Alright, so, in my time in Saudi I’ve realized that there are a lot of misconceptions (from the West in particular) about how life is in this country. Most specifically with regards to women. I’m not going to write about all of them, and there are more than one or two mind you. I’m saving that for my next book, which I hope to have released by January.
Anyway, the one thing I want to help people understand is that YES, there is a dress code in Saudi. But it’s not as conservative as one might think. Or as it used to be.
A little history to note is that, back in the 70’s Saudi was much more liberal. (Expat) Women could walk around with no robe (aka abaya). Ok, perhaps not throughout the entire Kingdom, but most definitely in the more liberal cities, like where I live in Al Khobar.
Here’s a picture:
As you notice in the picture there are expat (sorry, expat basically means someone temporarily or permanently living in a different country than their own) women wearing skirts and short sleeve shirts/blouses. And at the same time there is a Saudi woman covered completely.
I won’t get into the details of why things changed, with regars to all women having to wear abayas, other than it has to do with religion. The people or the government felt the need to have a stricter dress code for when in public.
Do I agee with it? As a non-muslim, no, I don’t. I believe that we should be allowed to wear what we want, with modesty of course. But as a visitor or guest of the country I have to respect their laws, their rules. Just as we expect people to do the same when visiting or living in our country.
But what are the laws or rules pertaining to public dress code?
Glad you asked.
I honestly can’t say that these are true laws as in written in a book somewhere. I’ve not found anything to support it. I just know that there are consequences to not adhering to the way one is supposed to dress while out and about. Consequences such being detained and possibly deported–for expats anyway.
The public dress code is:
Women: We MUST wear an abaya anytime we are in public. Which can be terrible during the (extra) hot months. But nice when you just don’t feel like getting dressed.
Here I am in my abaya (note: abayas don’t HAVE to be black)
Men: They MUST wear shorts that are long, around knee area. There could be more for the men, but I am not sure what they would be.
Wait? What about the burka? The niqab? The hijab? Don’t women have to wear them?
No. Not really.
First, a burka is what is worn in other countries, not in Saudi. Second and last, both the hijab (covering the face) and the niqab (covering the face) are NOT mandatory. Though some of the ultraconservative people would say other wise. And if you go to villages or small towns it’s very normal to see women covered completely. Even in the bigger cities. But the main take away is that it’s not compulsory. Not just for expats but also Saudi women. I have met many who don’t cover their faces. And others who don’t cover their face and hair.
I will let you know that there used to be (they exist and are still around–just not like before) these men we call “the religious police) that were authorized by the government to go around and make sure people were dressed properly. I’d see them at coffee shops and malls. They would also be on the look out for non-married couples hanging out. Which is a big no no in this country. But I digress.
Sometimes these guys would come up to me and tell me to cover my head/hair. I would tell them “my hair is covered with my bandana or hat” and walk away. But some expats would get more vocal and tell them to stop talking to them. But nothing happened. The men would walk away. Except for one time. I’ll try to blog about that at another time.
I used to do my best to avoid them whenever possible. Riyadh had so many of them. Which makes since as it is known to be a very conservative city. Or was known for that.
Anyway, things have changed.
Like I stated the religious police aren’t around like before. And the new Crown Prince said in a 60 minutes interview that women should be able to choose what they wear in public. He further said that he wants a more moderate Saudi. Which we are starting to see with women driving, women allowed physical education in all schools, women allowed to join the military and most recently women being allowed into flight school.
These are huge changes. Great changes! But as for women not wearing abayas anymore, we, we aren’t there yet. I’ve been watching. I think a lot of women are. For? To see women walking around with it not on. Once we see them we will follow suit. Why don’t I start? Simple, I don’t want to be deported. Until it’s been officially stated I, and most expat women, don’t want to take that chance. It’s not our country. We want to respect the rules/laws. Which is why we aren’t trying to force them to let us no longer wear the abaya. The time will come. Or it won’t. Maybe I’ll be here when it happens. Or maybe it will be many years after I return to America. We shall see.
In the mean time, I’m happy to be able to benefit from the new changes like driving. Driving in my abaya may not be ideal, but, hey, I am a woman that gets to drive in Saudi Arabia. How awesome is that?!
Oh, and regarding abayas the creative Saudi women have designed one that allows them to exercise in public, in a more comfortable way It’s not something I’d wear. I prefer working out in more (traditional) sports type clothing. But I’m happy to see this para-abaya. Especially as it allows more (Saudi) women to get outside and exercise. 👊🏽👊🏽👊🏽