Early this morning I found myself over the skies of the UAE removing my abaya as my aircraft began its descent into Dubai. I was on my way home from my first trip to Saudi Arabia.
What was Saudi Arabia like? Well, pretty much like anywhere else I guess. On my flight over I was a little bit nervous. Would I do something embarrassing or offensive? Would I say something stupid? Would it feel weird there?
It turns out that there was nothing to be nervous about. Sure, there are difference from the US, Dubai, or even some if the more conservative Emirates, but fundamentally people are people no matter where you go and I met some wonderful people there.
Yes, I wore an abaya. What was that like?
Let me first tell you about shopping for my abaya. I brought Kai with me. We headed to a shopping center, or centre as they label it here, and visited a few Arabic clothing shops. The first few weren’t quite my style, I can’t put my finger on it, but they just weren’t ‘me’. Finally I went into a shop with a twenty-something Saudi lady working there and I explained what I was looking for: “I’m going to Saudi for work, so I need to buy an abaya. I may not use it ever again, so I don’t want to break the bank, but I don’t want to look like a dork either. I need to look fashionable, but work appropriate.”
She understood exactly what I was going for. Make no mistake, the abaya is a fashion statement and this felt even more true once I arrived in Saudi. The young lady at the shop found me an abaya that was trendy, but without being too edgy, appropriate for work or for wearing out at night… If you have seen those articles in fashion magazines about how to dress for work and transition seamlessly to happy hour, this is what she promised me. She hit the mark, dead on.
It was fascinating to learn that my abaya would be tailored specifically to fit me, long enough to drag on the ground but without being a tripping hazard and with sleeves at just the right length. My shayla style hijab (head scarf) was custom made to match the abaya. I was kind of stoked – this was my first custom tailored outfit.
Wearing an abaya was no big deal, after all, everyone else was wearing one also, albeit more gracefully than I was. If you have ever worn an evening gown that you stepped on from time to time, that is exactly how I felt in my abaya because I was unaccustomed to how it would flow around my feet as I walked.
More about my trip.
So I arrived in Jeddah, on the Arabian Sea, a few days ago. I was nervous as my plane landed, but that quickly dissipated as I saw more and more of my surroundings.
When I arrived in Jeddah, which is near Mecca, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people arriving from all over the world on pilgrimages to Mecca. They came alone, they came in family groups big and small, some were meeting tour groups, some came to do it on their own. Regardless of their circumstance, there was excitement and anticipation in the air.
The first places I visited were my hotel and then a women’s university. I met many fascinating young women at the university who were more mature and well spoken than most college students that I have had the opportunity to meet. They absolutely blew me away.
While traveling around Jeddah, I saw many things that would surprise you if your view of Saudi is through the lens of mainstream media. I just mentioned that I met with many well educated women, and also contrary to mainstream media, I saw many women with their hair uncovered. I also saw many women walking and going about their business alone.
All in all, it was a good trip for me. I understand that there are some challenges there, as there are in any country, but still, it was a totally different, and more positive, experience from what I expected going in. If you have a chance to visit Saudi Arabia, even if you are a woman, I suggest seizing that opportunity.