Thursday, 13 June 2013

What We Wear...

I was just on an online forum, and a discussion was going on about how women "should" dress. Naturally, a debate ensued! Are women solely responsible for how men see them? Must we dress a certain way to protect ourselves? Are men responsible for their gazes regardless of how we choose to clothe ourselves? A friend posted this article,, a letter from a mother of a five-year-old girl. She complains about how little girls' clothing sexualizes girls at a far-too-young age, and pleads with manufacturers and designers that all she wants in a child's bathing suit is for her daughter to be able to "play freely in the sand with joyous abandon this summer and I’d love to see her clothed in a way that allows her to do that."
Photo Credit:
This article sparked some intense conversation about how women SHOULD dress, and how accountable we, as women, are for how MEN not only perceive, but ACT around and toward us. Some responses talked about growing up, like me, in a conservative family. Others mentioned high school uniforms (please, don't remind me of the wonderful (*insert sarcasm here*) Britney Spears-esque "Baby One More Time" kilt we had to wear at my Catholic high school). The discussion inevitably went to sexual harassment and who is responsible--women for dressing provocatively, or men for their actions? (--> rhetorical question)

Learning How to Dress...
As young children, we don't think too much  about what we wear. As we get a bit older, we fight our moms about what THEY wants us to wear--"No, mom, not a dress!" or "I want to wear polka dots with plaid--why not??"

As one of six kids, when I was young, I wore lots of hand-me-downs. I remember always being excited to get a "new" bag of clothes from my mom's friend's daughter who was just a little older than me. She had good style. There was this pair of pink overall shorts. I loved them! I didn't think about how long or short they were. They were pretty, and they were pink. Another favourite was a pair of plaid, flannel Minney Mouse pants. They were purple and pink, and oh so comfortable! (Looking back, they might have been pajama bottoms, which would explain why my mom suggested I wear something else to school!) The point is, my earliest memories of clothes are about feeling pretty and comfortable.
Clothing: Finding an Identity
As I got older, I started to buy my own clothes. I remember getting into fights with my mom--not usually over everyday clothing choices since I wore a uniform in high school, but over what I wore to church. Especially in the summer. I struggled with how a teenage girl was supposed to dress. I decided that as a woman (I had hit puberty, after all), I was obliged to make my body look good in whatever I wanted to wear, so I took extreme measures to fit into the clothes that were cool. I stopped eating so that I'd look good in short shorts, teeny tank tops that showed my midriff, know the line up. Of course, my mom was appalled when I insisted that I could wear these to church! (Looking back, I do admit that my clothes weren't quite "church" appropriate!) 
Short, short shorts
I wasn't happy, but I figured it was worth it since I looked good! I became the way the mom who wrote the letter I've linked above feared. I was buying into adult standards for beauty when I was still pretty young. These standards pushed me to accept a very narrow definition of what it means to be a woman. About what it means to be beautiful. I threw many, many things in my life away, and I sacrificed a lot in order to conform to this standard of beauty.

In grade 11, I was stalked on my way home from school over a period of a few months. One day I found him waiting in front of my house. When the police came, they found him doing some disturbing things. I had to give a statement, and he was banned from going anywhere near my house or any school for a period of five years. Did my uniform CAUSE me to be followed by this lowlife? The point is, I had no choice about wearing this uniform, but my mom said "if you didn't wear your kilt SO SHORT..." Sure, I could have worn it a little longer (but, truly, it wasn't that short), but I doubt that would have made a difference or stopped the creep.

How we were supposed to wear the kilt (at least 3 cm above the knee):
My infamous high school kilt
How most of us actually wore it:
Adulthood: Questioning the Meaning of Clothing
After that incident, I always figured that I was entirely responsible for how I dressed. If I got negative attention from men, it was my fault for dressing so provocatively. As an adult, I've learned that the way I dress is only one side of the story. Men do have control over their reactions, and they can and will give women attention (whether it's sought or not)...regardless of how modestly we might dress.

