(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.)
I had been a career woman in Saudi Arabia for a matter of months, having left a satisfying life in Washington, DC with my husband and two miniature poodles in tow for a cultural adventure in this intriguing land of black abayes, and white thobes and ghuttras. My experience at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh began in November 2000 and within a short time helped illuminate the importance of “people time” in the Saudi workplace, as well as the emphasis placed on achieving a healthy balance between work and “home life.”
The KFSH compound itself actually helped to bridge the work-life divide in some interesting and unexpected ways. Its vast property catered to single, expatriate females, primarily nurses, by providing a large array of amenities. From grocery stores and flower shops to a bowling alley, post office, and Dunkin’ Donuts, the grounds included everything that an average, western girl needed to feel at home, minimizing her exposure to the Kingdom’s unfamiliar customs.
Most days, these many facilities, combined with the overall make-up of the staff, made it easy to mistake the hospital premises for a small town or planned community. Browsing the magazine racks in the grocery store always brought me back to reality. Black magic marker blotted out the bare arms, legs and cleavage of the models on the magazine covers.
My spine bridled when I first opened one of the women’s magazines to find each of the pictures of the young models with similar blackened arms and cleavage; each magazine I flipped through was the same. Later, I discovered that one of the informal duties of the mottawah, or religious police, involved shielding the community from even the slightest hints of sexuality.
This sort of seemingly nonsensical mottawah activity provided fodder for uneasy chuckles and long discussions about our mutual unconventional experiences within the Kingdom at weekend expatriate gatherings or evening fetes. Many of my single female expatriate friends who remained in Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time eventually came to the conclusion that the financial rewards and unique professional and personal experiences gleaned from life in the Kingdom outweighed concerns over eccentric and baffling pursuits by the mottawah.
While the mottawah were not permitted on the hospital premises, I remained mindful of my dress, especially for work. In the States, I might have decided on my outfit for the day in the precious minutes between drying my hair and heading downstairs for a bite of breakfast. Although my clothing options were more limited in the Kingdom, my early days at KFSH found me devoting significant time to picking out clothes that were both respectful of the stringent cultural customs and professional.
During my induction at KFSH I half expected to be greeted with a neatly divided fleet of robes and pant suits. Instead, Western women like me were permitted to forgo the black abaye on the hospital grounds; we were strongly counseled, though, to have our arms and knees covered, and low-cut blouses were strictly prohibited.
When off hospital grounds, Western women typically wear the abaye; in some shopping malls they are required to wear a headscarf or otherwise risk an encounter with the “mottawah.” In extreme circumstances a woman or her husband, who in the “mottawah’s eyes allowed her to dress indecently, might face jailing.
Like most other female expatriates I normally wore a mid-calf (or longer) skirt or pants, and a long white lab coat to work. My colleagues’ fashion, however, reflected both the cultural and stylistic diversity in the workplace. The Saudi woman working at the passport desk was completely covered in black, her eyes, two charcoal pools, stared back at me. Her Sudanese workmate at a station in close proximity wore a colorful yellow and blue sarong and head covering that exposed her entire unmade face, leaving wisps of hair peeking under her scarf.
At the hospital, Lebanese women stood out in stark contrast to all others not only in attire but also in their confident demeanor; these women sported tight pants, immaculately coiffured hair and painstakingly applied makeup, demonstrating their knowledge of the latest fashion trends. Lebanese women followed the same kind of cultural mores as other Arab women such as covering their arms and legs while on the hospital grounds and wearing the abaye and headscarf in public (with their faces exposed) when off the hospital premises. Yet, it appeared as if there was an unspoken understanding in the Arab world that granted Lebanese women more fashion freedom. Conceivably this nonconformity was due to the regular influx of Western European tourists into Lebanon during its golden age in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the civil war, when it was known as “the Paris of the Middle East.”
