Under the Abaya


I read with interest this week about the recent political changes in Saudi Arabia. The king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, declared that women will have the right to vote, stand in elections, and join the advisory Shura Council beginning in 2015. Although this change is a significant step in women’s rights, giving women the right to vote does not significantly change the political landscape of the country (only half the seats on municipal councils are elected, and the councils have limited power).  In addition, there are broader issues at stake.  Saudi women are not allowed to drive and they need a male guardian’s permission to work or leave the country.* Perhaps the most famous, and controversial, restriction on women is the requirement to wear an abaya, a long black robe covering the entire body, and a veil for the face known as a burqa.

When I learned of the change in Saudi policy, I immediately thought of an article by Nicholas D. Kristof entitled “Saudis in Bikinis.” The article came to mind because I’d just been discussing it with my advanced composition students.  In class, we examined the logistics of writing, discussing content only as it related to tone.  Mr. Kristof, a New York Times journalist, went to Riyadh to interview Saudi women about female repression.  As he puts it, his conversations were awkward because he “…kept asking women how they felt about being repressed, and they kept answering indignantly that they aren’t repressed.”

Ah, but the women weren’t saying that the laws in their country aren’t repressive when it comes to driving, going to school, or holding a job.  They noted that slow progress is happening, and they acknowledged a wish for continuing change.  However, they did not feel oppressed by the requirement to cover their bodies.  Mr. Kristof, upon finding a group of women in abayas examining a sheer, low-cut blouse, asked one of the women to explain the scene.  Her reply:  “What do you think the ‘black ghosts’ wear under their abayas?”  This question, according to Mr. Kristof, was delivered “archly.”

This image—an arch Saudi woman asking an American man just how conservative he thinks Saudi women are with their husbands—both amuses and perplexes me.  Though I teach the article for tone (the miffed women, the irritated, concerned journalist championing democracy), the content has always fascinated me.  For example, one Saudi woman says, “I can swim and do sports and go to restaurants and wear what I want, but not in front of men. Why should I show my legs and breasts to men?  Is that really freedom?” According to Kristof, several women insisted that “…Saudi women are the free ones, free from sexual harassment, free from pornography, free from seeing their bodies used to market cars and colas.  It is Western women, they say, who have been manipulated into becoming the toys of men.”


Women—some of them, anyway—who live in a country where they aren’t allowed to drive, stand in a line with men at McDonald’s, or hold a job without male permission think that, as far as their bodies go, they are freer than American women.

Are they right?

Like Kristof, I don’t think so.  He ultimately decides that if the women want to cover their bodies and refrain from driving, that’s okay—but they should be given the choice.  In his conclusion, Kristof wraps the question of clothing women’s bodies up in the larger question of individual freedom of choice, and leaves it at that.   While the two are connected, the connection, in my mind, is not that simple.

The Saudi women were right about one thing—it is not freeing to feel that one’s body is a plaything, a marketing tool.  Where I think they err is in believing that the only choices are to either completely obscure one’s body from the eyes of men or to become a plaything.

Surely there is a middle ground.  One that requires trust—of ourselves, and of men.

This ground, I believe, is found where virtue (or spirit, if one is spiritually inclined) and the body meet.  It requires women, freed of confining clothes (corsets, abayas) to refuse to jump right into another type of confinement, as shiny and fun as it might seem.  I’m not talking about the everyday shiny fun of flirtation—I’m talking about the allure of a camera, that purveyor of millions of desirous gazes.

As I was researching this issue, I came across some sources that claim Saudi women are, in the privacy of their homes, removing their abayas—and the sheer blouses underneath—for internet audiences. The bodies that cannot be seen on the streets can now be seen around the world, performing a good old-fashioned Western striptease.

Maybe that’s just the way it goes.  Maybe freedom of choice around the female body means that we—women and men—are bound to get hypnotized by the sex of it all.  But does that mean we have to turn hypnosis into profit?

I hope not.  I hope there is a way—for Western women, for Middle Eastern women if they want it, for all women who want to experience the full freedom of their bodies—for us to find that middle ground.  The place where the body and the spirit meet.

In some ways, American women have already found that ground.  Yes, we are surrounded by images of scantily clad women who present themselves as sexual playthings, or at the very least, as the sexual ideal—an ideal that is meant for consumption.  But on the flip side, we get to wear tank tops in the summer.  To dance outside in our shorts.  To play tennis or soccer or beach volleyball, to go biking or hiking or surfing, right next to men—as competitors, companions, or both.  Most of us (most of the time) are not harassed by the men around us as we go about these activities.  Sure, we contend with sexual harassment and sexism in some forms, but we have legal recourse against them.  And yes, if a woman wears a short skirt she needs to be aware of the looks she’s gonna get.  But it’s her body—she owns it, every inch of it, regardless of what the culture may say.   Whatever consumerism may have co-opted, it has not eclipsed individual freedom—physical, emotional, spiritual self-sufficiency—a quality that can neither be bought nor sold.

Of course, each Western woman must be both perceptive and bold as she navigates the ground of physical and political freedom amid a sea of conflicting messages.  We are free, but we are not unencumbered.  I understand why Saudi women might prefer to cover their bodies, and if they choose to do so, like Mr. Kristof, I absolutely respect that choice.  But I have to wonder—as they push for more political freedom, will they also push for more physical freedom?  Will the average Saudi woman begin to see her abaya as confining rather than comforting?

As Saudi Arabian women continue their quest for equality, I’ll be watching them with interest, to see how they feel about what’s under their abayas.  And I know they’ll be watching us—all Western women—to see how we define freedom, and where we believe the lines between body and spirit should meet.

*Facts for this article were gleaned from the New York Times.

One thought on “Under the Abaya

  1. Georgia Platts says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article.

    I agree about the choice issue. People often accept what they have no choice but to accept.

    But having grown up in a very authoritarian religion that teaches very clearly “what God wants” I have to wonder how much choice women have even when they have choice. In the 70s women in my church “voluntarily” (it felt voluntary to them) fought against battered women’s shelters and equal pay. Choice? Or blind obedience?


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