October 2011: Women's Main FAQs About Saudi Arabia

This October, as in previous Octobers, we have a large number of people relocating to positions in Saudi Arabia, and since the majority is women, I present a list of the questions frequently asked by women:

Do I have to wear a burqa?

Women in Saudi Arabia do not wear a burqa, they wear an abaya, which is a black, lightweight cloak that drapes over one's clothing. Western women, or any woman not wearing typical Muslim hijab, must also carry a scarf that can be used to cover the hair (if required) when in public areas (e.g., malls, souqs). Abayas are typically sold with a matching scarf, so you don't have to buy them separately. Also see our video about abaya shopping in Riyadh

Must the abaya be a certain colour or length?

Yes, abayas must be black, but they can have embroidery, sequins, applique, etc. The abaya should hang to the ankles.

Can I wear sandals in Saudi Arabia?

Yes: In fact you will see sandals (mostly high-heeled) and flip-flops that are every bit as simple or elaborate as any you will see over here or in any fashion magazine. (However, because the asphalt can become so hot in the summer, you may want to keep the cheap flip-flops for wear in cooler months or for around the house, lest they begin to melt ... or at least deteriorate quickly!)

Do hair stylists know how to style the hair of African Americans?

Not all of them can, but your African American and African colleagues can point you towards those who can!

What is the shopping like?

The shopping malls house all the international boutiques (with their Prada, Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, Boss, etc., designs), as well as larger stores which sell less costly clothes (e.g., GAP, H&M, American Eagle, Zara), and US and European chain department stores (e.g., Saks Fifth Avenue, Debenhams, Harvey Nichols, Marks & Spencer). But if you like to shop, in my view, the most interesting purchases are in the souqs, with their traditional hats, scarves, camel blankets, rugs, brass works, etc.

Can I try on clothes in shops?

This is a surprisingly tricky question. In the women's-only malls, such as the "Ladies' Kingdom" at the Kingdom Centre Mall in Riyadh, women can try on clothes. In other malls, since most sales clerks are males, if one wants to try on a garment, one must first purchase the garment, then take it to the restrooms, which have toilet sections and change room sections, and try on the garment. If it doesn't fit, return it — if it does, you're lucky!

Can I buy underwear?

Although you can buy all styles of women's underwear, if you have a favourite brand/style, I would stock up before relocating. Most people feel that cotton is the most comfortable fabric for the hot climate.

Only recently has Saudi Arabia been allowing female sales clerks in lingerie shops (women had, of course, been the clerks in women's-only malls). The lingerie shops are now designated "families only" or "women only" — no unaccompanied men allowed. Before the advent of female sales clerks, lingerie shopping could be a challenge, because few women were comfortable discussing things such as their cup size with men ...

Can I wear a two-piece bathing suit?

Yes, if you are swimming in the women's-only pool of your compound. But if you are swimming in one of the coastal waters in which men and women of all nationalities swim, a conservative one-piece is best.

Can I wear makeup?

Yes. The Arab women (Saudi women included) are very skilled in the art of applying makeup. Even if you see only the eyes, they are dramatically shadowed and otherwise elaborately enhanced, and their eyebrows waxed into precise shapes.

Can I buy tampons?

Yes, they can be found in most pharmacies or grocery store personal care product aisles. But the selection is not as good as at home.

Can I wear jewelry?

Very definitely. In fact, one of your main recreational pursuits will be shopping for gold in the souqs.

Can I bring workout DVDs?

Yes, but be careful of the covers. If the cover images are of scantily-clad (from a conservative society's perspective) women/men working out, take the discs out of the cases, and put them in a plain sleeve, accordion-style case, etc.

Can I get spa treatments?

Absolutely! You can get enormously varied range of treatments, including massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures. (And it's typically cheaper than back home.)

What kinds of clothes should I pack?

The two things to keep in mind are 1) Saudi Arabia is a more conservative society, and 2) for most of the year it's very, very hot.

So besides buying an abaya and scarf (as noted above), you really don't need to change your wardrobe much (unless it happens to be stocked with flannels and fleece).

Surprised? Don't be. You will attend parties and embassy concerts and events, which require the same sort of clothing you'd wear to such events back home, e.g., a cocktail dress. You will hang around by your pool and you will work out, so you will need a bathing suit and gym gear. And because in public (e.g., malls, souqs, restaurants) you will be wearing your abaya, you can wear whatever you want underneath it.

But to deal with the heat (and in Jeddah, the humidity), you may want to add a few lighter garments to your regular clothing collection — perhaps some "wicking" or fast-drying tops or pants, or perhaps a long skirt to let the air circulate around your legs. And you may want to throw in a few longer sweaters or jackets both to help you deal with the omnipresent air conditioning and for conservative cover-up of your hip region. But you don't need to buy a new wardrobe ... unless, of course, you want to.

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