Behind the Veil

A must-read article about an American reporter’s experiences in Saudi Arabia. You have to read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?

I would find that I still saw scraps of Saudi Arabia everywhere I went. Back home in Cairo, the usual cacophony of whistles and lewd coos on the streets sent me into blind rage. I slammed doors in the faces of deliverymen; cursed at Egyptian soldiers in a language they didn’t speak; kept a resentful mental tally of the Western men, especially fellow reporters, who seemed to condone, even relish, the relegation of women in the Arab world.

In the West, there’s a tendency to treat Saudi Arabia as a remote land, utterly removed from our lives. But it’s not very far from us, nor are we as different as we might like to think. Saudi Arabia is a center of ideas and commerce, an important ally to the United States, the heartland of a major world religion. It is a highly industrialized, ultramodern home to expatriates from all over the world, including Americans who live in lush gated compounds with swimming pools, drink illegal glasses of bathtub gin and speak glowingly of the glorious desert and the famous hospitality of Saudis.

The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.

As I roamed in and out of Saudi Arabia, the abaya, or Islamic robe, eventually became the symbol of those shifting rules.

I always delayed until the last minute. When I felt the plane dip low over Riyadh, I’d reach furtively into my computer bag to fish out the black robe and scarf crumpled inside. I’d slip my arms into the sleeves without standing up. If I caught the eyes of any male passengers as my fingers fumbled with the snaps, I’d glare. Was I imagining the smug looks on their faces?

The sleeves, the length of it, always felt foreign, at first. But it never took long to work its alchemy, to plant the insecurity. After a day or two, the notion of appearing without the robe felt shocking. Stripped of the layers of curve-smothering cloth, my ordinary clothes suddenly felt revealing, even garish. To me, the abaya implied that a woman’s body is a distraction and an interruption, a thing that must be hidden from view lest it haul the society into vice and disarray. The simple act of wearing the robe implanted that self-consciousness by osmosis.

Thanks to Elizabeth for the link.

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19 comments for “Behind the Veil

  1. June 10, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Well, since I don’t know how to trackback …
    Putting on the Abaya is a response to this article along with a bit of story time about my experiences studying in the Arab world. Basically the author is dead on.

  2. Bitter Scribe
    June 10, 2007 at 4:30 pm


    One of the many, many creepy things about the Bush family, in my opinion, has been their consistent friendship and loyalty toward Saudi Arabia. I realize that it’s an important country and good to have as an ally, but still, it’s a deeply flawed regime in terms of human rights.

  3. Avelyn
    June 10, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    As a woman who is planning on going to the middle east in a couple of years, I find articles like this revealing and a bit scary. The way things are supposed to be in Islam, from what I’ve been able to tell, is that a woman is subserviant to her husband/father/brothers, but in return they are obliged to treat her as nearly a sacred person, take care of her, and make sure that she is in want of nothing to the best of their ability. Still not a feminist way of thinking, but at least there’s respect. The way it actually works, though, is that the woman is just treated like a slave in many cases, as an object to be passed around, bartered, ignored. But we as westerners have little ability to say anything because anything we mention will just be taken as a slur on Islam, even if it’s not meant in that way at all. I wish I knew what I could do to help stop the “feminism = western = bad” mentality.

  4. Kristen
    June 10, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    It reminds me of a book I recently read on a plane Reading Lolita in Tehran. Its almost painful to read.

  5. Miller
    June 10, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Why am I not shocked that Western men didn’t just tolerate but love the bigotry? I can just imagine them thinking with a smirk, “That’ll show her.” It’s, like, they think oppressing women and girls is revenge for the horrible trauma we’ve caused them by being alive.

    I think we need to stop being so horribly diplomatic when it comes to religion, including Islam. As a former Catholic I can’t get over how appalling it is that the only basis for refusing women the ability to become priests is because of some inherent immorality we can’t seem to wash ourselves clean of. How does that not explicitly incite hatred?!

    Islamic societies are just more blunt about it, but at the rate we’re going with porn with sites highlighting the “brutal rapes of young girls” being extremely popular and male media power brokers being absolutely giddy when talking about Hostel II on TV I doubt they’ll be much different within a generation. Honestly, I never thought as a child I’d live to see a day where a damn slur would be synonymous with woman/girl and there’d be popular music videos where women are put on leashes and “put through their paces by their masters” at a “best in show” competition.

