Los Angeles Times
In Saudi Arabia, a view from behind the veil
As a woman
in the male-dominated kingdom, Times reporter Megan Stack quietly fumed beneath
her abayah. Even beyond its borders, her experience taints her perception of the
By Megan K.
Times Staff Writer
June 6, 2007
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia THE hem of my heavy Islamic cloak trailed over floors
that glistened like ice. I walked faster, my eyes fixed on a familiar, green
icon. I hadn't seen a Starbucks in months, but there it was, tucked into a
corner of a fancy shopping mall in the Saudi capital. After all those bitter
little cups of sludgy Arabic coffee, here at last was an improbable snippet of
home caffeinated, comforting, American.
I wandered into the shop, filling my lungs with the rich wafts of coffee. The
man behind the counter gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered. I asked for a
latte. He shrugged, the milk steamer whined, and he handed over the brimming
paper cup. I turned my back on his uneasy face.
Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped
talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally,
coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair.
"Excuse me," hissed the voice in my ear. "You can't sit here." The man from the
counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.
"Excuse me?" I blinked a few times.
"Emmm," he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. "You
cannot stay here."
Then he said it: "Men only."
He didn't tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door
around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables
smothered by curtains. That was the "family" section. As a woman, that's where I
belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of
passing shoppers. Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today's
Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually
At that moment, there was only one thing to do. I stood up. From the depths of
armchairs, men in their white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs stared impassively
over their mugs. I felt blood rushing to my face. I dropped my eyes, and
immediately wished I hadn't. Snatching up the skirts of my robe to keep from
stumbling, I walked out of the store and into the clatter of the shopping mall.
THAT was nearly four years ago, a lesson learned on one of my first trips to the
kingdom. Until that day, I thought I knew what I was doing: I'd heard about
Saudi Arabia, that the sexes are wholly segregated. From museums to university
campuses to restaurants, the genders live corralled existences. One young, hip,
U.S.-educated Saudi friend told me that he arranges to meet his female friends
in other Arab cities. It's easier to fly to Damascus or Dubai, he shrugged, than
to chill out coeducationally at home.
I was ready to cope, or so I thought. I arrived with a protective smirk in tow,
planning to thicken the walls around myself. I'd report a few stories, and go
home. I had no inkling that Saudi Arabia, the experience of being a woman there,
would stick to me, follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days,
tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.
I'm leaving the Middle East now, closing up years spent covering the fighting
and fallout that have swept the region since Sept. 11. Of all the strange, scary
and joyful experiences of the past years, my time covering Saudi Arabia remains
among the most jarring.
I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being
taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged
me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during
apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?
I would find that I still saw scraps of Saudi Arabia everywhere I went. Back
home in Cairo, the usual cacophony of whistles and lewd coos on the streets sent
me into blind rage. I slammed doors in the faces of deliverymen; cursed at
Egyptian soldiers in a language they didn't speak; kept a resentful mental tally
of the Western men, especially fellow reporters, who seemed to condone, even
relish, the relegation of women in the Arab world.
In the West, there's a tendency to treat Saudi Arabia as a remote land, utterly
removed from our lives. But it's not very far from us, nor are we as different
as we might like to think. Saudi Arabia is a center of ideas and commerce, an
important ally to the United States, the heartland of a major world religion. It
is a highly industrialized, ultramodern home to expatriates from all over the
world, including Americans who live in lush gated compounds with swimming pools,
drink illegal glasses of bathtub gin and speak glowingly of the glorious desert
and the famous hospitality of Saudis.
The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public
outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes
the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections
in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating
here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels
don't let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her
ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as
As I roamed in and out of Saudi Arabia, the abaya, or Islamic robe,
eventually became the symbol of those shifting rules.
I always delayed until the last minute. When I felt the plane dip low over
Riyadh, I'd reach furtively into my computer bag to fish out the black robe and
scarf crumpled inside. I'd slip my arms into the sleeves without standing up. If
I caught the eyes of any male passengers as my fingers fumbled with the snaps,
I'd glare. Was I imagining the smug looks on their faces?
The sleeves, the length of it, always felt foreign, at first. But it never took
long to work its alchemy, to plant the insecurity. After a day or two, the
notion of appearing without the robe felt shocking. Stripped of the layers of
curve-smothering cloth, my ordinary clothes suddenly felt revealing, even
garish. To me, the abaya implied that a woman's body is a distraction and
an interruption, a thing that must be hidden from view lest it haul the society
into vice and disarray. The simple act of wearing the robe implanted that
self-consciousness by osmosis.
In the depths of the robe, my posture suffered. I'd draw myself in and bumble
along like those adolescent girls who seem to think they can roll their breasts
back into their bodies if they curve their spines far enough. That was why, it
hit me one day, I always seemed to come back from Saudi Arabia with a backache.
The kingdom made me slouch.
