A Western expat lady who was visiting Dubai was curious to understand the reason why Saudi women sometimes choose to dress the way we do. She couldn’t understand the logic behind having to dress in a certain way because of the demands of a specific culture.
Being a Saudi Woman
Let me give you an idea of what I mean. When I used to work in Saudi Aramco as a contractor employee I was working in IT support in both departments that I joined. At the second job, I was working at an IT help desk with mostly male colleagues.
Inside the Aramco company facilities, women are allowed to wear normal clothes without putting on an Abaya over their outfits. These rules apply to both local (Saudi) and expat women. You can choose to wear a head scarf, Abaya or regular clothes.
Being a Saudi woman, the society has certain expectations for you. There’s a specific and definite image that’s associated with your identity. That perception is that the minimum you should do is wear a Hijab that covers your hair properly. The ideal image is that you should wear a Niqab – also discussed in a previous post from this series.
Since I was raised in the city of Al Khobar, I was wearing a head scarf that didn’t cover my hair completely. By that, I mean that there was a little amount of hair showing at the beginning of my hairline. That’s all. No hair was showing from the back, or from under the scarf. I must clarify that this is not the right way to wear the Islamic veil or Hijab. It’s a bit of a modern version. But there are even more modern ones, so this is definitely not extreme.
Being Judged is Normal
Despite my slightly modern Hijab version, I was still being judged by the society (men who worked in the company) because I wasn’t a proper Hijabi woman. If I was being looked at in a negative way because of my ‘slightly loose’ head scarf style, you can imagine how I would be perceived if I chose not to wear the head scarf or Abaya altogether!
Mind you, I was wearing the black Abaya and scarf to work. And since I was working at a help desk, I was required to wear an earpiece to take calls from users. I must admit the task of wearing the ear piece and veil at the same time wasn’t an easy one! but somehow I managed.
I was actually one of the first Saudi female call center agents. I was probably the only one supporting Unix workstations. Unix OS is a very complicated system and all of the help desk agents at the Unix side were men. Except for the Saudi Diva! Back then, I wasn’t the Saudi Diva yet. But I guess I was always a Diva in disguise! It wasn’t easy to reveal my creative and rebellious Diva side in a male-dominated society.
And that’s exactly how my new Western expat friend described it. After another Western friend of mine (who’s been here for a few years) and I explained to her a few things about the region and how things work. She stated: “Then it’s not related to religion. It’s about male dominance.”
I agree with her words. It’s not entirely about religion. It’s related strongly to culture, deep-rooted traditions and outdated values and a mainly male-dominated society.
Stereotypes are Common
Another point worth mentioning as I talk about my Aramco working days, is that the women who worked in Aramco were stereotyped. We were labeled as ‘Aramco girls’. This was a description used for almost all women who worked in that company as belonging to the same category. It’s not a compliment, it’s not a desirable adjective, it’s not to say that they are independent, ambitious or career-driven. The label ‘Aramco girls’ translates into liberal and open-minded. It’s a negative statement to describe females who worked at that company, regardless of which department they were in or position they were holding.
An interesting fact that you should know is that despite the fact that I wore an Abaya to work every day, I always made sure to wear professional work clothes underneath it! Although no one could see my clothes at work, I liked to feel like a real career girl and to live the role to the fullest. I think it makes a difference to your well-being and to how that’s reflected on your work.
So the next time you see a woman wearing a black Abaya in a work environment or business meeting, don’t let that fool you! She could be wearing an elegant suit or dress shirt with man trousers. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a Saudi woman in an Abaya and a headscarf.
Does Your Dress Code Define Your Identity?
You might wonder if wearing the Abaya for so long has made me want to wear more revealing clothes now. The truth is, in the same way that the Saudi men at work would judge a woman with a loose head scarf, foreign men from my neighborhood in Dubai (which isn’t a bad one at all b.t.w.) stare at the sight of any woman passing by – whether she was covered from head to toe or wearing a little dress.
So these days, I save my mini shorts for when I’m lounging at home – Saudi Diva style I suppose 🙂
Final Thoughts: Does your dress code define your identity?