Should I go to Saudi Arabia?

Should I go to Saudi Arabia? February 18, 2013

In April, my husband has the chance to get an all-expense paid trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in exchange for giving a talk about health care IT management.  He wants me to go too, mostly so we can spend some alone time together.

At first, I thought “Absolutely not!”  My overweening sense of responsibility balked.  After all, it would mean leaving 3 kids home alone (again after my jaunt to Paris in September) and either relying on friends to watch them, or letting them watch themselves.  I also have several major work commitments scheduled.  And despite how Scott pointed out that I’m the boss who scheduled those commitments and therefore have the power to reschedule them, it felt irresponsible.

But then I reconsidered—partly because my reluctance becomes a marital issue (“you change all sorts of things to accommodate other people but not me”), and partly because when in my life will I ever have the chance to visit Saudi Arabia again?

Saudi women in abaya, hijab and niqab (face covering)–I think

So I said yes and started getting excited.

Then the sponsors wrote back with caution—saying I needed to talk to a woman who’s travelled there several times.  I wrote her mentioning I assumed I’d need to dress modestly.

She wrote back.  Modesty was an understatement.  Women need to change into an abaya on the plane and wear it the entire time (other than in one’s hotel room).  Women must also wear a hijab (head covering) outside lest the religious police harass us.

I probably won’t be allowed on any outings planned for the men of the conference, if I venture outside I need to be accompanied by my husband or a local male.  Even in the hotel, I will only be able to sit with my husband in “family only” areas.  I’ll also need my husband’s permission to leave the country.

The last time she visited, she went straight from the airport to the hotel and back to the airport again, never venturing outside.


  • Should I go if I won’t see anything other than our hotel room?  Or is the experience of being in such a setting so instructive, plus stepping foot on that soil so unique, that it’s worth it?
  • Does the fact that my husband and I are different ethnicities so that we don’t look like traditional husband and wife mean his “covering” won’t be believed?  Or maybe no one will be able to see I’m Chinese in an abaya and hijab!
  • Is the adventure worth it given that Saudi Arabia’s on the travel warning list?

When the Christian season of Lent started last Wednesday, and I (as always) hadn’t decided on a fast, the contrast of Saudi Arabia and whatever deprivation I chose for the next 6 weeks was striking.

The 2 hardest things I’ve ever given up for Lent were listening to NPR while driving, and reading novels.  The 3rd hardest  was giving up  dessert.  Last year’s venture of giving up meat was a cakewalk compared to NPR and reading.

What privilege I enjoy!  I can choose to give up treats, delicacies, even animal protein.   I can listen to whatever radio station I want as I DRIVE in my mini-van WHEREVER I want, unaccompanied and free.  As a girl, I was educated in the best schools and can READ through business books, theology books, and multiethnicity books–all for my JOB–while walking in a sports bra and shorts on a treadmill at my women’s gym.

The ability to fast for Lent just reflects the privilege I enjoy every single day, the wealth of having choices, and the freedom to choose.

Will I go to Saudi Arabia?  Not sure.  Still waiting to see if I get a visa, or what the sponsors say.  As my husband points out, my identity won’t be damaged by limiting my freedom of movement and dress for a couple of days.  Although my heat intolerant body might on 95 degree days in an abaya and hijab.

What do you think I should do?

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