A Painful Tznius

In Saudi Arabia, a view from behind the veil

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.

In the depths of the robe, my posture suffered. I’d draw myself in and bumble along like those adolescent girls who seem to think they can roll their breasts back into their bodies if they curve their spines far enough. That was why, it hit me one day, I always seemed to come back from Saudi Arabia with a backache.

The kingdom made me slouch.

ONE glaring spring day, when the hot winds raced in off the plains and the sun blotted everything to white, I stood outside a Riyadh bank, sweating in my black cloak while I waited for a friend. The sidewalk was simmering, but I had nowhere else to go. As a woman, I was forbidden to enter the men’s half of the bank to fetch him. Traffic screamed past on a nearby highway. The winds tugged at the layers of black polyester. My sunglasses began to slip down my glistening nose.

The door clattered open, and I looked up hopefully. But no, it was a security guard. And he was stomping straight at me, yelling in Arabic. I knew enough vocabulary to glean his message: He didn’t want me standing there. I took off my shades, fixed my blue eyes on him blankly and finally turned away as if puzzled. I think of this as playing possum.

He disappeared again, only to reemerge with another security guard. This man was of indistinct South Asian origin and had an English vocabulary. He looked like a pit bull — short, stocky and teeth flashing as he barked: “Go! Go! You can’t stand here! The men can SEE! The men can SEE!”

I looked down at him and sighed. I was tired. “Where do you want me to go? I have to wait for my friend. He’s inside.” But he was still snarling and flashing those teeth, arms akimbo. He wasn’t interested in discussions.

“Not here. NOT HERE! The men can SEE you!” He flailed one arm toward the bank.

I lost my temper.

“I’m just standing here!” I snapped. “Leave me alone!” This was a slip. I had already learned that if you’re a woman in a sexist country, yelling at a man only makes a crisis worse.

The pit bull advanced toward me, making little shooing motions with his hands, lips curled back. Involuntarily, I stepped back a few paces and found myself in the shrubbery. I guess that, from the bushes, I was hidden from the view of the window, thereby protecting the virtue of all those innocent male bankers. At any rate, it satisfied the pit bull, who climbed back onto the sidewalk and stood guard over me. I glared at him. He showed his teeth.

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