In any event it became increasingly apparent to me that women from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain were clearly more reserved and demure in dress and behavior in public settings than those women from non-Gulf countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. I soon found that despite the divergence in clothing styles and presentation, women were not typically the objects of unwanted glances or stares that sometimes find their way into Western workplaces dominated with male colleagues. In fact, great lengths were taken to shield women from this unwanted attention; Arab women’s offices were never positioned along a main corridor, and some women even hung curtain material over the entrances of their partitioned offices.
As I became more acclimated to my new professional surroundings and adjusted my demeanor and appearance to fit in, one particularly surprising aspect to the Saudi workplace continued to fascinate me: the relationship between women and their hair.
It might sound trivial to Western women who fail to think of their hair beyond fretting over its neatness, messiness, or frizzyness, but Saudi women experience their hair in a completely different manner. In the Kingdom, strict mores exist about the public display of women’s hair, and Saudi women exercise careful attention to keep their hair covered with few exceptions.
I distinctly recall dashing to the restroom early one morning before a meeting and running into my workmate, Amal, splashing her face with a bit of water, her shiny raven colored locks free from the confines of the obligatory headscarf. Restrooms were one of the few locations at work where a Saudi woman felt safe and sheltered enough to bare her hair.
Wednesday morning breakfasts of Lebanese mazzah that featured mounds of hummus and babaganoush, freshly baked pita bread, tabouli, fattoush, and spirited chatter behind closed conference room doors were another. Although I usually felt awkward when I noticed a Saudi woman uncover her hair, as if I were intruding on a particularly private and intimate moment, I inevitably found it hard to look away.
Despite the ubiquitous headscarf, Arab women take great pains to style their hair based on the current rage, commonly sporting fashionable cuts and trendy highlights. Some of these women were particularly exquisite looking with their luxurious hairstyles framing ebony pools of their eyes.
On another occasion Aisha, also an officemate, came into my office and glanced around furtively, making sure we were unobserved, before tentatively removing her headscarf. Her dark brown wavy hair spilled around her face, and she asked if I liked her new haircut. “Oh, yes, it looks great,” I affirmed. “You know, Michele, you should really try putting highlights into your hair like Alia,” Aisha quipped. “Highlights would really bring out your face.” My heart swelled with humility; this from a woman who, in public, outside of hospital grounds, was not only required to cover her hair, but her face, as well.
Working “shoulder to shoulder” with my female Saudi counterparts I came to learn that they had an acute appreciation for their career opportunities, were extremely hardworking, and remained intensely disciplined, particularly those without young children.
I often felt like a surrogate mother or big sister to some of the younger, female Saudi women, one of whom would even stop by my office regularly to discuss some of her more private marital challenges, which invariably most women face. “My husband isn’t spending enough time with me,” she fretted on one occasion. “Sometimes he goes out with other men, and doesn’t tell me where he’s going or what he’s doing,” adding “I feel that maybe he doesn’t love me anymore and is not interested in me.”
I admit that at times I felt off-balance during these encounters, happy yet daunted by this level of trust from a workmate; I couldn’t recall ever having these kinds of intimate discussions in the American workplace. “Marriage is complex and challenging,” I began tentatively, trying to give my best Dr. Phil advice. “It has its ‘ups and downs,’ and there are some points during a marriage when the man and woman feel somewhat distant from each other. You just have to nourish the marriage like you have to water a flower to make sure it grows and stays healthy.”
She remained expressionless, yet I glimpsed a flicker of understanding before she bolted away to answer her incessantly ringing phone in her office down the hall. I always felt honored to be a trusted colleague and friend during these moments. The professionalism of my American employers suited my career aims, but after becoming familiar with this more familial work culture, I realized how many U.S. offices, by their very nature, discourage these types of personal interactions.
The heart-wrenching tragedy of September 11, 2001 certainly challenged some of my budding relationships with my Saudi co-workers. The events of that day left Bishara and me emotionally spent and quite discouraged as initial reports implicated Saudi involvement in the attacks.
