This Girl in Riyadh


When we were planning our trip to Saudi Arabia, I knew from guidebooks that I’d have to wear an abaya (dark robe) over my clothes to cover any hint of feminine curves. I’d also have to wear a black veil over my hair, ears, neck. I was prepared for this, even went shopping at Amman’s Mecca Mall and picked out an abaya that snapped up the front and had rhinestones on the gold-velvet sleeves, as well as a black Kuwaiti headscarf that squeezed my face through a small hole and felt suggestive of strangulation whenever I wore it. But I was excited to don this gear in Riyadh, for both the costume appeal and the odd anonymity of it, but most of all to get a glimpse of what it felt like for millions of women who cover themselves in such a way every day.

However, I was not prepared for Saudi Arabia’s segregation between men and women. I didn’t realize that our very nice Sheraton Hotel would not allow me to swim in the hotel pool. Or go to the main gym on the first floor. Instead, I had to use the small women’s gym on the fourth floor with it’s two elliptical machines and a stationary bike. Even Starbucks would not allow my friend, Katie Monge, and I to sip in the main area, instead directing us to go through the frosted-glass automatic doors and sit inside wooden cubicles, lest someone see us with suggestive cappuccino foam on our lips. At this point we started to re-examine our guidebook, realizing that many of the restaurants we had circled with enthusiasm (baby camel anyone?) had the words Men Only in tiny italics near the operating hours, and that the museums had “Family Hours” (the euphemism for “Hours in Which Women are Allowed Entrance”) only in the late afternoon.

It seemed a little bleak for we women at first, especially since mine and Katie’s husband had meetings at the American Embassy at Riyadh for a couple of days. We ladies were left stranded at the hotel (it was also recommended that women not take cabs without a male escort, and the only thing within walking distance was a mall that didn’t open until 4 p.m.). Outraged, I filled out a hotel comment card in capital letters, letting the Concierge know how upset I was about not being to swim with my four-year old daughter. A few minutes later,  I was amazed and a little abashed to find the Concierge knocking at my room door and handing me toys for my sequestered child to play with.

This would be my emotional reaction to everything: at first my American sensibilities were frustrated at a situation and I would get all fiesty about perceived injustices. But a moment later I would glimpse the Saudi solution, and while not always perfect, I realized that I had to try to think outside my veil.

I was peeved that there wasn’t one treadmill in the women’s miniscule gym (my husband told me there was an entire wall of treadmills in the main/male gym on the first floor). Yet I couldn’t help but appreciate having the women’s mirrored-room to myself, using the free weights without worrying that grunting men in lifting belts were going to smirk at my sissy eight-pounders held shakily aloft.

I was annoyed we had to eat our Taco Bell in the family seating area (ahem, yes, we were in Saudi Arabia and our first stops were Starbucks and Taco Bell, but no one was in the mood to try that aforementioned baby camel…), away from all the young men in their white dishdasha robes and flowing red and white checked head scarves who merrily munched at crowded tables right in the center of the action. Yet the “family area” looked out on a wall of windows facing a manicured garden with fake balloons staked to the ground, was sparkling clean and, unlike the men’s section, had plenty of open tables to choose from.

Though we were supposed to be accompanied by a male member of our family at all times, Katie and I happened upon a “Ladies’ Kingdom” floor of the mall only opened to women, where gals took off their veils and unzipped their abayas, drinking coffee in the open, even ignoring the call to prayer (everything in Riyadh, including all the shops in the malls, closes for about 30 minutes during each of the day’s five calls to prayer). The women of the Ladies’ Kingdom certainly did not seem like a meek or submissive lot.

Taking the veil (and abaya) to the mall with my daughter and Katie

During our tour of The Gulf, we’d attended some deliberate educational events, including a lunch at the Dubai Culture Center.  A man lectured while we ate the local spread, and since he was a man, and since he was a man wearing white, I was a little skeptical when he claimed, “Wearing a black abaya is like wearing sunglasses—you don’t sweat from your eyelids when you put on your dark sunglasses, do you?” He also said abayas were great when his wife was running out of the house and didn’t want to get “dressed up.”

In Riyadh, I had no choice but to wear the abaya (it is enforced by the religious police, or Mutawa, who supposedly carry around paddles to beat people who commit religious infractions). I might be a little skeptical about the sunglasses theory, but, man, it only took me a couple of hours to fall in love with my abaya. I adored its instant elegance, its flowing length and shining sleeves, especially when I had my non-treadmill-using-gym-clothes hidden underneath. Even my daughter started asking to wear her mini abaya by the end of our trip, willingly wrapping a purple scarf around her blond hair before leaving our hotel room.

Which made me wonder what other presumptions I had made, how many subtle details of dress and culture my untrained American eyes had been  missing. Since arriving in Jordan last March, every time I’d see a woman in a black abaya walking down the street I’d feel a flash of irritation, especially if she was walking next to a man in a t-shirt and jeans, wondering how she allowed herself to be made invisible, wiped clean of individual flair, of color and form and identity. But on this Gulf trip of ours (seventeen days in the Sultanate of Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia), where traditional clothing is worn by both sexes much more often than it is in relaxed Jordan, I saw women wearing black abayas of every shape and style. I couldn’t help but notice the details, the bedazzled cuffs, the embroidered hems, the glint of sequins and metallic threads in the dark veils. Most interesting of all, the women who are completely covered with the niqab, with only the area around their eyes revealed, even these women have found ways to express themselves, sometimes using an intricate knot system at the back of their heads to keep the veil across in place, the cord looped and twisted so that it looks like a braid different than anyone else’s.

