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
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
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
Normally, however, there are a men-only section and a "family"
section where women can eat with their husbands or close male
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
Nevertheless, a woman might encounter a bearded fellow who
suddenly shouts out commands to cover her head or button her
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
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.