Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reflections of a former abaya wearer

Whenever I talk to people about living in Saudi Arabia, the first thing they ask about is the abaya and hijab.  It's funny, people's responses run the gamut from utter disgust ("That's just BARBARIC!") To inquisitive ("really?! So...what do they wear under there?"). The concept of a government that allows for so few rights is totally baffling to the average American. I tell people that, honestly, wearing the abaya and hijab wasn't always bad. I didn't feel oppressed or downtrodden. It was annoying at first because I hadn't quite gotten the hang of tying the scarf on effectively. Like all things in life, my obligatory wardrobe change had its ups and downs.

For example, the most obvious plus side was the fact that I could wear anything I wanted under the abaya and no one would know! Don't get carried away, it's not like I walked around the grocery store with nothing but the abaya and a knowing grin! But now that I'm not living in Saudi Arabia anymore, it is a little disappointing that I can't just pop out for dinner in my pajamas. Most people think that the black hue of the abaya and hijab makes your core body temperature unbearable, and most of the time they'd be correct. But whenever we weren't going to or from work, I was pretty much rocking mis-matched shorts and a tank top under there. It really helped to keep me a lot cooler than my husband, who had to wear jeans for modesty's sake.

The aspects to wearing the abaya and hijab that I didn't like would probably surprise most people. I didn't feel "just totally violated" as some people have asked. I am thankful that I have the ability to choose to leave and not have to wear the abaya anymore, but when I was in the country, I had absolutely no issue with complying with the cultural norms of my temporary home. 

No, I took offense with the annoying things like the unnatural amount of static electricity that would build up as I got in and out of our leather-clad car seats. There were times that I was legitimately afraid that the spark would set the polyester robe on fire! Can you imagine the headlines?!

Another thing that was annoying: trying to tie on the hijab while sitting inside the car so I could walk from the car to the school....of course my co-workers pointed out that, because I had already pulled in to the parking lot uncovered, putting the hijab on at that point was kind of moot. But it was part of my obligation as a teacher at an Islamic school that I at least show modesty while on school grounds. I guess in my head, the non-tinted windows of my car shielded me from sight...or...something. Anyway, it was really hard to tie on the hijab while scrunched over in the passenger seat of a car, especially towards the end when my hair had grown down past the middle of my back. I tell ya, life was so hard.

I use a messenger bag to carry my school stuff to work. So whenever I was wearing the hijab, the strap would lay on the part of my shawl that was on my shoulder and any time I moved my head, the strap would pull it off my head a little bit. It's kind of like when you have really long hair and it gets caught in things like car doors and pinned between your back and the I'm the only one with that problem? Can anyone empathize with this story?

Moving on.

What I'm trying to say is that a little part of me is going to miss wearing the abaya and hijab. Ok...because it's the part of me that doesn't care about fashion or appearances and likes to sit around in her pajamas all day but still get errands's a big part of me that's going to miss wearing the abaya and hijab. But wearing the garb of Saudi Arabia for two years has certainly made me appreciate my right as an American to express myself freely; be that in pajamas or out.

Vicariously yours,