SAUDI men often raised the question of women with me; they seemed to hope that I
would tell them, either out of courtesy or conviction, that I endorsed their way
of life. Some blamed all manner of Western ills, from gun violence to
alcoholism, on women's liberation. "Do you think you could ever live here?" many
of them asked. It sounded absurd every time, and every time I would repeat the
Early in 2005, I covered the kingdom's much-touted municipal elections, which
excluded women not only from running for office, but also from voting. True to
their tribal roots, candidates pitched tents in vacant lots and played host to
voters for long nights of coffee, bull sessions and poetry recitations. I
accepted an invitation to visit one of the tents, but the sight of a woman in
their midst so badly ruffled the would-be voters that the campaign manager
hustled over and asked me, with lavish apologies, to make myself scarce before I
cost his man the election.
A few days later, a female U.S. official, visiting from Washington, gave a press
appearance in a hotel lobby in Riyadh. Sporting pearls, a business suit and a
bare, blond head, she praised the Saudi elections.
The election "is a departure from their culture and their history," she said.
"It offers to the citizens of Saudi Arabia hope
. It's modest, but it's
The American ambassador, a bespectacled Texan named James C. Oberwetter, also
praised the voting from his nearby seat.
"When I got here a year ago, there were no political tents," he said. "It's like
a backyard political barbecue in the U.S."
One afternoon, a candidate invited me to meet his daughter. She spoke fluent
English and was not much younger than me. I cannot remember whether she was
wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, inside her home, but I have a
memory of pink. I asked her about the elections.
"Very good," she said.
So you really think so, I said gently, even though you can't vote?
"Of course," she said. "Why do I need to vote?"
Her father chimed in. He urged her, speaking English for my benefit, to speak
candidly. But she insisted: What good was voting? She looked at me as if she
felt sorry for me, a woman cast adrift on the rough seas of the world, no male
protector in sight.
"Maybe you don't want to vote," I said. "But wouldn't you like to make that
"I don't need to," she said calmly, blinking slowly and deliberately. "If I have
a father or a husband, why do I need to vote? Why should I need to work? They
will take care of everything."
Through the years I have met many Saudi women. Some are rebels; some are proudly
defensive of Saudi ways, convinced that any discussion of women's rights is a
disguised attack on Islam from a hostile Westerner. There was the young dental
student who came home from the university and sat up half the night, writing a
groundbreaking novel exploring the internal lives and romances of young Saudi
women. The oil expert who scolded me for asking about female drivers, pointing
out the pitfalls of divorce and custody laws and snapping: "Driving is the least
of our problems." I have met women who work as doctors and business consultants.
Many of them seem content.
Whatever their thoughts on the matter, they have been assigned a central,
symbolic role in what seems to be one of the greatest existential questions in
contemporary Saudi Arabia: Can the country opt to develop in some ways and stay
frozen in others? Can the kingdom evolve economically and technologically in a
global society without relinquishing its particular culture of extreme religious
piety and ancient tribal code?
The men are stuck, too. Over coffee one afternoon, an economist told me
wistfully of the days when he and his wife had studied overseas, how she'd
hopped behind the wheel and did her own thing. She's an independent, outspoken
woman, he said. Coming back home to Riyadh had depressed both of them.
"Here, I got another dependent: my wife," he said. He found himself driving her
around, chaperoning her as if she were a child. "When they see a woman walking
alone here, it's like a wolf watching a sheep. 'Let me take what's unattended.'
" He told me that both he and his wife hoped, desperately, that social and
political reform would finally dawn in the kingdom. He thought foreign academics
were too easy on Saudi Arabia, that they urged only minor changes instead of
all-out democracy because they secretly regarded Saudis as "savages" incapable
of handling too much freedom.
"I call them propaganda papers," he said of the foreign analysis. "They come up
with all these lame excuses." He and his wife had already lost hope for
themselves, he said.
"For ourselves, the train has left the station. We are trapped," he said. "I
think about my kids. At least when I look at myself in the mirror I'll say: 'At
least I said this. At least I wrote this.' "
WHEN Saudi officials chat with an American reporter, they go to great lengths to
depict a moderate, misunderstood kingdom. They complain about stereotypes in the
Western press: Women banned from driving? Well, they don't want to drive anyway.
They all have drivers, and why would a lady want to mess with parking?
The religious police who stalk the streets and shopping centers, forcing
"Islamic values" onto the populace? Oh, Saudi officials say, they really aren't
important, or strict, or powerful. You hear stories to the contrary? Mere
exaggerations, perpetuated by people who don't understand Saudi Arabia.
I had an interview one afternoon with a relatively high-ranking Saudi official.
Since I can't drive anywhere or meet a man in a cafe, I usually end up inviting
sources for coffee in the lobby of my hotel, where the staff turns a blind eye
to whether those in the "family section" are really family.
As the elevator touched down and the shiny doors swung open onto the lobby, the
official rushed toward me.
"Do you think we could talk in your room?" he blurted out.
I stepped back. What was this, some crazy come-on?
"No, why?" I stammered, stepping wide around him. "We can sit right over here."
I wanted to get to the coffee shop no dice. He swung himself around, blocking
my path and my view.