There is one day, just before my wedding two years ago, that stands out so vividly in my mind. Looking back, it was a pretty ordinary afternoon, and a pretty ordinary experience. I was walking home from a friend`s house in London, Ontario (notorious for “Western Girls” at UWO who dress, let's just say, in their own 'unique' way). I am by no means making any judgment. They're young, they're enjoying life, they're finding their own identities and deciding what is 'beautiful'for them as young 17-20 something year olds. We all have to go through this search for our identities.
On this particular May afternoon, I was walking home from a friend's house along a main street. Within a five minute time span, no less than two cars had slowed down so that the guys inside could whistle and make cat calls. I was so puzzled. They were clearly directing this attention toward me. But why? I wasn't wearing short shorts or a mini skirt. I wasn't showing my legs or even my arms. I was wearing a loose-fitting dress that fell below my knees, and a cardigan over top. And just like that, at that moment, it began to make sense to me. While what we wear may be part of why guys respond a certain way to women, it is NOT--by any means--the only reason for their actions, cat calls, whistles, etc. If I had been wearing short shorts and a low-cut tank top, I guarantee I would have received the same reactions on that warm May afternoon.

A Cultural Context for Clothing
Living in Saudi Arabia has clarified even more about how the way women dress influences how men respond to women. I have been shocked at how men behave EVEN WHEN WOMEN ARE literally COVERED FROM HEAD TO TOE. One day, I decided to go for a nice evening walk when the weather wasn't too hot at a walking area here in Jeddah. My husband waited in the car and I was enjoying myself and the evening breeze. I was wearing my abaya (long black cloak that covers the whole body), a headscarf (according to local laws I have to cover. Fine. I knew that when I moved here and I cover willingly as a sign of respect for the culture). I was also COVERING MY FACE just to be sure I wasn't going to attract too much attention. (NB: I am the only white woman I've ever seen in my neighbourhood, and every other woman covers her face, so I wanted to blend in when I was alone outside.) After about 20 minutes, 2 cars had honked at me. Another had made a cat call. What??? ALL YOU COULD SEE WERE MY EYES!!!! After 30 minutes, a guy was walking right behind me, trying to chat me up. I was shocked. Was the design on my abaya too attractive? No! I had to stop thinking this way. It was suddenly clear that the cat calls and the chatting up were, at least in this context, not about me. It was about men.

Walking Area in Jeddah
Although we, of course, have to account for cultural norms, this experience has really clarified things for me. I think my analysis is relevant to Western culture, too. No matter what women choose to wear, there are womanizing guys. There are guys who will make cat calls. There are guys who have only one thing in mind when they see a woman. And what I wear--whether it's a bikini at the beach, or an abaya and niqab (face covering) on the street---does NOT change the guys who already think that way. Sure, there will always be some exceptions, and how women dress DOES have power--WE, ladies, have a lot of power over men-- but how women dress is NOT the be all and end all, NOR is it an excuse or justification for rape, abuse, or sexual harassment in any form. 

Integrating this Realization...
As I prepare for my move back to Canada (I fly out in less than a month on July 12th!), I'm mulling over all these ideas. I'm not sure how I'll be comfortable dressing now that I've been in a conservative country for two years. I'm not used to being around men. I work in an all-female environment and rarely come into contact with guys apart from drivers and, of course, DH.

