Miniskirts in Saudi
Naomi Prior, 23, is studying Arabic in Yemen for the next 12 to 18 months. Here, she tells us what life is like for an English woman in the intriguing Middle Eastern country.
Donning a black abeya and niqab, our roaming diarist hits the glam department stores of Riyadh. Here, she finds out why products are pricier on the women-only floors and how to avoid looking like a tent in heels.
"Gosh, that skirt is short," I thought to myself, as I gazed into the window of Harvey Nichols. Why was I so shocked at seeing a short skirt on a shop mannequin? Because this wasn't Harvey Nichols in London, but in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Seeing a huge Harvey Nichols in Riyadh - along with a Debenhams and other stores I'm familiar with back in the UK - was just one of the surprise insights I gained into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during my visit in February.
It was fascinating to have a first-hand look at a country that has closed itself off from the rest of the world. Was it really as awful for women as its reputation suggested? Was it really as wealthy and flash as its image? My five days in Riyadh could only give me a superficial insight, but I left feeling that Saudi Arabia was more complex and often contradictory than I could've ever expected.
For a start, Harvey Nichols' displays of miniskirts contrasted dramatically with the ladies peering in - completely covered up in black abeyas. Some had their faces covered, but all had their hair covered. Poking out from these flowing black robes were a wide variety of shoes - from boring flats to sparkly sandals, flashing a glimpse of the unique characters hidden beneath. Snatched eye contact also provided a peek into personalities - many eyes were completely hidden from view, often with glasses perched on top of the niqab (black face cover). But sometimes beautiful made-up eyes could be glimpsed, making me wonder whether a Harvey Nichols miniskirt was also under there. After all, someone was clearly buying them.
Black is so this season
So, did I cover up in an abeya and niqab? Again, my experience was full of contradictions. I was told that I didn't have to cover up in the hotel, but that it was strongly advisable to do so when on the street, particularly to avoid unpleasant interactions with the mutawwas (religious policemen). As a committed feminist, I wasn't particularly happy about being told what to wear. Equally, I didn't feel ready to take on the religious police. While the mutawwas are allegedly supposed to focus on religious obedience for Muslims only, I heard some disturbing tales of diplomatic women being hit by the mutawwas in supermarkets for having their hair uncovered - those with dark hair are more commonly mistaken for Muslims who should be covered up. So I decided to invest in an abeya, with a head scarf for use when only strictly necessary, as I objected more to being made to cover my hair.
You would be forgiven for thinking that buying an abeya is one of the dullest shopping experiences on Earth for those that love shopping. After all, abeyas are all black, right? Oh, there's more to them than that, believe me. I was asked: "Do you want a tight fit? Plain sleeves? Decorated sleeves? Embroidery? Sequins? Black patterns? Coloured patterns?" Within a world of black, was also a world of detail and choice. I realised yet again that, while on the surface many countries and their peoples may appear very different, in reality we're all pretty similar. Most women like shopping and fashion even if on the face of it the world of black abeyas precludes it....
"Here I was, the mini-skirt loving Essex girl, enjoying wearing an abeya in Riyadh."
In the end, I went for a tailored black satin number with sequinned sleeves and a motif on the back. It was loose enough to avoid being revealing, but not so large that I felt like a tent in heels. The contradictions didn't stop with the purchasing experience. To be honest, I was uncomfortable with how I felt wearing my abeya because I actually felt good in it. I grappled with my guilt for feeling like this when the abeya supposedly represents a lot of oppression for some women. Yet here I was, the miniskirt-loving Essex girl, enjoying wearing an abeya in Riyadh.
A friend said she felt the same way - we agreed that it was because of the dramatic impact of sweeping into a room full of men. We stood out against the men's white robes and were noticed everywhere we went. We admitted we enjoyed it. We drew the parallel to days gone by of wearing long ball gowns. We were very clear with ourselves that the enjoyment was partly down to the novelty of being in such a different outfit. Most of all, it was the knowledge that we only had to wear this thing for five days (without covering our hair most of the time and never having to cover our faces) which allowed us to enjoy the novelty of it. Being forced to wear it on a daily basis by husbands, fathers, brothers or the mutawwa would be an entirely different scenario, and we felt sympathy for the Saudi women we saw having an entirely different experience. But again, it's a complex issue. We know that in Saudi, as much as in Britain, women's experiences are very mixed - there are women forced to cover up, those who choose to cover up, those who cover up in some countries but not in others, and those who do so at certain times in their lives and not others.
It was interesting to hear from a Saudi lady I met about how times had changed in Riyadh - her grandmother grew up when women could wear skirts on the streets, and when the abeya was a really rare sight. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, conservative forces strengthened, pushing more and more women into the black abeyas and niqabs. This reminded me how the path of change isn't always linear - things can slip back and forward over time, for good or worse.