Today I went to a major mall here in Riyadh to pick up an abaya I had ordered and instead got a story. The abaya was supposed to be ready yesterday but when I got to the shop there was an off vibe to it. The abayas on the racks were plain. The creative cuts and colors that had attracted me just four days ago to make a spontaneous purchase were nowhere to be seen. And as soon as the sales clerk saw me he said um Sulaiman, I wish you had left a number so I could have saved you a trip. It turns out that Wednesday Feb 4th a huge abaya raid was undertaken all across Riyadh. They went around in groups of three; a muttawa Vice police escorted by a Riyadh Principality employee and a police officer. At the mall I went to, they first headed to the shop I mentioned above and the unlucky sales clerk had a customer at the time who was sitting on an armchair in the shop and discussing an abaya that she wanted made. The first thing the muttawa did was express shock and disgust that the shop allowed women to sit. Then he looked at the abaya order that the clerk was filling out and told the lady off for ordering a 750 riyal abaya. And then he demanded that the clerk show him a 750 riyal abaya. The clerk pointed at an abaya with cuffs decorated with crystals and the muttawa grabbed it off the rack and stuffed it into one of his big trash bags. Then he went through all the racks and grabbed anything that looked “worldy” and decorative and stuffed them all in his bags. Before leaving, the muttawa also took the sale clerk’s residency card and ordered him to remove the chairs and a little mirror nook that was there for women to try on the abayas. (They take the residency card so that the Saudi sponsor would have to come to them and they could give him a little talking to as well.) Meanwhile word got around and the other abaya shops in the mall hurriedly locked up and their clerks ran off before the raid got to them. The raid group went all around the mall getting the shop numbers of all the abaya shops even though they were closed. So that they could come back tomorrow and they did. Not only that, but similar raid groups went all over Riyadh, not only raiding shops but also factories and warehouses. Abaya shopkeepers called and warned each other and because they knew the shops and factories were unsafe they took the abayas home. The last raid was Friday evening and it has been quiet since then.
The sales clerk that I had the little conversation with has been selling abayas in Saudi Arabia for the past 13 years and he told me that a few years ago the vice police went as far as to jail him for four days just because he was doing his job. He told me that his shop’s abaya factory lost something between 50 to 60 thousand riyals from the raids this weekend! He also said that it had been a few years since the last time that the vice police would actually confiscate decorated abayas. The past few years all they did was give something like warning tickets to all the shops that were selling decorative abayas. The other two accompanying the muttawa, the police officer and the principality employee, mostly just stood by while the Vice cop did his job. They were there only to show that the raid was official and not just a thing a muttawa did on a whim.
Update Feb 12th
The raids did not stop and now the story is confirmed. If you go to any mall in Riyadh for an abaya, you won’t be able to find anything displayed except the extreme plain tent style. Some shops were even closed because the mutawas found that all their abayas are decorative. One shop specialized in fancy abayas lost an estimate of 900,000 riyals. Local newspapers to my knowledge have not picked this up. I wish they would.
This is a quite expressive cartoon by a longstanding cartoonist, Al Rabea, from yesterday’s edition of Al Riyadh newspaper. It depicts a recurring and widespread situation in Saudi Arabia. In it a woman is backed against the wall in a helpless and hopeless fetal position and a man is pointing his camera equipped cell phone at her. The man has his understanding and polite face mask pulled off to reveal the meanness and devil ears beneath. Around the couple are scattered Bluetooths. The story behind this drawing is that many men take advantage of the oppressive nature of this society by befriending and pursuing vulnerable Saudi women until they let down their guard and send photos of themselves to these men. These men then use the photos to blackmail the women, mostly for sex but also for money and sometimes just for the fun of it.
In many cases the photos are usually quite innocent and if seen anywhere else in the world, it would not mean much. But here the possession of a photo of a Saudi woman with only her regular clothes on and without an abaya or hijab is scandalous and could cause a lot of trouble for the woman. Husbands divorce their wives solely on that basis. Even worse, a woman’s children could be taken away because she would be considered an unfit mother and a bad influence on her daughters.
