Megan Stack writes a fascinating account of her experiences as a woman in Saudi Arabia, stationed there for the last four years by the Los Angeles Times. If anyone wonders what being a woman in Saudi Arabia means, Stack gives a firsthand account of the demeaning and oppressive existence that all women — Western or otherwise — endure in the Kingdom. For Stack, the abaya that Saudi law required her to wear not only symbolized her oppression, but actually seeped into her psyche:
As I roamed in and out of Saudi Arabia, the abaya, or Islamic robe, eventually became the symbol of those shifting rules.
I always delayed until the last minute. When I felt the plane dip low over Riyadh, I’d reach furtively into my computer bag to fish out the black robe and scarf crumpled inside. I’d slip my arms into the sleeves without standing up. If I caught the eyes of any male passengers as my fingers fumbled with the snaps, I’d glare. Was I imagining the smug looks on their faces?
The sleeves, the length of it, always felt foreign, at first. But it never took long to work its alchemy, to plant the insecurity. After a day or two, the notion of appearing without the robe felt shocking. Stripped of the layers of curve-smothering cloth, my ordinary clothes suddenly felt revealing, even garish. To me, the abaya implied that a woman’s body is a distraction and an interruption, a thing that must be hidden from view lest it haul the society into vice and disarray. The simple act of wearing the robe implanted that self-consciousness by osmosis.
In the depths of the robe, my posture suffered. I’d draw myself in and bumble along like those adolescent girls who seem to think they can roll their breasts back into their bodies if they curve their spines far enough. That was why, it hit me one day, I always seemed to come back from Saudi Arabia with a backache.
The kingdom made me slouch.
Like most people, I find the experiences of Westerners in foreign lands intriguing, and not just for the supposedly odd behaviors of the natives. It’s interesting to see how Westerners bring their own assumptions and values to their travels, and how they mesh or clash with reality. After all, one hardly can have studied Saudi Arabia at all without knowing of the impulse to cover and hide women that the Saudis have, but knowing it is far from living it, as Stack discovered.
Just the act of covering herself created a cognitive dissonance for Stack. She had little awareness of exposing herself before traveling to Saudi Arabia, but when she was able to finally shed the abaya in public — on the plane out of Riyadh — she felt strangely immodest. Wearing the abaya on some level made her buy into the male fear of the feminine in Saudi Arabia, which might explain why so many Saudi women see nothing wrong with the tribal customs of total submission to males. They’ve lived an entire life under the abaya.
One passage struck me in particular as revealing. Stack met a couple who had traveled abroad and educated themselves in the West. When they lived outside of Saudi Arabia, the wife was independent, outgoing, and able to take care of herself. When they moved to Saudi Arabia, she could not do any of those things — and the husband realized that she had become a dependent, an added burden. The system traps everyone, but no one seems ready to change it, and certainly not the religious police that Stack narrowly avoided on one occasion.
This also points out the dangers of moral relativism and multiculturalism. Obviously Stack objects strongly to the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, and rightly so. However, a multiculturalist would probably criticize that objection as a result of Western projection — especially since it was Stack who went to Saudi Arabia. She could find herself accused of American cultural imperialism, and in fact had that experience when talking with some of the women. Yet, Stack was expected to abide by that culture while in Saudi Arabia, while some Muslims who emigrate to the West demand that we respect that culture when they arrive here, arguing for multiculturalism that doesn’t exist in their homelands (and that’s not limited to Muslims, either).
Be sure to read the entire article. I doubt the Los Angeles Times will want to send another woman to Saudi Arabia for a lengthy assignment after reading this — but would that conflict with our own cultural norms and legal requirements?