  6. Frumious B
    June 10, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    in return they are obliged to treat her as nearly a sacred person, take care of her, and make sure that she is in want of nothing to the best of their ability. Still not a feminist way of thinking, but at least there’s respect.

    They (the male relatives of a woman) are putting her in a role with respect to them, which is not treating her as a person, sacred or otherwise. Putting someone on a pedestal is not the same as treating them with respect.

  7. still censored...
    June 10, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    That was an eye-opening article for me, so thanks for posting the link. Not to say that I can precisely identify with being screamed at with the likes of *get away from here because they can SEE you*, but that part where she waited for her presumed ally, presumed *enlightened* male friend to emerge and expected him to be outraged along with her, only to get a lukewarm “oh” in response to her retelling of the experience…BOY did that resonate with me.

  8. June 11, 2007 at 3:07 am

    It’s certainly true that the status of women in many parts of the so-called Islamic World, particularly Saudi Arabia, is deplorable. I think Ms. Stack makes an important point about how US businesses behave in a way that is inconsistant with gender equality in the Saudi Kingdom. Some of her views (such as the inappropriate whistling and cat-calls) are echoed by many things I’ve read by English-language Muslim and Arab blogs, who write about their experiences in the Kingdom. Moreover, Ms. Stacks is certainly qualified to discuss how visitng the Kingdom made her feel as a woman.

    That being said, it is important to understand her work as an outsider’s perspective looking in – a perspective which has advantages as well as pitfalls, no doubt. That’s not me being diplomatic, that’s the byproduct of listening to a lot of discussions by Muslim women on issues such as the veil, modesty, and the role of western feminists in critisizing Arab/Islamic cultures. There are Muslim scholars, like Amina Wadud, who would echo the sentiments of Ms. Stack, but there are many others who are uncomfortable with mixing genders in places like Mosques, but also the general population because it questions core traditions of Islam.

    The Kingdom must change, as Ms. Stack points out (not “stay frozen”). It cannot remain static, although in fairness, the perception of the Arab World as unchanging is a bit unfair even with respect to women’s rights, as Dr. Edward Said often noted in his famous book, Orientalism. Change must come internally, rather than through external intervention. A lot of Arabs would feel slightly uncomfortable at the part where she writes about the longing for foreign intellectuals to issue judgements of their country: “[He believed] foreign academics were too easy on Saudi Arabia, that they urged only minor changes instead of all-out democracy because they secretly regarded Saudis as “savages” incapable of handling too much freedom.”

    This sounds somewhat reminiscent of the neoconservative perception of the region, insofar as pushing for “all out Democracy” and thinking that the best way to fix Saudi Arabia was to be “harder” on them to make “major changes.” It’s unclear by this passage whether Ms. Stacks believes this herself, or is merely reporting the ideas of her friend. There is a sense in her voice that she does not trust the Saudi’s to make these changes themselves, which is a very dangerous sentiment if it leads to the US intervene internally in the politics of Saudi Arabia as part of its foreign policy.

    The plight of women in Saudi Arabia is beyond question. But how to best address it, and how western women should address the issue is less clear, other than the obvious which is supporting attempts by Muslim and Arab women to express themselves and seek more rights. This is particularly true when one considers the history of colonization and western intervention in the region which begins with perception that such ideas as “gender equality” are in fact western attempts to colonize the Kingdom yet again.

    The west can never “lead” on the issue of cultural change around the world. The White Man’s Burden, will never be accepted in the modern age.

  9. crys t
    June 11, 2007 at 5:23 am

    avelyn, did you miss all the bits where the author commented on how Western men actually get off on how women’s status is explicitly inferior in Islamic societies?

  10. anna
    June 11, 2007 at 8:54 am

    Is it true that Saudi Arabia is the only country today (besides dictatorships where nobody votes) where women do not vote?

  11. Wishy Washy
    June 11, 2007 at 10:26 am

    I remember the government spokesman, Mansour Turki, who said to me: “Being a Saudi doesn’t mean you see every face of Saudi society. Saudi men don’t understand how Saudi women think. They have no idea, actually. Even my own family, my own mother or sister, she won’t talk to me honestly.”

    If you want to feel like your wife/mother/sister understands you and confides in you, maybe you should start agitating for a society where they are at least treated as though they belong to the human race. Is it any wonder if the women are closed-off to men and outsiders and their only community is with each other behind closed doors?

    God, I would be arrested or killed in that country. I would never be able to take it, not even for a few hours.

    Oh and if any male ‘friend’ of mine were as dismissive of my being abused as Smith’s was when the bank security harassed her, I would no longer consider him a friend.

