Pages of the Oasis

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Do you really have to wear that veil thing? What`s it called?

One of the first questions most people ask me when they find out I worked in Saudi Arabia is:

''Did you have to wear that veil and what`s that dress thing called? '' or something to that effect.

The answer is yes, and it`s called an abaya (the black over -dress, cloak). Foreigners are not exempt from this cultural norm.

I also wore a hijab ( veil that covers the hair and tucks in around the face) when in public (going to the store, or to work or to the mall).

I didn`t wear the niqaab, which is the face veil covering that just exposes the eyes, but 99% of the women including many other ex-pat teachers did.

I had to buy these things and put them on before I arrived Saudi Arabia. I changed into them in the bathroom in the airport in Cairo, during a stopover on the last leg of my 43 hour ( yes 43) flight from Canada.

I was given very thorough instructions from the recruiting company so I knew what to expect to a large degree.

While I bought my abaya and hibaj in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (where the kind shop lady proudly taught me how to put the hijab on properly, and the variations for doing so), you can buy just as easily online.

A store that has been repeatedly recommended (by the company I was hired for and others) for their online service and abaya selection, and where you can get abayas that are suitable for Saudi Arabia, is  The Canadian Muslim:

If you are going to Saudi Arabia, you have your choice of black or black. Not any of the colourful, pretty abayas worn in Egypt or other countries.

They don`t go in for colours in Saudi Arabia.
But you can still find some very attractively embroidered and trimmed abayas.

You still need to wear your normal clothes underneath, by the way. The abaya is an overcloak, not a replacement for normal clothing.

You need to take your abaya off when inside homes and at the women`s university, wearing an abaya once inside the building was actually  banned. There were mutawah (male religious police) guarding the partking lot and exit/ entrance watching to make sure the women were properly covered, and more security guards ( females) inside checking that these rules were followed.

Once inside, it was like a flurry of black as people removed their abayas and niqaabs and often their hijabs to reveal normal (but very conservative) button my blouses ( usually white) and long ankle length skirts , or long flowing dresses.

And at the end of the work day, it was like a a river of black flowing out the door as each person whipped on their abaya, hijab and niqab before funnelling out the exit into the blindingly bright parking lot.

''What was it like wearing that getup?!'' is another question that often follows on the heels of the first one.

Although my stomach did flips while putting on the abaya and hijab in the Cairo airport washroom, I have to admit that this wasn`t nearly as hard to get used to as I expected. I thought it would be the most difficult thing about coming to Saudi Arabia. But it wasn`t.

Surprisingly, when around so many other people (well, ALL other women), were doing the same thing, -and often looked so elegant doing so-  it quickly became second nature.

Who would have guessed?

The biggest downside was the heat. It was very hot to layer on a thick polyester overcloak and veil on top of your regular clothes, especially in summer, when temperatures soared to about 50 degrees celcius above zero. Felt like wearing your winter clothes at the height of summer.

I used the same coping techiques as I used in the cold, harsh winters of Canada: ignore it and go one with your life.

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