Now, back in Jordan, when I spot a woman in head-to-toe black walking down a hot and sun-lit street next to a man in a t-shirt, I might narrow my eyes a bit about whether or not she is wearing bodily sunglasses, but I am also wondering if maybe she’s just got gym clothes underneath.

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11 Responses to “This Girl in Riyadh”

  1. Kelly O'Connor McNees


  2. Leslee

    Hoping my trip will be enlightening as well! 🙂

  3. Mary

    I kept wondering about shopping and if women are at all apart of commerce in Saudi Arabia. What is their role in Amman? This fall I read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Lemmon and have since then been extremely interested in the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

  4. admin

    Mary– there are many more women in the workforce in Jordan than what I saw in Saudi Arabia. Other than the women working the counters and security at the “Ladies’ Kingdom” section I mentioned above, I didn’t see any other females behind a counter/cash register at the malls in Saudi, or working at the museums, or driving, etc. Though Riyadh is almost finished with the construction of the world’s largest university for women, complete with its own monorail and hospital, so hopefully that will have an impact soon…

  5. SueAnn Wade-Crouse

    Hi Siobhan:

    I “met” you last spring when you responded to my review of “You Know When The Men Are Gone” on my Gals – Very Smart Gals blog.

    I found myself alternately irate, touched, empathetic and fascinated by this very enjoyable account of your Saudi Arabian adventure! Your writing flows like honey, honey! Thanks for starting my day sweet and smooth!

    I’m going to send you an invitation to a Jan. 29th cocktail party in Austin. Sara Bird and Turk Pipkin will be there as well as about 50 other Very Smart Gals. Hope you can come.



  6. admin

    Thank you, SueAnn!
    Yes, please let me know about your Gals bash! We will be at least stateside by Jan 29, though a bit east, in DC. But you never know!

  7. Jody

    you’re a marvelous writer and i look forward to more stories – you are fortunate to know of worlds most of us miss is there a reason why the women’s robes are black and the men’s white? just curious- quite a good mystery novel The Veil set in Saudi which also opened my eyes safe journeys to you and your family

  8. admin

    Hey Jody!

    I’ve been trying to find an answer to your question about why Saudi men wear white and the women black. The best info came from this site:

    Seems like one of the arguments is that a couple of Mohammed’s wives wore black and looked like “crows” so women wear black to replicate that, and another is that the women did not want to be distinguished from one another while going back and forth to prayer in the evening (not sure why that would be). I’d recommend taking a look at the link yourself, some of the replies in the comments’ section are really fascinating.

    Anyway, thanks so much for reading the blog and leaving a note!!!

    All the best,


  9. Aman

    I would like to thank you for this blog. I was asked to give a presentation about travelling to Saudi Arabia, and I am going to use your blog as one of my resources.

    Although I am from Saudi Arabia and spent 22 years there before coming to the states, it was really hard to know what kind of information would interest tourists, specially women.

    I would like to add few comments:

    1. When it comes to working women in Saudi Arabia, the majority of them either work at offices, banks, hospitals, universities and schools. Universities and schools are segregated of course and even some banks and offices.

    2. No one can deny that it can be very difficult in many occasions to be a women in Saudi Arabia, but there are few advantages to women that can make it a little bit easier for them. Financially, the man is responsible for everything even if his wife has a job. She has the right to keep every penny for herself and has the right to ask the husband for a monthly allowance. It is also the man’s responsibility to take care of his wife and daughters and even his sisters in some occasions regarding any legal issues and paper works. I remember, at the age of 16. how I spent 8 hours trying to renew passports for me, my sisters, and my mother while they stayed at home. These are just some examples and I am not saying that these things are worth the suppression because they are not.

    3. As for the colors we wear, men usually wear white because it helps reflects the heat unlike black which absorbs it, and that is the same reason why Saudi men wear other colors in winter. As for women, it is said that it started over a thousand years ago. Arab women used to wear only black for a long time since it was easiest to obtain, but as it became easier and cheaper to get fabrics with more colors they started wearing veils of many colors. They even wore white in certain times. After a long period of time, black veils became popular again in what is now known as Syria. A merchant decided to invest in black veils and bring them to Hejaz (the west region of what is now known to be Saudi Arabia.) However, he did not manage to sell any and was afraid to lose his money. A friend of him convinced him to pay a popular poet to write a good poem to help promote the new veils.

    The poem described a women in a black veil who got the attention of a man of religion who was known to spent most of his time worshiping and lost interest in everything in life. Yet, that women caught his attention and was never able to pray or fast without thinking of her. The poem goes even further in describing how that man would end up mad and on the verge of killing himself because of her.

    Anyway, love stories were popular among women and it was the dream of many of them to have someone right them poems or become like Layla and Majnun or Antarah and Abla. That poem became popular and women started wearing black veils again. Islam played an important part in that too since veils should not unique to a point where anyone would know a woman by looking at her veil. So since most women were dressed in black. Women stopped wearing other colors starting with white.

    Now, veils in colors other than black started appearing like gray and dark blue as well. Many people from both genders and including both conservatives and liberals started talking about how women should dress in brighter colors that reflect heat instead of absorbing it. So far, no one tried it and it is somewhat unclear how people react to this situation when it occurs. So in conclusion, black is the traditional color of abaya and there is no religious reasons why women do not wear other colors, and that is the same reason why women do not drive cars in Saudi Arabia unlike the rest of the world which includes other Islamic countries.

  10. admin

    Thank you so much for the wonderful information about life in Saudi Arabia!
    I am sure your presentation about travelling to ‘The Kingdom’ will be a success, it is a fascinating world!

  11. shannoh

    Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful blog

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