I Am Woman, Hear Me Not Say Much

Seems like one can’t travel to the KSA as a woman and not write about the experience of being a double-X chromosome in a land dominated by the “Y”s. So, obligatory post on the female experience commences in 3…2…1

“Riyadh is a men’s locker room,” commented our wonderful host, the amazing man who runs my parent company’s Saudi office. An Egyptian-born Dallas resident, who spends most of the year in Riyadh, he brings a balanced perspective to life in this unique country. And doesn’t hesitate to share his opinion about the gender dynamics – or complete lack of them as is really the case. When asked to clarify his statement, he explained that the KSA, and Riyadh especially, is a man’s world: as unrefined and dreary as a men’s locker room. 

Dreary has not been my experience (dull yes, but not dreary), but then again, my time has been spent surrounded by a bubble of wealth and for the most part protection from the most extreme types of gender oppression one hears about. My experience thus far as a woman in this country has been a result of those things I feel are more “baked” into the culture:

  • The abaya: the first day or two it was kind of novel. Didn’t have to think about what business-appropriate outfit to wear. Didn’t have to shave my legs. Head scarf meant I didn’t need to worry about my hair. And, luckily, the weather has been crazy cool, so I haven’t had to worry about baking in a black tent. However, after three plus days now, I can’t wait to take the thing off once I get back to my room. One doesn’t realize the semiotic importance of clothing until one doesn’t have a choice in what commentary one’s sartorial choices provides to the outside world. At firs the abaya was a welcome cloak of invisibility that let me blend in, but after a few days of looking around and seeing every single man wearing pretty much what he chooses, but having my choice severely limited, it’s a bit maddening. Plus, I have awesome tattoos that can never see the light of day here.
  • This invisibility extends even more uncomfortably to the setting in which I spend the majority of my day: the business world. “‘Prospect X’ (who I will call our sales pursuit, not wanting to shed a poor light on an organization with a great mission, that can’t be blamed for the country in which it resides) is very progressive for Saudi Arabia: many women employees,” our host-with-the-most told me upon walking into Prospect X’s building. Hmmm…I counted two other women the entire time I was there. Yes. Lots. What really got to me was my first day at the healthcare conference that is our main driver for the trip. Spent the day in the opening session filled with dozens of men and me and two other women. 
  • The hotel is connected to a very high end mall (think Versace and Chanel). There’s even a BeBe. Not a single outfit on display could be worn in public. There are women galore in the mall (unlike in the hotel or conference), but all are in Abayas and most fully-vieled. Nearly all store clerks are men. I walked around with a male colleague (which is allowed in this mall due to lack of the Mutawa) who strolled with a distinct sense of freedom while I was at best tolerated and at worst followed and stared at until I walked out of the store, a distinct feeling of not-belonging causing me to make a hasty exit.
  • I had expected the lack of handshakes (more progressive Saudis will shake hands with women, but many do not) and focus/questions being directed to my male colleagues (even though I’m the expert in the room in much of what is discussed). That’s a cultural norm that I came well prepared for. What has been unexpected is the self-censorship: the holding back my opinions, my thoughts, my normal self in order to conform to gender norms here. To me, the worst kind of oppression is the self-policed sort (Foucault, the Panopticon lives). You can make excuses for constraints put upon you by a culture, a belief system. But it’s harder to forgive yourself for “buying” into the same culture in order to fit in and not suffer the consequences of breaking from the norm.
  • From what my colleagues tell me, the hotel gym and spa are the best in their decades-long careers of international travel. Pool looks nice too. I have a yoga mat in my room. Yay me.
  • I haven’t spoken to another woman since I arrived here. Have had countless conversations and interactions with men, though. Enough said.

This isn’t to say that I’ve found this a horrible experience. There’s much I’ve enjoyed. And, I’ve not felt any where near as constrained as I had feared. Not by a long shot. It’s just been such a huge contrast from my “normal” life. But, also a very clear and constant reminder of the fact that there are subtle similarities being a businesswoman in the U.S. 

Tomorrow, I think I’m going to explore the “Ladies” floor of the mall and see what a women-only environment is like here in Saudi Arabia.