06/09/2015 09:59 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Running Free


Once, at a shopping mall, I got into big trouble for wearing a pair of shorts. They were floral shorts, hemmed at the knee. My mom had sewed them on a Singer machine that was almost as old as I was. I liked the shorts but looking back, can't say they were flattering. They were canary-yellow, and had a large cartoon parrot printed across the butt.

Inside the mall, a stranger had shouted angrily at my shorts.

"NO!" he said, before poking my knees with a long stick. "Haram," he added.

The man was a mutawa; a member of a special team appointed by the Saudi Arabian government to police the morality of the public. By calling the vision of me in my parrot shorts haram, he was saying I had offended both God and man.

It's like mutawas were the original fashion police, outdating even Joan Rivers.

We could have been arrested that day.

About a week before this, my parents and I had moved to Saudi Arabia from Canada. You think it'd be obvious, but somehow we hadn't fully understood the dress code yet. All women in Saudi Arabia are required, by law, to cover.

And so, after the run-in with the mutawa, my mom and I had slinked off to purchase a pair of modesty-cloaks. I remember the way she watched me that day, as I shrouded myself in black at the store. At night, I would hear her whisper-shout to my dad, though the thin walls of our new house:

"But she's just a girl!"

I never wore the shorts in public again  --  which is perhaps the silver lining of this story.

The next time I went shopping, I wore my new cloak instead. If I had to identify a moment in life when I knew I wasn't a little girl anymore, this would be the moment. I was 12 years old.

Before the move, I was an active kid -- always on my bike, running around outdoors. But in this new place, I wasn't allowed to do any of that. I had tried a little, but didn't get far with all that loose fabric wrapping around my legs, jamming up my spokes. Soon enough, I began resenting the cloak.

That's why when, one afternoon, my dad suggested I leave it at home, I was thrilled. He said if I disguised myself as a boy, he'd take me to play tennis with him, and so I rushed to my room, flattening my budding chest with a sports bra, tucking my short hair underneath a baseball cap. He began second-guessing himself on the drive over to the courts, though, worried about what would happen if we were spotted. When he wondered aloud if I should try running like a boy, I panicked.

"But I don't know how to," I said, a crack in my voice.

"I'm sorry," he sighed. "Maybe we shouldn't be doing this."

But we had parked our car against the curb, grabbing our rackets out of the trunk, popping open a fresh tube of balls. We played an amateur, illegal round of tennis together until a guard noticed us.

"Take your daughter home," he yelled at my father, from across the court, and I just knew it was my run that had given me away.

By the time my parents sent me to the United States, to attend school on the East Coast, I had become a meek, easily-intimidated teenager. Eventually though, I adjusted, recalibrating to life in the West. I got back in touch with the girl in the parrot shorts. She was still there, waiting inside patiently.

One day, junior year of college, my best friend Mindy took me out for a run. We went late at night, as a study-break. I was terrible at it. I got tired quickly. I remember leaning against a road divide, breathless and whimpering about being so out of shape. Exerting myself like that felt foreign. And yet it also felt familiar. I was exhausted but exhilarated.

By that summer, I was running regularly.

Some days I ran at a quick clip, my feet barely grazing the pavement. Other days it was a slog. I began to notice that the quality of a given run didn't depend on the weather, or on how fast I was going, or on how much distance I'd covered. It depended on what I felt about these things. It depended on my state of mind. The math of it was simple: the less I cared, the happier I was.

The same was true of life.

Most people feel guilty when they don't exercise. For me, for years, it had been the opposite. And even though on the surface, it looked like I'd taken off the black cloak, the shadow of it continued to confine me. There was still part of me apologizing for wanting to swing a racket under the sun, for running 'like a girl.'

Today, when I tell people I grew up in Saudi Arabia, they're often surprised. I can't explain to them that coming of age in a country governed by the most orthodox of men, has actually made me a stronger woman. It doesn't seem to make much sense, does it? But there it is.

I don't know where the parrot shorts are now. Probably buried inside a closet at my dad's house. After the mall incident, I wore them only a handful of times, always in private. Putting them on used to feel like an act of courage to me, and I guess it was. It takes courage to defy a rule, spoken or not, about what you can or can't do with your body.

A few years after making those shorts for me, my mother passed away. She died at our home, in Riyadh, just before daybreak. I like to think she knew what she was doing, the day she sat down to sew those shorts, a few yards of yellow cotton at her fingertips. I like to imagine a smile at her lips; her hands, delicate yet strong behind the machine. "Here," she seems to be saying. "These are for you. These will help you see."

*A version of this piece has previously appeared on Medium