A Western Woman in Saudi Arabia: ‘The Rules Are Different Here’

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  06.06.07 | 4:12 PM ET

imageAs a woman, I relish the freedom of traveling alone but admit there are times and places where gender matters. Just last week, on my first trip to Vietnam, I found myself fending off aggressive touts and motorcycle taxis on every street corner in Hanoi while male tourists walked by unnoticed. An annoyance, but nothing on par with Los Angeles Times reporter Megan Stack’s experiences in Saudi Arabia. In a riveting story, Stack recounts, in very personal terms, the rising anger she felt at being treated as a “lesser being” during four years of covering the kingdom as the paper’s Cairo bureau chief.

She’s told she has to sit in the roped off “family section” at Starbucks and struggles to evade the religious police while interviewing a male government official. But it’s having to wear traditional Islamic dress that stirs her resentment most.

“By the time I boarded the plane, I was in a temper. I yanked at the clasps, shrugged off the abaya like a rejected embrace. I crumpled it up and tossed it childishly into the airplane seat,” she writes. “Then I was just standing there, feeling stripped in my jeans and blouse. My limbs felt light, and modesty flashed through me. I was aware of the skin of my wrists and forearms, the triangle of naked neck. I scanned the eyes behind me, looking for a challenge. But none came. The Saudi passengers had watched my tantrum impassively.”

Related on World Hum:
* Chador Etiquette
* Saudia Arabia Lifts Photo Ban for Tourists

Photo by Alan Light via Flickr, (Creative Commons).


Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

2 Comments for A Western Woman in Saudi Arabia: ‘The Rules Are Different Here’

Eva 06.07.07 | 4:14 PM ET

Thanks for this, it was a great article. I’ve always been a little puzzled by the free pass Saudi Arabia seems to have been given on this issue; the contrast with Western concern for the welfare of Afghan women is apt.

Throughout my undergrad I fought a running battle with my (mostly male) colleagues in African and Middle Eastern history classes about the limits of cultural sensitivity. It’s tricky stuff and the author here has really worked through it thoughtfully.

Marilyn Terrell 06.09.07 | 12:54 AM ET

The limits of cultural sensitivity—that’s a good way to put it, Eva.  Worth pondering.  A fascinating and depressing story.

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