In the Company of My Muslim Sisters
O'Brien, Karen, National Catholic Reporter
When I was serving as a campus minister, it was my firm belief that our young people need us to teach new ways of dialoguing with those who hold different or opposing views, not how to bomb or invade them. So when some of my college students began expressing alarmingly negative views about Arabs and Muslims during the Gulf War in the early '90s, our campus ministry hosted an Arab Culture Workshop. Four dozen students visited a mosque, compared and contrasted Islamic and Christian belief, learned skills for productive interfaith dialogue, ate Middle Eastern food, learned a few Middle Eastern dance steps, and participated in a panel discussion with Arab and Muslim college students who welcomed even their most outrageous questions.
When someone read the newspaper article describing our event and recommended me for a travel scholarship to Saudi Arabia with a delegation of college educators, I embraced the opportunity to further my own understanding of Islam and the Arab people.
I wanted to meet women who lived in a country where they couldn't drive cars and had to wear the abaya in public. What I found out from my Muslim sisters was that being a woman in Saudi Arabia was very much like being a Catholic laywoman in America--some women were frustrated with the limitations, some were happy with their lives, and yet perhaps the vast majority of women seemed to be trying to live in the tension of a reality not always to their liking, but nonetheless rich, multifaceted and essential to their cultural identity in spiritual nourishment.
No expense was spared by the wealthy and generous Saudis who financed the all-expenses-paid trip: My first-class plane ticket to Jeddah alone was $5,600. For a campus minister used to living simply, I was in a shock, with my own in-flight bathroom stocked with slippers, toiletries and perfume, and elaborate tea breaks between airline meals that were better than the food at many restaurants. I passed the long flight doing needlepoint, which fascinated the Indonesian flight attendant, who soon perched on the arm of my leather chair at my invitation. She told me first about her own craft projects and then about the loneliness of her life and the necessity of sending money to her family in Indonesia. Saudi Arabia is filled with guest workers, many of them women working as domestics, nurses and flight attendants.
The Saudi women who had boarded the flight with us dressed in sharp and casual Western clothing changed into concealing abayas before we disembarked in Jeddah. We had been advised to dress modestly, and most of the seven women on our trip wore headscarves and long skirts during our trip.
For three weeks I lived in a world in which women unaccompanied by husbands, as I was, had to eat in a special sequestered area of the hotel dining room, keep to women-only areas of shopping centers, and stay in their hotel rooms at afternoon teatime while my male counterparts met Saudi men in the lobby restaurant. I never felt lonelier in my life than in Riyadh at 4 p.m., when I would be brought, courtesy of the front desk, mountains of fruit and pastries to be consumed alone in my hotel room--until the women in the delegation decided to use this time for our own socializing.
I formed an ambivalent relationship with the abaya I at times wore, as well as with the outfits that covered me from neck to toe and kept my hair hidden. On a bad hair day, wearing a headscarf isn't such a bad thing. I also experienced freedom moving through throngs in an abaya, as I didn't receive the negative attention American women can often receive traveling overseas, where our media has left men thinking we are sexually loose. Covering myself, especially with the abaya, made me invisible in a way that wasn't unpleasant.
Yet the abaya, being black, held heat, and the headscarf was sometimes difficult to manage. At the gold souks in Riyadh, I haplessly tried on earrings, trying not to expose my hair. …