Sunday, 1 January 2012

Cultural Lessons: Modesty, Speech, and Values

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty...And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms..." Quran 24:30, 31 
Adapting to Saudi Culture
I knew that in coming to Saudi Arabia I would have to adapt to many cultural differences. Not only do I clearly stand out because I am a white Westerner, but I stand out because I am a woman. In Canada—even in multicultural Toronto, where, as my friend pointed out she and I, as white women, are minorities every time we step onto the TTC (Toronto's transit system)—I blend comfortably into the crowd of multicultural faces and bodies; here in Saudi Arabia, however, I stand out. Yes, there is multiculturalism in the cosmopolitan city of Jeddah. But, I'm learning, cultural behaviours, actions and dress are highly influenced by where you are (or live) in the city!

Trips to some Malls!
For instance, last week, DH and I went to the other side of town to Rawdah District where I met up with a friend on Christmas Eve. On our way home, we stopped at a mall to run some errands, and there I was shocked to see women walking around without their heads covered, abayas slung casually over their shoulders not buttoned up, and nonchalantly walking around almost as though they were back home. 
Alandalus Mall, Jeddah
Compare this to a typical trip to our local Alandalus Mall. There, it's rare to see anything more than a woman's eyes. Women wear their abayas properly (i.e. buttoned up), cover their heads, and wear niqab (face cover--see photo below). Some women don’t even show their eyes, opting to instead wear a thin veil over their entire face! DH tells me—and it's not difficult to see—that we live in a very "Saudi" neighbourhood, literally among the locals. Women in Al Naseem District are outwardly conservative in their dress, and do as the above passage instructs: they "guard their modesty" and do not put their bodies on display.
Saudi women shopping
Where do I fit in?
I find myself, a white Canadian woman, in the midst a bit of an identity crisis. How am I supposed to dress? Act? Express myself when out in public? In the busy, multicultural Rawdah District, I'd feel more than comfortable to leave my hair uncovered, and speak up for myself, and walk with my head held high. In my neighbourhood, though, I feel as though I should be more guarded. Not because I'm afraid, but because I'm trying to be attuned to what would be most respectful to the locals. Though a resident of Saudi Arabia, I am, after all, a visitor.

At times, though, remaining constantly respectful is difficult! I'm used to speaking up for myself, having a voice, and making sure I'm heard. Not in an aggressive way, but just in a way that demonstrates I'm equal, I'm here, I'm heard. I'm not a militant feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe women are—and should be!—equal to their male counterparts. 

I struggle to find the ways in which this society allows women the equality I have set out to explore. Saudi Arabia, in the western media, is notorious for "mistreating" women, and subjugating them as "second class citizens." Although I sometimes struggle to see female equality in the culture, I am not convinced that it's nonexistent. I'm determined to see past my personal struggle, cultural adjustments and challenges, and to find the ways in which Saudi / Arab women, or women who are living, as myself, as residents in this country, are independent, assertive, and strong social forces.

Discovering spaces of equality
I have two experiences I'd like to share that relate to expressions of female identity and voice in Saudi Arabia. I'll start with my first "outing" in Jeddah. The morning after I arrived and was finally able to sleep a few hours after my long journey, DH took me to the university medical clinic for my medical tests I needed for my residency card, or "iqama." I put on my abaya, covered my hair, and got into the car. Once we arrived at the clinic, I followed DH in, and was surprised that nothing inside was segregated! I was expecting separate family / singles entrances, waiting areas, and line ups. Okay, I thought, I'll just follow DH's lead here. He checked me in at the female counter (check-in, at least, seemed to be separate), and they sent us to a doctor down the hall. He filled out a requisition for some blood tests, and pointed us toward a waiting area. There, we got a number, and went to sit down. On our way to the seating, DH said something funny and I laughed aloud. A couple of men in thobes and gutras (the traditional Saudi dress for men) stared at me. DH whispered, "women don't laugh loudly in public." "Are you serious??" So, some experiential knowledge of the culture I definitely didn't read about! (And trust me, I've done tons or reading over the past 2.5 years that DH has been here). 
Waiting room
We then sat down quietly. I was, at this point, a bit unsure about how I was supposed to be acting in this non-segregated waiting area and started to cry (wondering whether it is acceptable for women to cry in public)! DH was kind and comforted me during my first small bout of culture shock. Other women were sitting with their husbands, and no one seemed to be talking or doing much else than staring at the numbers on the screen waiting for their turn for blood work. We might attribute this either to the culture (of female silence in public?) or simply the fact that we were in a medical center and people are generally a bit more subdued in such an environment, even in Canada.

On second thought, maybe in Canada we shouldn’t laugh loudly in a medical center anyways. Think of the poor person waiting to be tested for thyroid disease, or some kind of frightening, life-changing ailment.

Beyond the silence…Under the abaya
It wouldn’t be fair if I left you with only the negative image of me crying in the university medical center waiting room feeling silenced by the culture. As promised, I will now share a second scenario where I met and spoke with a young Saudi Arabian woman during my 8 hour stopover in Abu Dhabi.

