A Veiled Opportunity: Walking in Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Last August, I had a few days of rest, relaxation and theater in London. I spent one afternoon shopping (but not buying, due to the tanking US dollar) at Selfridges in Oxford Street. As usual, I was magnetically drawn to the designer shoe department. On a weekday in the heart of London, I was the only Western woman in sight. Everyone else was covered from neck to ankle in long robes and tunics; all wore headscarves and many were veiled.

At first, I was annoyed. I felt that "my" store had been invaded by women who weren't like me, speaking languages I couldn't understand. Almost immediately, I was ashamed and embarrassed: I was more xenophobic than I knew.

In comically swift fashion, I was given a chance to redeem myself a few weeks later. My husband was invited to spend the last two weeks in December teaching a writing course to healthcare professionals in Saudi Arabia. I tagged along, in my abayah (long black cloak) and matching headscarf to walk a kilometer in my Saudi sisters' shoes.

We've had an amazing experience. It's been funny and humbling to stick out like a sore thumb for a change, speaking only a few words of the local language and being so easy to spot in a crowd. I'm convinced that we're known to all of the people who met us at airports and drove us to meetings as the American man with the big moustache and the lady with yellow hair. We have been met everywhere with unfailing kindness, even by strangers with no connection to our reason for being in the country.

The lovely and gracious women I have met here, some whose faces I never saw, touch me most. Like most women I know, they're full of worry and love for their children and ambitious for their careers. They fret about being good-enough wives and daughters. They also speak with humor and exasperation about the indignities of being female in a male-dominated world.

As I watch, with newly opened eyes, the images coming out of Gaza, it pains me to think that some Americans might look at those pictures and see people who aren't like "us." Perhaps, for example, you'll worry about "those women" a bit less because you can't see yourself in their shrouded faces and shapeless black clothes.

I don't know enough about the conflict and its history to discuss it here. But while others are assigning blame, let me suggest that communicating compassion is a much more important task, and one that will bring us closer to a resolution. Ordinary people in this part of the world still have hope for us, judging by the beaming smiles we saw at any mention of Barack Obama. Let's prove them right.