Women visiting Saudi Arabia face a clothes call

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - The restrictions that govern women's lives in Saudi Arabia are based on the notion that women must be protected from harm. The idea is that if they seldom appear in public, and then only fully veiled, they will not attract men and their honor will not be threatened.

Foreign women are often exempted from some of the rules - they can dispense with the full veil, for example - but it's hard to know when or where or which rule can be relaxed; it's always best to err on the conservative side. That means wearing an abaya and head scarf outdoors. Saudi abayas are made out of rather heavy rayon, and they believe the theory that black deflects heat. Peter Voll, president of PVA Travel Planning, is considering having "customized" cotton abayas made with another feature U.S. women will find useful: big pockets.

Within hotels, women can usually shed the abaya; some hotels, such as the Gulf Meridien Al Khobar near Dhahran, actively discourage Western women from wearing abayas in the public areas.

Even in hotels, women should opt for loose-fitting clothing that covers the arms and most of the legs. Tunics come in handy. Tight pants are out; floppy ones are OK. Anything belted is questionable.

In areas with a large foreign presence, such as Al Khobar, a foreign woman can go to a shopping center unescorted. In rural areas and in Riyadh, the very conservative capital, it's best to stick with the group.

Throughout the Stanford trip, hotels provided designated areas of the dining room for the group, and restaurants provided private rooms.

Normally, however, there are a men-only section and a "family" section where women can eat with their husbands or close male relatives.

Some hotels, such as the Gulf Meridien, have regular "women's hours" every day in their health clubs.

In some provinces, it is simply illegal for a woman to use the health facilities, but even in those places, arrangements can sometimes be made for a group.

The most interesting response to such a request by the Stanford group came at the Sheraton Medina; because it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, the hotel management refused. It was all right for men to use the health club on a Friday, but allowing women to use it would defile the holy day.

The Matawa - religious police - don't harass Western women very often.

Nevertheless, a woman might encounter a bearded fellow who suddenly shouts out commands to cover her head or button her abaya.

It's best to comply without comment, lest an annoyance turn into an embarrassment. (In all likelihood, refusal would result in a trip to the police station, where the perp would be issued a head scarf.)

A woman who has grown up in 20th century America may be susceptible to moments of profound anger during a sojourn in Saudi Arabia, even if she is otherwise having a good time.

Stifle it. This is a take-it-or-leave-it situation, and it's far more productive to learn from the experience.

But relax. Most Saudi men who come into contact with a tour group are worldly enough to realize that American women behave differently from their Saudi sisters. - M.M.

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