    “The men can SEE!”

    The men can see what, exactly? A figure draped entirely in black fabric with indeterminate features? Did the wind blow against her and perhaps reveal the shape of some limbs? The horror.

  12. ACS
    June 11, 2007 at 11:59 am

    Is it true that Saudi Arabia is the only country today (besides dictatorships where nobody votes) where women do not vote?

    Voting in Saudi Arabia is to voting in other countries as fantasy football is to football. But, yeah, I think so — Kuwait just changed recently.

    — ACS

  13. DAS
    June 11, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    nor are we as different as we might like to think.

    As P.J. O’Rourke put it (I’m writing from memory so I might not be quoting exactly, so I’ll apologize for any misquotes now) in his description of the place back in the days of the first Iraq war:

    Wahabis are like strict Baptists: no drinking, no dancing […] The religious beliefs of Saudi Arabians are no more exotic than those of Billy Graham [their] mores are no different than those of a small town American from about 50 years ago — only the absolute segregation of the sexes would seem bizarre. And I’m not so sure about that. After O’Rourke Thanksgiving dinners, the women would go into the kitchen to wash dishes while the men would sit in front of the TV and watch bowl games.

    It always amazes me how our fundies see Muslim fundies as being so “exotic” when their really ain’t much difference in their mores. I wonder what the late, great Edward Said would have to say about that … hmmmm ….

  14. Lee
    June 11, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Wishy Washy, as far as what the men could see, I thought almost the exact same thing. In fact, I had to go back and re-read, making sure I didn’t miss the part where she stripped down to her thong. Turns out, I didn’t. I really resent the notion that men need to be protected from women in some way, that a security guard has to prevent these innocent men from seeing this wanton woman’s body completely covered in loose fabric.

    Human Being, you say many people are uncomfortable with mixing genders because it questions the core traditions of Islam. I fail to see why questioning religious and cultural customs is a bad thing. If you could question them and realize you agree with the reasoning behind them, wouldn’t that make anyone’s faith stronger? Then why the reluctance on their part? (I’m not being a troll, I just want to know if there’s something specifically about Islam that discourages that.)

  15. Avelyn
    June 11, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    crys t, of course Western men get off on this kind of thing – they’re given so much freedom to push women around in this society, why wouldn’t they like it? (except for the men who see this kind of thing as inherently wrong, but there just aren’t enough men like that, unfortunately). Feminism is still seen as a Western idea that’s being used to destroy Islamic society, even if most Western men (and many Western women) don’t agree with it – it’s a way for those in charge to dismiss feminism, I think.

  16. June 11, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    I appreciate this piece of literature greatly. I am a first-generation Iraqi-American woman and know first hand what is being spoken of, and I have never even been to Iraq. Though things are certainly different in America, the culture is very thick (metro-Detroit area) as well as the community and traditions. After several attempts to run-away from my home I finally succeeded in going to the west coast, where I promptly became homeless and in fear of my life and no government (local or national sects) could or would help me. The only help is from non-profit organizations that can hardly protect you. What I found was that though I was outright disrespected and treated like less of a human being in my culture, American culture was only slightly
    better. They disrespect their women, but in a more secret, systematic method. As a newly freed young woman the only jobs I could find where those that I see as an objective compromise of my psychological well-being , things that involved my body because it is female. I chose to remain homeless but understand, I saw scared young women, some with children, some beaten down and already given up or stuck to a crutch, but many reasons not to judge. However, I couldn’t believe that the options for women who are in poverty , they are much like that of men (who may join a gang and/or sell drugs for instance) but with far less power no matter what. This is where my major education as a student of human rights began, I realized that those groups that are over-sexualized (women, young girls, those of the LGBT community, and minorities, such as African Americans) are the same that are disenfranchised and it is only to our detriment that we focus on these qualities to the loss of others.
    I wonder if many Western “feminists” understand that many women of countries in the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and so on see the freedom of the Western female as resulting in the free exposure , objectification, and sale of her body. Many non-Western women want nothing to do with feminism because of this. The talk of female freedom and the liberated American woman, for instance, is seen as talking of assumed “whores.” If they have an option of being a slave or the option of being a whore many would pick being a slave. I am afraid to have too much to do with American feminism which seems to choose a freedom though objectification which seems unreasonable as it is the same venue that disenfranchised us. I appreciate the work of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as well as a few others, but am overall confused about the current base understanding of feminism in America. Can their be a third option? If you are interested in helping me understand check out and tell me what you think of this research paper.

