and I must say that pool which I looked at longingly from my window was awfully tempting. However, on a stroll on the coastal walkway after dinner one night I did see a few women speed walking, holding up their abaya so as not to trip on it. There was even a woman using the outdoor exercise equipment in the park, again, holding up the abaya with one hand. At 44 ̊ C and about 95% humidity, this was true dedication to exercising.

imageCovering oneself in a black abaya is a social convention that is not an option, even for non-Saudi women. However, unlike local Saudi women, I was not obligated to cover my hair. There was one aspect of wearing the abaya that I found liberating, especially since I knew I could take it off as soon as I left the country. I did not have to worry about what outfit to put on in the morning. Saudi women did not have that option until they went abroad, which many of them did, but infrequently and for a limited time, and only with the approval of the family male figure.

The only time that I was in the presence of other people and took off my abaya was at the house of one of the school administrators, Amal, who had organized a luncheon in my honor. As soon as we entered the house, we removed our abayas. It was a little shocking to see women in western dress, some with long sleeves and long skirts, and others with short dresses. Some of the guests wore quite revealing clothes. Sixteen women were invited to the luncheon, which took place in the women’s side of the house. Earlier, I had been amazed at the size of houses seen from the street. It made sense when I realized that each house has two sitting rooms, two dining rooms, and two common area bathrooms—one for men and one for women!

During lunch, Amal announced that her husband was returning home early and would be coming in through the main door. She informed us that he would immediately go up the stairs so it shouldn’t be a problem for any of the ladies to be seen by him. Three women who had their backs to the stairs panicked when they heard Amal’s husband coming in. One of them who had on a long diaphanous shawl quickly pulled it over her head and two women ducked under this temporary protection from would-be male eyes!

Women, I thought, must be completely accustomed to not being seen by men. The school where I was working had two separate sides: the girls’ school and the boys’ school. Girls and boys attended the girls’ school until Grade 3, after which they were separated. The boys’ school had only male teachers and the girls’ school only females. In fact, the teachers were separated during my sessions. At all times, participants sat on either side of a screen that separated the males and females. I was free to go to the men’s side, but no male was allowed to enter the women’s side. Non-Saudi women would reluctantly approach the men’s side, but only after covering their hair. If any male came too close to the partition, some of the female teachers, whose scarves had slipped down from their heads, would quickly cover up. Those who had taken off their veil would rush to cover their faces.

Being seen by a male who is not a family member must elicit tremendous anxiety for women because for their entire adult life they have been invisible to males. I felt the comforting shroud effect of the abaya myself even after only 6 days of wearing it. On my way back home, after going through passport control, I entered the lounge area in the airport where I could take off my abaya. I found myself hesitating just for a second: I had not only been mostly invisible, but I was also comfortable inside my little tent. It did not matter what I looked like or whether my clothes were stylish. I had to wonder: Aren’t many Western women oppressed by the whims of fashion? If fashion provided women looser, more comfortable and less revealing clothing, wouldn’t we be a more relaxed group of people?

Saudi_ArabiaOther aspects of society are also perplexing. There are strict laws about bringing in or using pornography, and movie theatres do not exist. On the other hand, television channels are plentiful, including some that show rather explicit sex scenes and characters using foul language. So, a social event, such as watching a movie with strangers is controlled, but one can do and watch anything in the privacy of one’s home… or hotel room.

The Saudi people, both women and men, were most welcoming, respectful and extremely hospitable. The women, in particular, were very warm, and, in general, seemed to be quite content with their lives. Groups of women, whether in the shopping malls or the school staff, could be seen talking animatedly, laughing and having a good time. So, what do I tell people when they ask me about the state of women in Saudi Arabia? Seeming to have a good time and being most welcoming to visitors cannot negate the oppression in other aspects of these women’s lives. They make do with what they have. The resilience of these women and their intent to enjoy life as they are obligated to live it is remarkable and inspiring.

* Names have been changed.


  1. Do you think Western women are oppressed by the whims of fashion? Why or why not? Would women be more relaxed if they wore more comfortable clothing? Why do you think fashions come and go so often?
  2. If you were a Saudi woman and wanted to make changes in your social situation, how would you go about making these changes?
This entry was posted in Public blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s