Our culture, belief system, and social pressure around us play an enormous role in how we decide to present ourselves to the world, not only in the way we behave, but also how we dress ourselves. Our sense of fashion is often dictated by not only our preferences, the latest designs, but also by the social norms of the groups we live. These forces not only influence the color, fabrics, styles, but also ever more importantly dictates the rules of which parts of our bodies should be covered, or not covered, in particular social settings.
Living in Saudi Arabia, I have learned that people are quick to judge other based on not only what they wear, but also how much they choose to wear in covering their bodies. As someone who was brought up in the West, I was not accustomed to the rules of fashion for females living in Saudi Arabia. The black abaya (the long black cloak) and the tarha (the head scarf) have caused me distress at times in trying to learn to navigate stairs, carry a child, and in the meantime keep the scarf secured covering my hair. In addition, many women within the country also wear the face cover, called the niqab, which varies from having a small opening to show only their eyes, and some completely cover their face. During my first years in the Kingdom, I wore the mostly black abayas (with some color on the trim to express my own unique individuality) and the head scarf, but in recent years, I have forsaken the black in preference of colored abayas, as well as I have taken to wearing different colored scarves tied over my head as turbans. I do not cover my face and refuse ever to do so. Moreover, yes, I have to admit, as soon as I am out of Saudi airspace leaving the Kingdom, the abaya comes off, which underneath, I am dressed in my Western style clothes.
It would be an easy “cheap shot” to start criticizing and engaging in what I like to call “Saudi bashing”, but this is not my purpose. Cultural conformity in regards to dress is a phenomenon that not only occurs within the Kingdom, but is a worldwide phenomenon. The first vivid memory I have related to the social taboos of what should or should not be covered, occurred when I was 15 years old growing up in a small town in Northeastern Oklahoma in the United States. I was in 10th grade in high school and my parents and I were attended the ceremony in which I was being inducted into the National Honor Society , which is an honors group for students who have maintained a high GPA. My father happened to be in town for this particular ceremony, which was a rarity since much of the time he was out of town with his job. My father is bald and has been a “chrome dome” (a nickname my sister and I gave him) since his early 20’s. My father always wore some type of hate, from ball caps, cowboy hats, to his “crocodile Dundee” style hats, and rarely bares his baldhead except when he is sleeping.
I remember the ceremony starting with all the pomp and circumstance that are typically associated with these type of ceremonies, when Mrs. @@@ screams across the cafetorium (combination school cafeteria and auditorium), in a shrill voice “Take of your hat!”. Mrs. @@@ was one of those teachers that every school has. The type of teacher that was a “stickler” for the rules, although her level of enforcement depended on who your parents were, and whether or not you were considered one of her “favored” students. She screamed across the room again and actually stopped the ceremony as she pointed her fat pudgy finger directly towards my father in the audience. I watched in horror as my father’s face turn bright red with embarrassment. My father is not only a man who always wears his hats, but my father is also an introvert who prefers not to have the limelight directed towards him. I had always disliked Mrs. @@@, but from that day forward, I loathed her.
While it is customary, or part of the culture, not to wear hats in school, my father was not a child coming in for the school day. He was a parent watching his child being inducted into an honor society. While yes, perhaps he was breaking with tradition, his choice of attire aided him in covering his baldhead, which made him more comfortable. I really do not believe my father’s hat was going to in anyway detract from the ceremony, nor was it going to erode the quality of education that supposedly occurred in the school facility. Her response to the situation not only embarrassed a parent, but also embarrassed a geeky, insecure, sophomore high school girl, who did not need to have her father called out during a school ceremony to add further to her feelings of being inadequate. This was a personal isolated incident where the “cultural rules” of what is to be covered, or uncovered became an “issue” that took precedence over the purpose of why we were there.
In the past couple of years, numerous stories have circulated in the international press related to movements forbidding women wearing the headscarf, hijab, or tarha in the Western world. In addition, across European countries, debates and laws have been passed banning Muslim women wearing the niqab, or face cover. I will honestly admit, I do not enjoy wearing the headscarf when I am inside the Kingdom, although the turbans I often find as a great way to hide those “bad hair days” I frequently have. When I am outside on the streets though, I typically do wear something to cover my hair, just to save myself the hassle of potentially being harassed by the Hai’aa, which is the religious police in Saudi Arabia. With that said, the West has always prided itself in the ideals of freedom and individuality. I expect in Saudi Arabia possibly to have trouble by not conforming to the local “cultural rules of dress”, but for the West to take a stance forbidding women to wear an article that is part of their identity is a violation of the beloved principle of individuality. Just as my father felt uncomfortable showing the world his baldhead, for the women who choose to cover their hair or face by choice, forbidding them to wear their hijab or niqab is like asking them to parade around naked. These are situations where others use their own cultural rules to instill discomfort in others.
I have never personally been a conformist, which has not always made me the most popular person in some circles. Although I find it quite a waste that humans engage in so much wasted energy trying to regulate what should or should not be covered in different social situations across the globe. How you dress does not define your real character. I have met some of the kindest giving people that choose to cover their head, as well as I have met some of the kindest people that choose not to cover their head. I have met some people that are the devil is disguise with their head covered, and I have met people that are the devil in disguise with their head uncovered. The point is, your dress does not define your compassion, kindness, or character. It is not so different in how we judge people by the label of the designer they wear either. I have met some of the kindest people in Prada, as well as the devil in Prada. It seems ridiculous when you think of the real crisis we have in terms of environmental issues, wars, poverty, and genocides. These Issues are just a few that have the potential to drastically negatively shape and change all of our lives, as well as the generations to come. Perhaps it is time we start judging people by their actions, and less on what they have, or do not have on their bodies.