Saudi Arabia: First Impressions
I finally mustered up the courage to throw my black kaftan dress overtop of my clothing just minutes before deplaning at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I had been told to bring "something like a black abaya" to wear on arrival, but I had been procrastinating actually putting it on. Wearing a plain, long black dress was so foreign to me that it made me feel self conscious and uncomfortable. Quickly after putting on the dress I decided to shove a hoodie over top of that and immediately I felt more like myself. I walked through the airport in my dress/hoodie get-up, with that same narcissistically insecure mentality...thinking everyone noticed that I did not fit in. 'Fake it till you feel it' I kept telling myself to gain just a few strides of confidence. Whatever small amount of false confidence I did build was shattered as I approached the woman at immigration. My first conversation in Jeddah was at passport control with a woman wearing a niqab (everything covered except her eyes). I was intimidated. I realized I had only been exposed to this sort of dress in movies and I could not recall a time that I had actually seen a woman in real life dressed like this. I pride myself in being culturally open and competent, so reflecting on this reality and now writing about it makes me feel ignorant. This woman had stunning dark eyes, decorated with perfect strokes of eyeliner and thick dark lashes. 'Maybe its Maybelline' jingled in my head. She could have been in a makeup commercial without ever showing the rest of her face. I became acutely self aware- I don’t think I’ve ever looked like I was in a Maybelline commercial, but if there was a situation where I definitely did not, it was going through immigration after 24hrs of travel. A million thoughts flashed through my head.. 'did she think I looked too provocative with my uncovered dyed hair and nose rings?' 'is it even acceptable to wear a sweatshirt over top of an ‘abaya’ like this?' 'What will she think when she see’s where I am from- do they like Americans?'.
She started speaking and I was relieved, her voice was warm and friendly. I knew she was smiling although I did not have proof. Tyra Banks says "smile with your eyes", and I say "doing so while wearing a niqab is the best evaluation of someones ability". She saw my passport and asked if it was my first time in Saudi Arabia. I said yes and she welcomed me with what seemed to me as true genuineness. We chatted a bit and she even cracked a joke about how ridiculous my visa photo looks (*pictured below- it looks like a mug shot because the lady at CVS said I could not smile for a “passport style photo”). I walked away feeling like I did not know myself. I came to this country feeling like I was open minded and wanting to be exposed to a society and culture much different from my own, but within the first moments of being here I was already making assumptions. Feeling self-conscious was judgmental on my part to assume the thoughts of a person I had never met.
I think it is common to assume that because other women decide to dress more conservatively, that entail, they are judging us for not- which is not a fair assumption. The women's clothing here is very diverse. Many women, even the expats, enjoy wearing their abayas and head coverings. I have a sheer abaya with gold sequences and another that is jogger style. The dress code has become more open in the past few years; while many women are still wearing black abayas, this is no longer a regulation. You will see colored and patterned abayas, conservative dresses, and loose pants with a tunic. I've recently bought a denim cardigan-tunic which is my new favorite piece item because it feels more of my style and I can throw it over anything.
I have now been living in KSA for four months and I almost forget what it is like to wear leggings and a tank top to the grocery store. When first arriving here I was constantly in awe of the traditional clothes worn by almost every Saudi, and now it all feels second nature. We are adaptable beings. Sooner than we realize the growing pains of a new situation drift away, leaving us with a new norm and opening space for us to explore further.