  17. June 11, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    Lee – I absolutely agree with you. If everyone could question their culture, religion, heck, even their government, the world would be a better place. But I guess what I’m saying is it’s a touchy subject for some Islamic women, if the topic is broached insensitively it can lead to alienation. I think it’s also true that precise gender equality really isn’t the top priority for some women’s groups in the Middle East (yikes!)

    What I mean by that, for example, is if you follow feminists in Egypt you see that they often support the Muslim Brotherhood. NOT because they support Salafism, or rule by clerics (which understandly would have a more narrow vision of women’s rights than desirable, to put it diplomatically), but because the oppression of President Mubarak impacts them in greater proportion than some of their other issues.

    They can’t even speak up about the status of women’s rights, or the status of women in Islam, because they often will end up in jail. Therefore, their top priority is the removal of the current dictatorship, which for the time being means allying themselves with Islamist groups. Historically, that’s a mistake if the Ayatollah Khomeini and the fall of the Shah in Iran is any indication.

    But my point is (and I do love to ramble) is that the issue of women’s rights in the Middle East is pretty complicated, particularly when feminists try to look at it in symmetry with western feminism. What we think of as basic women’s rights, a lot of people in the Middle East regard as a cultural viewpoint, and thus challenging their culture is a form of imperialism.

    To bypass that, it’s important to look to women from the region to make their own statements and lead on these issues, and basically support them. That’s a pretty weak model to follow, and there can be only limited NGO and international support, but the alternative will never be viewed as legitimate (outside cultural imperialism).

  18. June 11, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    I should add that if you read Islamic feminists (the most prominant being Amina Wadud, who was the first woman to lead prayer of a mixed gender congregation and is a Professor of Islamic Studies in Virginia), you’ll see that they talk about these issues much differently than we might.

    Their job, or I should say their way of “deconstructing” the issue, is to work from hadith (sayings of the Prophet), the Qur’an (word of God) and form a narrative that is more inclusive of the female viewpoint. They also seek to turn things that western feminists may view as oppressive (like the veil) into something more distinctive and reflective of their character. So that’s why you see Dr. Wadud wearing very colorful and vibrant hijab’s.

    But they must walk a fine line because within Islam a lot of feminism is regarded as Bid’ah (innovation), and innovation is considered har’aam (forbidden). Only the words and ideas of the Prophet can really be used to construct Islamically-sound arguments. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything new, just that you have to get really creative. Just because there wasn’t concrete at the time of the Prophet, doesn’t mean you can’t build a mosque with one today, but on the other hand, you can’t simply replace key features of the mosque, like the qibla (which points to Mecca) because that would be innovation.

    Thus, you can see that the sort of discussion you’d need to have with an Islamic feminist would be quite different from other women. Reading a western feminist book, it approaches things from a Civil Rights perspective, working backwords from the point of equality towards public policy. But in Islam, you have try to find ways to negotiate two, at times contradictory, traditions and still preserve the “essence” of Islam, which is submission before God.

    So, reading Ms. Stack’s article, I think she does an excellent job illuminating this topic, but it’s really a different discussion if you were to have it with serious Islamic scholars. Dr. Wadud would probably discuss the idea that Islam originally drastically improved the rights of women, for example banning female infanticide within the Empire.

    But she still fights things like hadith, which say that the Prophet Mohammad visited Hell and found mostly women. Of course, she doesn’t believe the Prophet said that, but it’s in the tradition. So how to question that hadith, without questioning ALL HADITH and therefore large parts of the Sunnah (the tradition), is tough. REALLY tough.

    Hope that helps.

  19. Nathanael Nerode
    June 13, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Saudi Arabia is actually pretty much the only country in the world where women can’t vote — unless you count Vatican City, where there *are* no female residents.

    Even dictatorships have elections these days. Phony, rigged elections, usually — but theoretical elections in which women can theoretically vote.

    The Saudi government is definitely, without doubt, the most regressive and backwards in the entire world. They are so much more bigoted than their neighbors, and have been criticized sufficiently from their neighbors, that harsher Western criticism for the more extreme practices, the ones which differ from Jordan, Yemen, Dubai, Syria, etc., would probably actually help. (In contrast to other countries where harsher Western criticism of sexist practices does not help: Egypt, Algeria, Iran, etc.)

    Of course, instead we have Western leaders cozying up to one of the most despicable monarchies in the world. It’s the oil, of course.

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