As I tentatively entered the office the following day, Abdullah cautiously approached and asked, “Are you alright, Michele?” adding “I am so sorry about what happened.” He continued, “I hope that nobody you knew was hurt or affected.” I told Abdullah I appreciated his concern and felt a bit of relief that there weren’t any hostilities toward me.
KFSH, like many places in the Kingdom, certainly had its factions that disagreed with American policies, and I became apprehensive when it was confirmed that Saudis participated in perpetuating the attacks.
However, I was astounded one late afternoon several weeks after 9/11 when Samer, a Saudi finance manager and collaborator on one of my reports, bristled when I expressed concern for Americans living in Saudi Arabia. He exclaimed, “Michele, if anybody tries to get near you, anybody at all, I will put myself between them and you.” He paused for a moment, and continued “And I know your workmates would do the same.” Samer’s gesture rendered me mute for a split second; I barely managed a curt, “Thank you, Samer.” Despite my enduring trepidation, in this moment I had a renewed sense of faith in humanity.
Many of my friends back in the States still wondered at my dubious choice, fearing that I had traded one competitive work culture for another one with additional, improbable challenges. They emailed regularly with endless queries: How was I coping? Did I miss family and friends? How did I manage working under such (they envisioned) strict and sterile conditions?
I greatly appreciated their concern, but I assured them that I was thriving with each new discovery. In the midst of what was becoming a fulfilling and productive life transition, more change ensued: My heart sank in late spring 2003 when we discovered that my husband, Bishara had a life-threatening medical condition.
We considered having Bishara treated in the U.S., but after much deliberation we realized that Bishara would receive “top notch” medical care from KFSH doctors who had studied at some of the finest medical institutions in the world. I was not only gravely concerned about my husband, but acutely aware of how this might impact my work arrangements. I found myself in Abdullah’s office, again, hoping to trade on his good graces.
“Abdullah,” I began, as I closed the office door behind me, a lump forming in my throat, “Bishara is going to be in the hospital for an extended period of time, and I’m going to need to work out a leave schedule with you so I can split my time between work and spending time with Bishara.”
Before I could continue Abdullah jumped in, “Michele, while Bishara is in the hospital, I am not your boss, Bishara is your boss. Anytime Bishara wants you to take off from work, take leave time; and I am not going to charge you for any time off as long as Bishara is in the hospital!”
He must have seen the uncertainty in my face because he added, “It’s okay, go off and see Bishara. He needs you!” My eyes welled and my limbs trembled as I stepped over to shake hands with my gracious benefactor, the same man who had made such a stony impression on me when I first arrived.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how far my working relationship with Abdullah had come in the short years I had been at KFSH due, at least in part, to my own personal and professional growth rooted in this unparalleled cultural experience. My initial meeting with Abdullah in November 2000 had left me numb and certain that my best efforts to contribute to the financial success of the hospital would be thwarted at every turn.
At the time, I thought maybe what I had heard in the states about women lacking respect or receiving unfair treatment by men in the Middle East was true. In that instant, I had questioned my decision to leave my comfortable life in Washington, DC for this unfathomable and strange life in the Kingdom.
Yet Abdullah’s unwavering support of me and my husband during this time of crisis, (and on other projects and ventures throughout my time at KFSH), simply affirmed that I was where I belonged: among a very unique community of individuals who had as much to teach me as I had to teach them.
One early evening, around the anniversary of my first year at KFSH, bone weary after several twelve-plus hour days at the office, I turned my bleary eyes to Abdullah as he swung through my office door.
“You know, Michele,” he exclaimed, “you are the one person in our group who I know when I give her a task, will get the job done right!” My knees nearly buckled with the unexpected compliment. Taking a breath, I merely smiled saying “Abdullah, I think it’s time for a cup of tea.”
- Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part One) (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Janadriyah Festival and Hajj Eid in Riyadh (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Shopping, The Great Leveller (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- First Ramadan in Saudi Arabia (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Rules of Gender Socializing (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- An American Woman in Saudi Arabia (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Highlands of Saudi Arabia: Unexpected Delights in Abha (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)