When I disembarked from my long 12 hour flight from Toronto at the Abu Dhabi airport, my first stop was the washroom. There’s nothing like a real washroom after being on an airplane for so long! I’d decided in advance that it would be a good idea for me to don my abaya upon landing. DH wasn’t sure how I’d find it waiting alone in the UAE for such a long time and I figured it would be best to draw as little attention to myself as possible.
Abu Dhabi Airport
I was standing at the washroom mirror fixing my makeup and hair when a woman walked in in her niqab (face covering) and abaya. She proceeded to also freshen up, and changed into a black Saudi abaya. I figured there was a good chance she was also headed to Jeddah. I smiled at her and she said hello. I asked her if she just got off the flight from Toronto and she said yes, her husband is studying in Canada and she’s been in Waterloo with him for about 6 months now. They were on their way back home to Riyadh (the capital of Saudi Arabia) for winter break. As we spoke, she skillfully wrapped her hijab and niqab and I thought I might ask her for some help with my own scarf. I am seriously troubled at making mine look good and stay on. It either stays on and looks terrible, or looks good for about 10 minutes and then slides off my head!

She was kind enough to help me out, and we spoke a little bit more before exchanging numbers and heading our separate ways. This might sound a little bit silly to those of you who live (have lived) in Saudi, but for me, this was my first time speaking to a "real" Saudi woman. Outside in public, local women might seem unapproachable, guarded, and silent, but among other women it seems that things are the same here.
Freshening up...
For instance, my building is usually pretty quiet, and it was an entire week before I even saw another woman in the hallway. When a man other than my husband enters the apartment, it's custom (read: properly befitting a woman) to stay in the background and not be seen. Especially since in a woman's own home she's "uncovered" (not wearing her abaya!) The other day the satellite guy came to do the installation, and I was stuck in the back part of our apartment for a couple of hours. Interestingly, even the apartments are constructed in such a way that the "family" area is in the back, and the "guest" area (washroom and sitting room / living room) are in the front right near the entrance. Reminds me of Rensissance English homes: the woman is always in the most "protected" space inside, far from the eyes of prying male strangers, never near the windows. 
That said, imagine my surprise the other day when I heard women laughing loudly from down the hall. Lots and lots of women laughing, making celebratory noises and carrying on. Ends up there was a wedding or bachelorette party of sorts, and the women were gathered together. So, my lesson: in public, be quiet and look away from strange unrelated men. In private, be loud, noisy and carry on as usual in Canada. Well...kind of! 
Tentative conclusions…
Ultimately, I think my meeting with the lovely Saudi woman I discussed earlier, coupled with my own experiences I’ve described above, merit some interesting analysis. Women are to act one way when in public—especially in relation to the opposite sex—but in private, I don’t know that North American and Saudi cultures are all that different.

Here, the family is the bedrock of society. All it takes is a short drive through any area of Jeddah to realize that this culture is centered around the family, its comfort, its enjoyment, and preservation. The relative silence or quietness of women in public, I might safely conclude, is connected to the preservation of the family. Going back to my opening passage, both women and men are, in the Quran, called to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty.” Indeed, I am surprised at how respectful men are in this part of the world. Yes, people stare at me because I’m clearly not a local, but there are no cat calls, no rude or suggestive gestures, and not once has a man attempted to make direct eye contact with me.
Family picnics and fun along Jeddah Corniche
Sure, there are stories about Saudi men in Canada the western world running after white women and trying to deceive them, but when in Rome… So far, my experience in Jeddah has been at times challenging, but more than anything, it’s been enlightening. Cultural barriers are breaking down, and I’m seeing that there are many, many things that the west might learn from a culture that embraces life, family, and faith.


  1. Julie--please keep this all up!! I am so intrigued by all of your posts!!
    I miss you but am so enthralled learning about culture shocks etc from your perspective!!
    NH BF

  2. Really interesting, Julie..enjoyed reading this so doesn't seem as if it is my time to come to KSA..haven't heard anything from the recruiter in a long time so have given up and am pursuing other options but I really enjoy reading about your introduction to the culture. Hope everything continues to go well for you..I think, people, basically are the same all over the world and experiencing another culture like you are..well it is truly fascinating and I hope the positives continue to outweigh the negatives :) Jennifer

  3. Julie,
    This is my first time reading of your experiences since you moved and I am really excited to hear more. Please keep these (incredibly) well-written and articulated accounts of your new life in KSA coming, as I now eagerly await them.

    It sounds like you're adjusting well and with an open and inquisitive mind and that is great to hear.

    Hope to see you soon!

    As-Salamu alayki,

  4. Salaams to all!
    Thanks NHBF ( ;) ), Jennifer and Aaron for taking the time to comment! I'm delighted to hear you're interested in following me here...and am happy to have something to blog about now that I'm finally in KSA!

  5. Hi Julie. Great to see you've made it to Saudi!

    Just wanted to say hello and that I am looking forward to having a read over how you've been going and can't wait to read about your experiences in the Kingdom.

    Enjoy the lovely weather while you can :).


  6. Thanks for reading and for saying hello, Stacy! I'm definitely enjoying the amazing weather before it gets scorching hot lol

    I've loved following your blog over the past year or so, and am excited to hear you're reading mine! Happy traveling...can't wait to hear more of your adventures, too!