S ince I moved here to Saudi Arabia from America in October 2007, my life has changed dramatically. There are so many things about day to day life that just don't seem normal to me any more. What is normal? Normal is what you are used to, what feels natural and looks right, the constants in life.
The lack of social interaction between men and women is one of the hardest things for me to get used to. When we go to the market and I say thank you or hello to the salesclerk or even just nod my head with a smile, my husband always tells me that I am not obliged to speak to them. Now, he's not demanding that I not to speak to them, just reminding me that women in this society don't interact that way with men. At many doctor's offices or health clinics, there are even separate waiting rooms for men and women, so no inappropriate behavior will occur. Now, I've been in many doctor's waiting rooms in my lifetime, and I must admit that I have never seen or experienced anything untoward happening in a doctor's waiting room, so I really don't get this separation of the sexes. Anyway, I hate going because I'm stuck sitting there all by myself while at least my son and husband have each other. There are separate women's banks and single men sections at restaurants. Even at many family functions, the men and women sit and eat separately. Sometimes we arrive together, and I'm instantly directed one way while my son and husband go another, and I don't see them for hours until someone comes to tell me that my husband is ready to go. I don't know if I will ever be able to consider this as normal. I haven't been to a mixed wedding here yet - only women have been at the weddings I've attended. And you should see the sexy gowns and the wild make-up and the glitzy shoes worn by all the women attendees - who are all dolled up so other women can see them and they can size each other up.
When I'm in the privacy of my own home, and a workman or my brother-in-law comes over, I am expected to run out of the room so he doesn't see my hair, my legs, or my arms. Unless I'm just out of the shower and standing there dripping with a towel wrapped around me, my mind just doesn't think that way. So I can either stay hidden away in my bedroom, or I can come back out, as long as I have made sure that I have clothing covering every part of me except my hands and face. I've been places where my nieces freak out in such a situation that they grab a pillow to hide their heads or duck for cover under whatever they can find. All because a man enters the room. To me, it's just no big deal for a man to see my hair, but here, freaking out over it is normal.
Not allowing women to drive here is another thing that is just so abnormal to me. I've got forty years of driving experience, an excellent driving record, and I cannot drive in this country. I have to be driven by a man to go anywhere here. I always drove my son to and from school every day, drove myself to work, or to the movies or to the mall, but here I cannot drive. First thing in the morning when my husband drives our son to school, it's a very rare day when I even see another woman walking out on the street or riding in another car. Usually all I ever see are just men everywhere out and about. Makes me feel like an endangered species!
In stores, restaurants, malls, and most other businesses, there are no female employees at all. Well, I take that back - there are some women janitors who clean the ladies restrooms in some of the malls. But there are no women saleclerks, or waitresses, or women chefs, or women store managers. None. And I'm used to stores, elevators and restaurants having piped-in music - but not here. I just can't get beyond the fact that these things strike me as odd. It's not normal to me. But here, it's perfectly normal. Will I ever get used to this kind of normal?
Of course, having to don the long black cloak (called abaya) in this brutal heat feels very abnormal to me too. And making sure not one hair on my head peeks out from under the scarf I have to wrap around my head and neck before I step out the door to go anywhere will never feel normal to me. After all, I didn't move here until I was in my mid-50s, having lived scarfless in the US all my life. I've always liked the look of the colorful scarves I sometimes saw ladies wearing back home, but personally I just always found them stifling, so I never wore them. But here, I have to wear scarves, even though I hate them. Let me think: in my previous life, did I ever wear things that I hated to wear? Well, I can think of two bridesmaids dresses that I wasn't particularly fond of, but those were just a one day deal... so I don't think those should count if they were only a one day deal.
Another thing that strikes me as not normal is how the vast majority of the men always wear white when out in public and most of the women always wear black. It is literally a black and white society. Is there any other society on earth that is so conformist in what its people wear, with so few alternatives, so little room for being different or expressing individuality, and so lacking in color variations? Ok, sure - the abayas come with different fancy trims, and maybe some have pleated sleeves or lace, or other subtle distinctions. But even at that, the fact remains that the abayas are mostly all black. I come from a place where people could basically wear whatever they want, full of colors and choices, and dress suitably for the weather. Of course there are those few who push the envelope on bad taste. But for the most part, people in the West dress responsibly, and while maybe not as modest as the dress here, most people dress decently, comfortably and appropriately. I don't find the abaya or the scarf comfortable to wear, especially in the hot months - which is most of the year here. So I don't think I'll ever feel that dressing this way is normal.
I'm not saying that this country is wrong or bad for these things that I don't consider normal to me. I'm just saying that these things don't feel normal to me because I am used to things being a different way, that's all. What's considered normal here isn't what's normal for me. And it feels weird. These are just some of the things that make me wonder if I will ever consider these things normal. There are some days now when I secretly wish that my husband was from almost any other country in the world besides here - because life here just doesn't feel normal to me. I miss feeling normal...