Two extremely high profile cases that happened a decade ago, just when digital photography started going mainstream here caused the government to issue laws against men who use these photos. The first case was of an average single Saudi girl who during a trip to Makkah visited a young man’s apartment after a phone relationship. The guy took photos, some of which were compromising and explicit. Later in the relationship he got mad at the girl for one reason or another and posted the photos with a map to her family’s home in Riyadh and her full name. The aftermath was tragic. The girl was taken to a remote part of the desert and burned to death by her own brothers. The other case was that a young man who belongs to a high status family got mad at his teenage girlfriend and asked his slave* to rape her while he filmed it on his cell phone. This particular Bluetooth really got around and only Saudis living under rocks haven’t seen it. The girl was still in her school uniform and begging the guy to call the slave off. These two cases got so much attention that they pushed the government to act. Now a man who is caught blackmailing or passing out photos of a Saudi woman can be prosecuted and punished. On the other hand, this will also need the woman or at least her family to come forward and press charges so it doesn’t work that well if the woman comes from an extremely conservative family. Note that these cases are handled with the utmost sensitivity on the part of the government and the name of the woman is kept secret throughout the process. But if the girl cannot confide in her family because they might literally kill her or at least inflict serious physical and emotional harm, how is she supposed to be able to confide in the authorities? I have heard of cases where more mature women skipped family support and went directly to the authorities via the vice patrol (muttawas). Surprisingly, the muttawas are very forgiving. As long as at the end of the day they have someone to prosecute, they will willingly overlook the woman’s original discrepancy that got her into trouble in the first place.
The comments that this cartoon got on the newspaper’s website were about 140 in less than 24 hours. I skimmed through them and a substantial number of them blame the women. They write that if women observed the correct hijab and cover then they would not have gotten into trouble. They go as far as to write that women are completely to blame because they seduce naïve and innocent men into doing these things. Some simply thanked the cartoonist for airing the topic. Many used terms like wolves to refer to men and condemned them. A few men wrote about how the sympathize with women and how sad and lonely life can get for women here.
* I use the term slave for lack of a better word. These workers are not legally bound to their employers but voluntarily enslave themselves so in every other sense they are slaves.
These past two weeks Riyadh has seen on and off sandstorms. When it’s really bad it kind of looks like a yellowish brown blizzard. People with asthma and allergies are confined to their houses and it’s not strange to see some people walking around with surgical masks on. No matter what you do, the sand gets in and settles on everything. My husband even got those adhesive strips that you can stick to the bottom and sides of doors, and still I can smell a grainy sandy smell inside the house. What really helped was getting a humidifier.
I don’t mind the sandstorms as much as other people do. It makes me wonder about my ancestors. And why people dress the way they do. The red and white cloths Saudi men wear now only to preserve tradition, served a true practical purpose in the past. In sandstorms they would wrap the cloth around their mouth and nose and the black band on the forehead prevented the headdress from flying away into the wind. And women did not wear abayas back then. They wore long dresses that did not define their waists and some of these dresses had sleeves that hang down so very low so that they can use the extra cloth for modesty if an unrelated man comes in. They also would have big square light cloths of different colors on hand for when they need to walk outside. These are what they now only use for prayer.
Later on in the late sixties and early seventies, abayas started to catch on. Women would still wear long dresses and put the abaya tent-style over their head but they would also grab the whole abaya in the two nooks of their elbows so that from the waist down you can see what she is wearing underneath. Kuwaiti, Emirati and even up in Iraq women dressed similarly. And then the mutawas were no longer responsible for unifying the different regions of Saudi Arabia so they turned their focus on to us poor women. Just shows you how much politics influences even the smallest details of our lives.
I’m pretty sure that to outsiders all covered women look the same. But actually how a woman wears an abaya tells a lot about her. Of course this is a cultural issue and as such can be given to many interpretations. Another point before you read on, is that in order to explain culture, I have to generalize but this does not apply to individuals. To make this even clearer, some in the western world would say that mini-skirts are slutty but hopefully you would not assume that every woman you meet with one on is a slut.
After most descriptions, there is a link to a photo that illustrates what I’m trying to explain. This by no means means that I’m passing judgement on the women in the photos or their intentions. It just happens that their photo explains my description.
If a Saudi woman wears it tent-style over her head with her face uncovered it means that she is Shiaa.
If she wears it tent-style over her head with only her eyes uncovered in a niqab, it means that she belongs to a conservative Sunni family and most probably she is wearing it this way because of family or work pressuring her to or to raise her chances of being proposed to. Link
Women who wear it on the shoulders with a niqab but have the headscarf on top of the niqab in what reminds me of how nuns wear their headdress, usually come from middle-class families and are both patriotic and religious. Link
Undecorated abayas worn on the shoulder with a niqab mean that the wearer is forced by her spouse to cover and she doesn’t care about outsiders opinions. Link
An undecorated abaya with the head scarf wrapped or held to cover the nose and mouth mean that the wearer comes from an upper middle-class westernized family and has been asked by her father, brother or spouse to cover for fear of being gossiped about. In the latter case, the more the abaya is decorated, the more likely the wearer is pretending to come from an upper middle-class family. In this case, she’ll get into a lot of trouble if caught by a relative.
Last but not least, a style that has given many children nightmares; tent-like over the head with a thick cover on the face area and one hole for one iris to peek out of. The hands and feet are covered with black gloves and socks. In this case, the wearer is either an ultra wahabi fanatic or a man under disguise, especially if he/she is begging.
If you have photos or have seen photos of any of the above, please send them or the link.