I've learned that even though some men may be rude, others respect me. Despite the story I shared about my walk in Jeddah, I can honestly say that in other contexts, men here can be very respectful, polite, and dignified. In my apartment building, any time I come in and a man is waiting for the elevator, he moves away and lowers his gaze. I've always felt very comfortable in my building and most places that I go.
Ladies Only
Although I've mentioned that I really don't believe my clothes will strongly influence how men act around me, I'm still curious about how this observation will hold up in Toronto. Ladies, I don't know if you can relate, but every single time--without exception--that I've moved into a new place on my own in Canada, the cable / internet hook up guy has been appallingly unprofessional. When I was moving into my apartment in London, Ontario, the cable guy did his work and then proceeded to give me his number. When I had my internet installed in Toronto before that, the guy kept staring at me, and made excuses to stay longer than he had to. I asked DH yesterday if maybe covering my hair when the internet guy comes this summer would be a good idea. "Maybe," he replied, "but going into the kitchen and chopping vegetables with a big, loud knife might be more effective." LOL
The cable guy... a little too friendly?
On a more serious note, after living in a conservative environment, I can't imagine wearing revealing clothes in public again, to be honest. I don't want to! They're not comfortable, and even if I might look good in them, I'm beginning to think differently about my body and how I show it. That's my choice, and I respect whatever choice you make about how you dress! My philosophy? To go back to my childhood dressing criteria: what makes me feel pretty and comfortable?!

At the end of the day, we have to teach men how to treat us. Our attitude, the way we carry ourselves, and, as part of this package, the way we dress, can be some of the many tools we use to convey this. And we must insist--over and over again--how we, dignified, self-respecting women, deserve to be treated. It is only then that, if we're lucky, men will step up to the challenge.
How we all deserve to be treated!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Getting Around

What's a girl to do?
It's hard to believe that I've been in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years. For most of that time--partly because I was stubborn about my "right" to get around in OUR vehicle (meaning that DH had to drive me), and partly because of my nervousness about going out on my own--I have felt really trapped here. There is no public transportation system, so a woman can either rely on her husband to drive her, hire her own driver, or take taxis. My feeling trapped might sound really obvious when you learn that women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but I know many women who come and go here pretty much as they please. 
Jeddah: waiting to be explored!
I suppose seeing all these "free" women has to do mainly with the demographic of girls and women I generally interact with. Most of my colleagues at the college have been here for 10+ years, and either have their own drivers, or have a system in place to get around the city. My students, too, make it seem as though getting around is easy. I'd estimate that, the majority coming from wealthy, upper-class families, 90% of them have drivers and possibly their own cars. Getting to and from the college, restaurants, malls, friends houses etc, etc is accordingly easy for them.

Turning point...
For the past week and a half, our SUV has been at the mechanic. Accordingly, DH and I have been sharing a taxi to get to work and back each day. We usually do our groceries on Friday mornings (our "Sunday" mornings because the weekend in KSA is Thursday-Friday), but the past two weeks, we couldn't be bothered with getting a cab, especially in the 45+ C heat we're now constantly being immersed in when we step outside! We made do the first week with what was left in the kitchen cupboards...and then, last Sunday, I decided that after a little trip to the mall with some work friends, I'd pick up some groceries and come home. On. My. Own. No, not in MY own car, driving myself. I'm not THAT bold as to break the law!!! In a cab. BY myself. So, I set out to work for the morning to hold my office hour (I don't have classes on Sundays in the summer term), and then headed to the mall with two colleagues. (NB: Most malls here in Jeddah have a big chain grocery store). After buying some nail polish and sampling perfumes, I headed to Hyper Panda and raced through the aisles to grab the items on my list before the store closed for salat / prayer. (You may recall from previous posts that stores close 4 times a day for prayer). So, I ran around and managed to get everything, and successfully checked out.
A trip to "Hyper Panda" (grocery store) 
There are men who bag the groceries, and one accompanied me downstairs and I had him put the bags in the taxi. I told the cab driver, "Mafi Arabi" (no Arabic), but then proceeded with a feeble attempt to ask if he knows the landmark by my house. "Enta tarif Balubaid signal?" "Aywa," (yes) he replied. "Enta tarif Masjid Rukaia?" ("Do you know the Rukaia Mosque") I *confidently!!!* continued. "Aywa." YES!!! I could get home by myself. I knew enough Arabic to say "left" and "right" and "straight" to direct him the rest of the way. 
Getting Around
The final hurdle was managing to get all the groceries out of the trunk on my own in the 45 degree afternoon sun. But I managed and made it up the two flights of stairs to our apartment, beaming with pride. Mission accomplished!! I had successfully restocked our cupboards for the week. I tore off my abaya (which had, of course, made me all the hotter in the 12 o'clock noon sun!), and collapsed on the couch to cool off under the cranked A/C.
One of many masjids (mosques) by our house. Landmarks are VERY important in Jeddah because we generally don't have real addresses!
As ridiculously mundane as my story might sound to you, it was a BIG victory for me! If I had a driver, the whole ordeal above would have been much simpler, of course, but I'm here in Saudi Arabia to save money and pay off my HUGE student loan before I move back to Toronto in a month. (And, YES, I'm on the verge of accomplishing that goal, too!) No point in paying $700-800 a MONTH + accommodations for a driver when my goal is to spend as little money as possible. 

