Tag Archives: expat blog riyadh

Thoughts From Under the Veil

I assume that this is not a universal rule but one thing I have noticed about people is that it is always easier to make fun of something one has never experienced or something that one does not know (anything) about. If something goes wrong with the joke or someone gets offended, these people think that they can still defend themselves. All they need to do is to say: How was I supposed to know?

That is true. Most people don’t know. Usually because they never tried. But I think that those who actually dare to make serious fun of other cultures and their customs are people of ignorant nature.

As a sequel to my previous article on the issue of adapting to a new culture, I decided to write about wearing niqab as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia.

Now, before all of the complaints and accusations come down on me, I am aware of the fact that my experience is not and most likely will never be, the same as the one of a local woman who covers up because of her belief.  My experiences are the experiences of a white woman putting on a face veil because of where she lives. Whether that is of any value to you or not is your decision.  I am not putting myself into a position to say that I am better or worse than any other woman in this society by doing so because I am none of the above.

I have heard western people make fun of the niqab and abaya for so long, that I started to feel sorry for the women here, even though most of them may not know what the others are saying. So, my main objective was to try and respect local norms by dressing what in this country is considered modestly as well as prove all of those wrong who, in a mean way, make fun of the way that Muslim women here dress. Bottom line is: If I can adapt, then why can’t the rest of the expats? I am, after all, not from Saudi Arabia but from Europe, hence I would be expected to join the joking but I chose not to. I am not even saying you have to go all the way into this. Just stop complaining about the basic things that are asked from you, please.

At this point, most people will ask me: But WHY are you doing this? You know that you don’t have to! So why?

Well, that’s exactly it. I actually do not have to cover my face up to my eyes. I can do that a couple of times every time I am among Saudis and if I decide that I don’t like it, I can just take it off and pretend the whole thing never happened. A Saudi woman however, would probably not have this choice and because I know what advantage I and other western women have in that aspect, I was even more encouraged to put on my niqab as a try. Temporarily of course.

Covering up is not difficult, once you learn it, it does not take up too much of your precious time and it does not hurt you physically. So, give me a good reason why someone should not at least try and do what others do? That is of course, unless you are Saudi and think that it is disrespectful for non Muslims to dress like one, in which case I want to apologize in advance. Disrespect was never the intention but the contrary. If any of my readers are Saudi women but disagree with the veil, then I respect that opinion just the same.

As I pointed out, hiding your face behind a veil, especially if you live in a country where a significant majority of women do this, is not as horrifying as western people think it is (given the fact that there is always the option to take it off again if you are white). At least for me it wasn’t too bad and am I not just a human being like the rest of you? Surely, black is not the best color to wear outside at such high temperatures, but personally for me, that was the only obstacle I faced in putting on a face veil.

The most spread rumor about the niqab is that women who wear one apparently can’t see a thing. If you happen to be one of those people, then I have a huge surprise for you. If a woman wears a niqab that leaves her eyes free (and that is the one the rumors are about, too), she can see totally fine. Just as she would if her face was not covered. My niqab met at the very border of my glasses above and below and I was still able to see everything clearly.

I tied up everything at the back of my head, placed the pins where they belonged and looked at myself in the mirror. It was quite a strange feeling at first. But not because I felt too uncomfortable about it.

When I was a little child, I saw women every now and then who would have everything covered, except for their eyes. Since I was small and the women taller than me and mostly all in dark color, I could not help but be afraid of them. And now here I was and what looked back at me out of the mirror, was one of my childhood fears. I have , at least visually become what I was afraid of. That is, if you ask me, an ironic coincidence and interesting feeling.

I did not feel uncomfortable while walking around the mall. I did not feel oppressed or anything of that sort. The world was not about to end. I was exactly like the majority of the women around me and nobody looked at me like I belong into the zoo. Men did not turn around after me like they usually would if my face or even parts of my neck were visible. After three years in South East Europe, where inappropriate comments about my appearance from men no matter what I was wearing were daily routine, that was a very relieving experience. Nobody asked questions. Nobody accused me of being dressed immodestly, hence not a single religious police officer had a reason to approach me and tell me what is right and what is wrong. I was left alone and theoretically just belonged into the crowd like everyone else.

