THE BLOG

Bye Bye Abaya

04/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Think about it. Where else in the world are you required to buy a specific piece of clothing in a specific color (for a specific gender?)

We all know about the burqa debate in France. Muslim women who CHOOSE to veil are being challenged... but on a recent trip to Saudi Arabia I had no choice. I was told that I'd need to adhere to a strict dress code as soon as I landed in Riyadh -- before I even jumped into a cab bound for our downtown hotel.

It turns out buying an abaya in Baltimore is like buying a Ravens jersey in Riyadh so I found this website middleeasternmall.com. When you search for abayas online you'll have the choice of hundreds -- that look pretty much the same. The black cloaks might have a few rhinestones here and there, but individuality is not the point. I settled on one of the least expensive, not expecting to get much wear out of it after this trip.

My polyester prison (to quote author and HuffPo blogger Qanta Ahmed) arrived a few weeks later, complete with a matching headscarf. Turns out I'd need to cover more than my body. This trip was business for my husband, and 'play' for me. Right.

Besides buying the abaya, I tried to read up on the Kingdom. In addition to Ahmed's In the Land of Invisible Women, I found several recent articles about how women were steadily winning greater freedom in Saudi society. I intended to find out for myself, and will blog about the bigger issues in my next post.

But if clothes make the man ... they also make the woman. Something happened when I ducked into an airport bathroom to change into my Saudi uniform. It was depressing. And this from a woman who loves to wear black. It wasn't about color. It wasn't about style. It was about choice. About freedom.

There were benefits. I could slip my abaya over my pajamas to go to breakfast. In fact I didn't need to put any thought into what I was wearing the whole week. Bad hair days were irrelevant. Of course I was visiting in winter. Saudi women told me they don't even bother going outside during the summer months because of the oppressive heat. Abayas don't breathe.

They can't change the weather, and for now they can't change their public wardrobe. But there are changes afoot for the women of Saudi Arabia. Later this week I will introduce you to a few who will not remain invisible.

As for me, I wriggled out of my polyester prison and stuffed it into my carry-on as soon as I boarded the plane home. And I never felt more free or more fortunate in my life.