So, for a year and a half, I'd resigned to feeling stuck. Trapped. Resentful of my DH who could come and go as he pleased. (Though most men HATE driving on these crazy roads and insist that being able to drive isn't a freedom at all!). But last Sunday, I changed my mindset. I CAN DO THIS!!! And I feel like a whole new world has opened up for me here in Jeddah. 

Al-Andalus Mall, Jeddah

So why’d I wait?
I started this post with my excuses. I couldn’t get around Jeddah because I wanted DH to drive me. I contribute to the upkeep of the car, after all, so why should I be the one who had to take a cab? (Maybe I sound snobby, but that's how I felt). I was also a bit scared. We have all heard scary cab stories, and living in a foreign country I didn't want to take a risk--at least not until I felt more comfortable, especially with the language. I don’t know much Arabic, though I DO know how to get home and give directions to where I live. It’s funny, but many of my female friends are surprised when I can give clear directions to my house.
Map of Jeddah
Two weekends ago, I went out for brunch and a shopping date with my lovely British friend, S. She’s married to a Saudi man, and for the longest time he wasn’t comfortable (if I have the story straight?) with her taking cabs around the city. Recently, though, she has begun going out and taking taxis, and she sounded SO much happier. Sure, she agreed, sometimes she’d get a stinky cab, and the driver might be a little odd, but nothing bad had ever happened. A less than perfect cab now and then is worth it in exchange for the ability to get around!

For the longest time if DH couldn’t drive me, I’d been relying on part-time drivers that DH knows... And while that’s all nice and safe, it can be SO annoying to have the driver not be free to come and pick me up and take me home when I want to go. I once had to wait for FOUR HOURS for one to pick me up for a short little 15 minute trip from the mall to my house. So I ended up staying at home, feeling trapped, bitter, and resentful.

Shopping date at Stars Avenue Mall
DH was like S’s husband for the longest time, feeling that it wasn’t a good idea for me and my Canadian whiteness and lack of Arabic to go out alone in taxis. But when it became necessary (we need food, after all!!!), he figured it couldn’t hurt for me to be out and find my way home in broad daylight. And I was fine. And when she went, S was fine, too. In fact, she was kind of my inspiration to insist to DH that I should go out and find my own way, too! So thank you, S!! J

There’s such FREEDOM in knowing that you can have the liberty to come and go as you please...and to not have to wait for a driver who may never show up! Once I'm back in Canada, I will never take the ease and freedom of coming and going--even if I have to wait for a BUS--for granted again!!!
Oh, the irony...
When I think about it, it’s kind of ironic that a month before I’m moving back to Canada I’m finally feeling comfortable getting around Jeddah on my own. But c’est le vie, n’est pas?! At least now when I come back two or three times to visit DH over the next year and a half (in December, May / June, and possibly once more), I’ll be able to hit up the shops and catch up with friends while he’s at work. So in the end we all win! J 

One small step for me, one victory for all brave women in the desert! lol