Packing for a business trip is usually a simple task. Corporate audience; pack a business suit. Less formal setting; smart casual, a dress or trousers, some accessories to jazz things up. Packing for a business trip to Saudi Arabia, not so.
I knew two things: I’d be expected to wear an Abaya over my clothes and to cover my hair. Staring at my empty suitcase, I realised I didn’t know what would be acceptable under the Abaya. The Abaya I borrowed had fastenings at waist and chest, opening below the waist when I walked.
I express my personality and femininity through my clothes. I wear colours and shapes that flatter me and reveal my personality. Researching the subject on the Internet I discovered that there are also rules about what to wear under the Abaya – one should avoid clothes that cling or that reveal ankles, knees, bare skin. My close fitting skirts, dresses and trousers would not do. On-line I also discovered that some of the women who live in Saudi, both Arabic and ex-pat, find ways to push the boundaries. On one forum there was a conversation about wearing pyjamas or just underwear under the Abaya. For a nervous Westerner, looking for clear guidelines on how to conform, these cheeky and rebellious opinions were confusing and only later began to have real meaning.
There was virtually nothing in my wardrobe that fulfilled all the requirements and I found myself raiding my teenage daughter’s wardrobe for long and baggy garments that wouldn’t be controversial. Knowing I’d need to put on an Abaya as soon as we landed, I made my way to the airport in clothes that were neither flattering nor ‘me’.
But it’s not just about clothes of course. Because under the Abaya is where the person is, thoughts and feelings, opinions and aspirations. So could I be myself? Was it okay for me still to be ‘me’ or was there some modification needed there too? There are strict rules about how women should behave, where they can go, how they can travel and with whom. Unmarried women from the West are not granted visas to enter the country. In the UK I wouldn’t think twice about a) shaking hands when I first meet delegates; and b) making good eye contact to build rapport, instil confidence and be engaging. I had to ask myself whether these behaviours would be seen as acceptable and if not, how else I would be able to connect with the people I was there to help and develop. I’d been told they were high-flying graduate trainees, all of them educated in the West, and some of them women, hence the need for a female trainer. In my trepidation, I wondered whether they would have respect for or even want to listen to a Western woman.
These were my concerns as we landed at Riyadh Airport, mixed with a sense of excitement at the challenges that lay ahead and, I admit, an unspoken anxiety that I might unwittingly cross a social or cultural boundary, incurring the kind of sanction our media are so fond of reporting.
In Part Two I will share what happened once we landed and what I have learned from our two-day training experience. It was surprising.