Birthday with Burkas: Initial impressions of Riyadh

Birthday with Burkas: Initial impressions of Riyadh May 7, 2013

Last week I spent my 48th birthday in a Saudi Arabian mall wearing an abaya.  Several weeks ago, I speculated Should I go to Saudi Arabia? mainly because I didn’t want to spend a ton of money to sit in a hotel while Scott went to his conference.

And indeed I didn’t stray far from my hotel.  However, the 4 Seasons Riyadh connects to Kingdom Centre, a huge upscale mall, and even though I obeyed the rule that women can’t be unaccompanied outside, because malls are indoors, women are free to be dropped off by a male driver and then wander around.

The mall made up 95% of my experience of Saudi Arabia–a very limited view.  But as a sociologist who likes participant observation qualitative research the best, I know you can still learn things in a very small particular space!  In no special order, here are some initial impressions:

  1. The women all wear black—sort of like New York City.  Every woman wore an abaya (long black robe).  Every non-Westerner wore a hijab (head scarf).  Many women also wore the niqab (face veil).  Occasionally I saw a woman in the whole burka where not one part of her showed. Many sites warned don’t take pictures of Saudis–so here’s a surreptitious picture I took in the women’s section of the food court:Saudi women
  2. I had the worst outfit.  My abaya was the plainest abaya of any I saw, but when everyone’s in a long black robe, you tend to blend in even if you’re not fancy.  Turns out the hijabs I borrowed from my friend are not the Saudi style—which is more flowing head scarf wrapped many times around than tubular. And as a non-Muslim, I didn’t need to wear the hijab so I didn’t (except to take this picture).
  3. Men have more dressing options.  Like peacocks, the men were more colorful than women.  About half the men in the mall wore Western clothing, but many men wore the traditional Saudi dress of thobe (a long robe usually white because of the heat), tagiyah (small white cap), ghutra (red and white head scarf), and iqal (the doubled black cord that holds everything in place).  I kept noting how traditional garb made all Saudi men look distinguished, manly and attractive.

    Not my photo–didn’t dare take one!

  4. “The women’s dress code deals with modesty, not vanity.”  I read that on a website.  Many women were immaculately made up (even if you could only see their eyes).  Some women were walking around the mall in 4 inch stilettos (probably Jimmy Choo’s) under their abayas.  All of them were shopping in these incredibly high end stores with mannequins dressed in sexy sleeveless clothes (which presumably they wear in their homes)
  5. Men and women occupy separate spaces.  The 3rd floor of Kingdom Centre was a women’s only floor, where only women could shop and some took off their abayas and hijabs, or unbuttoned them at leastThe Victoria’s Secret, other lingerie stores, and Debenham’s make-up section, although on the co-ed floors, had “Families only” signs.
    Again, not my photo, but what I saw!

    All the fast food stalls had separate men’s and women’s lines, along with a Families eating area for women, children, and any man who happened to be with them.

  6. Globalization has taken over.  Even though the dress, the customs, the separation of men and women felt so different from America, just about every store and restaurant came from the West:  Pottery Barn, Pierre Cardin, Bath & Body Works, McDonalds, Starbucks, American Eagle and more (click here if you want to see the listing at Kingdom Centre).  And given how the photos and signs and mannequins all pictured a very sexy undressed West, I could see why conservatives in that culture are trying so hard to keep their traditional values.

    The Starbucks “Family Only” entrance

I will write more about how I’m processing my impressions, as well as the contrast between Riyadh and Dubai, but for now, I’m getting into my Western clothing to drive myself to my job where I’ll be leading my team in strategic planning for loving graduate students and faculty in Jesus’s name on campus–all very un-Saudi!


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