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An Unexpected Lesson

By Meghna Sathiapalan

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, an experience of  immeasurable impact, has decidedly influenced the person I am today.  Having lived there for thirteen years, I have faced a lot and grown immune to some truths; particularly, the seemingly harsh customs and the repression women are forced to suffer. During the former part of my childhood, I hadn’t recognized the wrong in it; I studied in an American school, a bubble that the ultra-conservative Islamic influences left untouched. Inside school, I grew up as an average American teenager; I could wear whatever I wanted, express my views freely and never had to worry about any form of subjugation. However, any activity that required me to leave the school grounds and go into public meant donning the mandatory black graduation cloak-like piece of apparel known as the abaya, as well as an optional head-covering. I might add that the Saudi heat is quite intense, and wearing this garment really increases bodily discomfort. Just imagine having every drop of sweat stick awkwardly to your skin.

Soon enough, I grew sick of wearing the abaya, even for short trips to nearby grocery stores. Eventually, I got even more annoyed at how non-Muslim women were also forced to adhere to this custom, even though they didn’t even believe in the tradition.  Until about fifteen, I tolerated this, but around 16, that rebellious teenage spirit started to kick in.  I started to leave my abaya more open and let my headscarf slip back when I went out in the public world. It earned disapproval, even from my own parents, who just wanted to avoid trouble.  But I had had enough.  When most women in other parts of the world had the freedom to do as they pleased, why shouldn’t Saudi women have the same? Why do they deserve less? Also, the fact that Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive and hold jobs in the government amplified my anger. It was injustice.

“Women are just as capable as men,” I voiced to one of my conservative Muslim friends, “Why are they seen as inferior? Why do they even bother wearing hijabs (head covers)?” I couldn’t comprehend why this particular friend bothered wearing the hijab either and voiced my disapproval. Continue reading An Unexpected Lesson