"It's not a good idea," he said. "Let's just go to your room."
"I really don't think
I mean," I said, stuttering in embarrassment.
Then, peering over his shoulder, I saw them: two beefy men in robes. Great
bushes of beards sprang from their chins, they swung canes in their hands and
scanned the hotel lobby through squinted eyes.
"Is that the religious police?" I said. "It is!" I was a little mesmerized. I'd
always wanted to see them in action.
The ministry official seemed to shrink a little, his shoulders slumped in
"They're not supposed to be here," he muttered despondently. "What are they
"Well, why don't we go to the mall next door?" I said, eyes fixed on the
menacing men. "There's a coffee shop there, we could try that."
"No, they will go there next." While he wrung his hands nervously, I stepped
back a little and considered the irony of our predicament. To avoid running
afoul of what may be the world's most stringent public moral code, I was being
asked to entertain a strange, older man in my hotel room, something I would
never agree to back home.
I had to do something. He was about to walk away and cancel the meeting, and I
couldn't afford to lose it. Then I remembered a couple of armchairs near the
elevator, up on my floor. We rode up and ordered room-service coffee. We talked
as the elevators chimed up and down the spine of the skyscraper and the roar of
vacuum cleaners echoed in the hallway.
ONE glaring spring day, when the hot winds raced in off the plains and the sun
blotted everything to white, I stood outside a Riyadh bank, sweating in my black
cloak while I waited for a friend. The sidewalk was simmering, but I had nowhere
else to go. As a woman, I was forbidden to enter the men's half of the bank to
fetch him. Traffic screamed past on a nearby highway. The winds tugged at the
layers of black polyester. My sunglasses began to slip down my glistening nose.
The door clattered open, and I looked up hopefully. But no, it was a security
guard. And he was stomping straight at me, yelling in Arabic. I knew enough
vocabulary to glean his message: He didn't want me standing there. I took off my
shades, fixed my blue eyes on him blankly and finally turned away as if puzzled.
I think of this as playing possum.
He disappeared again, only to reemerge with another security guard. This man was
of indistinct South Asian origin and had an English vocabulary. He looked like a
pit bull short, stocky and teeth flashing as he barked: "Go! Go! You can't
stand here! The men can SEE! The men can SEE!"
I looked down at him and sighed. I was tired. "Where do you want me to go? I
have to wait for my friend. He's inside." But he was still snarling and flashing
those teeth, arms akimbo. He wasn't interested in discussions.
"Not here. NOT HERE! The men can SEE you!" He flailed one arm toward the bank.
I lost my temper.
"I'm just standing here!" I snapped. "Leave me alone!" This was a slip. I had
already learned that if you're a woman in a sexist country, yelling at a man
only makes a crisis worse.
The pit bull advanced toward me, making little shooing motions with his hands,
lips curled back. Involuntarily, I stepped back a few paces and found myself in
the shrubbery. I guess that, from the bushes, I was hidden from the view of the
window, thereby protecting the virtue of all those innocent male bankers. At any
rate, it satisfied the pit bull, who climbed back onto the sidewalk and stood
guard over me. I glared at him. He showed his teeth. The minutes passed.
Finally, my friend reemerged.
A liberal, U.S.-educated professor at King Saud University, he was sure to share
my outrage, I thought. Maybe he'd even call up the bank his friend was the
manager and get the pit bull in trouble. I told him my story, words hot as the
He hardly blinked. "Yes," he said. "Oh." He put the car in reverse, and off we
DRIVING to the airport, I felt the kingdom slipping off behind me, the flat
emptiness of its deserts, the buildings that rear toward the sky, encased in
mirrored glass, blank under a blaring sun. All the hints of a private life I
have never seen. Saudis are bred from the desert; they find life in what looks
empty to me.
Even if I were Saudi, would I understand it? I remember the government
spokesman, Mansour Turki, who said to me: "Being a Saudi doesn't mean you see
every face of Saudi society. Saudi men don't understand how Saudi women think.
They have no idea, actually. Even my own family, my own mother or sister, she
won't talk to me honestly."
I slipped my iPod headphones into my ears. I wanted to hear something thumping
and American. It began the way it always does: an itch, an impatience, like a
wrinkle in the sock, something that is felt, but not yet registered. The
discomfort always starts when I leave.
By the time I boarded the plane, I was in a temper. I yanked at the clasps,
shrugged off the abaya like a rejected embrace. I crumpled it up and
tossed it childishly into the airplane seat.
Then I was just standing there, feeling stripped in my jeans and blouse. My
limbs felt light, and modesty flashed through me. I was aware of the skin of my
wrists and forearms, the triangle of naked neck. I scanned the eyes behind me,
looking for a challenge. But none came. The Saudi passengers had watched my
I sat down, leaned back and breathed. This moment, it seems, is always the same.
I take the abaya off, expecting to feel liberated. But somehow, it always
feels like defeat.
Stack reported in Saudi Arabia repeatedly during her tenure as The Times' Cairo
Bureau chief from September 2003 until last month.