I remember back when I had to wear a uniform to school in order to look modest and professional, some of my female teachers thought that the idea of professionalism in clothing did not apply to them and some showed up every day like they were just about to take their purse and go party at the club across the road. I do not know too sure about my peers but I was nearly offended by that behavior. I was ( and still am) young and pretty, too. Why did I have to look like a sack of potato, while some of the staff were showing off what nice curves they had? Did I not have the right to be pretty, too?

With that in mind, I felt good about the fact that due to the way I was dressed, I was not offending anyone who believed in modest clothes. Every time I am in school now and see a covered up woman walking to the cafeteria, while I pass by in my leggings and heels, I do feel pretty bad, to be honest.

So I think that just for the sake of respect and not to make those uncomfortable who would be, it is worth it to adapt to rules. It does not have to be the full cover but at least do the best you can. There will always be some people who appreciate that and is that not an awesome feeling to have, when someone appreciates something you do?

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The Kindness of Saudi Strangers

I used to be a very nice person, back when I was a child. I am not saying that I am not a nice person anymore, but back then I was more focused on doing at least one good thing for somebody every day.

What made me decrease my amount of kindness and what in turn made me less naive is the fact that in western society it seemed to me as if acts of kindness are, a lot of times, not really appreciated but considered something like a bribe or just a way of making oneself popular. I had the feeling that nobody believed in kindness just for the hell of it.

Before I left Germany for Saudi Arabia, I believed that local people would be sceptical towards me because I am very obviously different from them and a lot of the local social norms and rules are unfamiliar to me for intercultural reasons.

My motto for my stay in this country is: Prove me wrong! I know that a lot of the negative things that I have read online are often times exaggerated but then I did not have any friends from Saudi Arabia, so where else was I able to turn for information? And so because I know that many of the negative things are not always true, I am always happy to see the one or the other myth about this place being busted, or just being proven wrong by experience in my pre- created, online shaped,  opinions.

And so it happened just recently again. Most of us believe that Arabs don’t like foreign people for whatever reason and I do agree that there may be the one or the other person to whom this applies but there are also locals here who are very friendly and respectful and before any of you start arguing that this applies to men only, I have been treated nicely by locals as well. And I am a woman.

Just this past thursday I was out for dinner at a restaurant. On my way to the garage, a Saudi man held the door open for me, waiting patiently until I reached the door and went through. I have no idea who he was but I was so pleasantly surprised, I even thanked him in Arabic and I don’t use that language very often because I have no idea what type of Arabic I am learning when I actually try to learn it. So I am generally limited to the “Good morning, hello, thank you” expressions.

My friend, who also happens to be a woman, had to drop by the airport because of a missing stamp. She was asked to wait for a little bit and when the responsible person came back, he brought her a piece of cake because someone was just celebrating something. Saudis giving out cake to westerners. How nice is that? Never heard of that anywhere else.

One of the things that touches me the most is when the local women are nice to me. Sometimes I get strange looks from them or they push me (whether intentionally or not, I can’t tell for sure) and I can understand why that might be, so I never took it too closely to the heart. But because of that side of treatment that I sometimes get, I appreciate them being nice even more.  Even if it is just because they are trying to sell something to me. Sometimes I can see the expression of their eyes change when they smile at me, those who are wearing niqab. To me, that is one of the most heart warming things to see ever. I can’t explain why. It just is. Those little wrinkles around the eyes when you smile.

Yesterday, I went to town to find a place where I could get my name engraved on a ring in Arabic. I eventually found a spot in a mall but as it sometimes happens, there were communication issues. One of the Saudi ladies that was standing in front of me, saw my helplessness and decided to translate for me. Just like that. Without me even asking.In the end, I did not get what I came for but at least I had a happy moment for the day.  This is the first place on earth where that ever happened to me, to be honest.

Whenever I go to shops that sell pastries, I almost always am offered arabic coffee and sweets or dates for free. Depending on what the shop is selling.

Some of the complaints that people have about here is that people always try to squeeze themselves in front of you when you are in a waiting line. That does happen to me quite a lot but just recently, as I was standing there, waiting for the shawarma counter to open after the Isha prayer, a Saudi woman let me order first. Just like that. I wanted to let her go first because I was not in a hurry but she said to me: “No, no you were here before me. You go first”. Before that she offered me a copy of the menu she had, so I could choose what I wanted to order.

So here is to Saudis being nice to foreigners. I guess I could say that a little bit of  my faith in humanity is restored for me now.