Landing at Riyadh Airport, watchful and alert, I put on the Abaya and headscarf. Our Arabic air steward smiled at me and nodded reassuringly. It surprised me. As I walked through the airport, the flowing black robe and chiffon scarf felt graceful, modest and curiously anonymous. I found myself allowing my male colleague to take the lead.
Queuing at Passport Control I noticed that the ratio of men to women was about 10 to1 and was again surprised, this time by a sudden awareness of both my vulnerability and my value. Among the other women were Westerners, some wearing Abayas with no head-covering, hair loose and flowing, and one apparently quite comfortable in jeans and high heeled boots. I watched to see how the Arab men would react and saw no discernible disapproval.
Clothes affect the way we feel. As an actor I often started with the clothes when finding my way into a character. Try it; put on your pyjamas to make a business call. You will feel different than if you’d made the call in your smart suit. The way the body feels, strongly affects the brain and alters our emotional and intellectual responses. During my three days in Saudi, wearing the Abaya had the effect of toning down my natural playfulness and turning up my sense of modesty. I am told that women in Saudi, wives and daughters, are seen as precious possessions, to be kept safe. If you begin to see the ‘hiding’ of individuality as protection rather than suppression you take the first step to understanding a very different view of the world.
There was a moment on my second day when I saw under the Abaya, where the women are very much themselves. I was in the ladies ‘rest room’; a tiny space big enough for two small cubicles and one sink. Abayas hung on the back of the door, six women were smoking and chatting, sitting cross-legged on the floor, perched in the cubicles, leaning against the walls. In this relaxed and private space I was instantly part of the group and their warmth and openness were in striking contrast with the reserved response I’d encountered in the hallways and the classroom. The challenge for women in business in Saudi (in the companies where women are allowed to work) is being able to influence and persuade colleagues and step into leadership roles. The qualities of openness, confidence and enthusiasm, valued in the West, do not come so naturally to those who’ve been used to publicly displaying modesty and composure. Other qualities, such as knowledge, experience and wisdom may be easier to turn up.
When different cultures come face to face, it’s important to read a situation and react appropriately. At the end of two challenging and rewarding days, when we handed out the certificates, some of the men were comfortable shaking my hand, others were not. I let them take the lead, ready to respond if I saw the movement of a hand towards me. My male colleague employed the same strategy. He only shook hands with the men.
If I can offer anything to other women visiting Saudi, it is these two unexpected insights. Firstly, embrace the Abaya. The way my sense of identity was altered by wearing the Abaya gave me a better understanding of the challenges faced by our female delegates. Secondly, Western media inadvertently breeds fear based on ignorance. Having now been there, I have greater understanding of the culture and how they apply their rules. If you seek understanding and demonstrate respect you will find attention, tolerance and warmth, as we did.