Tag Archives: hijab

Riyadh Higher Education Conference and Exhibition

Every year for the past 3 years, Riyadh has hosted an enormous international exhibition and conference on higher education. The main goals are to build relationships and collaborations between Saudi and international universities. It also serves as a ground for international universities to recruit Saudi undergraduate and graduate students, with both sides no doubt wanting to take advantage of the generous King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Most if not all Saudi universities are in attendance and are represented by elaborate booths, such as the ones pictured here:Dammam University even had a waterfall set up in front of it, which caught the eye of some future students:

In addition, I was amazed to see that there were more than 400 universities from all around the world in attendance. Certain institutions were invited as formal guests of the Ministry of Higher Education, and as such, these institutions got to send three delegates who were flown first class, put up in the very new, very ritzy, Ritz Carlton Hotel, and got to have their booths on the red carpet-lined main corridor of the exhibition hall. Our university was one of the Ministry’s invited guests so we got a prime location for viewing the activities of the exhibition. This included being subjected to the barrage of people, security, and TV cameras who followed the Minister of Higher Education everywhere he went when he was at the exhibition on the first day to open the activities.

All the universities were organized by country and certainly it looked like the major areas of interest for prospective Saudi students were the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Japan had a strong presence too.

And tucked away in a far corner of the exhibition hall, I was pleasantly surprised to find a university from as far-flung a place as Azerbaijan. (I wonder how many international students they manage to recruit to Baku?)

But perhaps the most interesting (most alarming?) booth was the one for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, also known as the religious police (mutaween), or ‘haia’ (arabic for ‘commission’). They were planted in a prime location right in the heart of the exhibition hall.

When I first saw them listed among the list of Saudi institutions, I thought that maybe they ran a sort of religious police academy? Perhaps a religious university? But no, they were there to promote virtue and prevent vice. Indeed, I heard from some of the delegates from other Canadian universities that they had been going around the exhibition on the first day to let all the foreigners know that women should cover their hair. As such, I found myself in the surprising situation of giving these women mini lessons on how to properly wrap their scarves around their head. Seems like I’ve come a long way since the days of my two-slitted head coverings!

a free and open society in the Arabian peninsula … mirage or reality?

We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.

Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:

And here is the Saudi side of the border:

Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.

So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!

hijab fashion

You might remember from an earlier post that I am just a bit clueless about hijab style and maintaining a decent hairstyle underneath the veil. As with women everywhere, I try to get styling clues by observing the women around me.

Unfortunately, I find that there tends to be little variety in the way the women in Riyadh wear their hijabs, at least from my observations so far. Mostly it is all black, perhaps with some subtle decoration along the edge of the material. Some women have abayas and matching hijabs that have more colorful patterns along the edge or down the back – in Riyadh, at least, it seems that these styles tend to be favored by the non-Saudi women (e.g. from other Arab countries, or Westerners).

So I’m always fascinated when I watch talk show or news programs from the other Gulf countries (especially the UAE) where there are female hosts wearing a hijab. To me, they look so glamorous! There are lots of examples on the internet of the variation in hijab style and fashion across the Middle East – e.g. here’s a screenshot of Google Image results for ‘hijab fashion 2012’:

The color and variety of materials illustrated here is so refreshing compared to the plain black I see all the time on the streets of Riyadh. It looks like they have reams of material wrapped around their head and it is draped just so. It’s not just the color and patterns, but also the shape and volume that makes the style. I always assumed it was just the hairstyle underneath the hijab that made the stylish shape, so I was astonished when I stumbled across these instructional videos revealing the ‘style secrets’ of wearing a hijab! (The first one is narrated in Arabic, but it speaks for itself; the second one is in English.)

hijab etiquette

The first time I visited Saudi, I spent a lot of time obsessing over my hijab. How to keep it from slipping off my head? Why do I look so dorky in it? How do Saudi women deal with hijab hair and arrive at parties so well-coiffed?

My first solution was to adopt the niqab (the face covering). I discovered that by tying that around my head, the hijab wouldn’t slip off my head. Plus, I could easily blend into the crowd with it and not attract attention. But, as anyone who has ever worn a mask knows, it’s not pleasant breathing in your own warm breath all the time. Also, as you can see by this photo, I could hardly pass for a properly dressed Saudi woman. I couldn’t even put the niqab on correctly (there’s just supposed to be one slit for the eyes, not a second one across the forehead).

This is the only photo of me in the niqab. I’ve never worn it again since that first visit except when I had to go to a wedding. This brings me to my main topic, which is hijab etiquette. This doesn’t apply to the Saudi women I know, who always wear a hijab and niqab no matter where they go outside the house. But for me, I’ve learned that there are certain situations where it is optional and others when it is ‘better’ if I have it.

When in the house, or in the hareem of others’ houses, there is obviously no need to cover my hair. But if a male is present (e.g. brother-in-law, uncle of husband, and any ‘stranger’ – but not husband, father of husband, or pre-pubescent nephew of husband), I should pull on the scarf, even if just loosely.  Of course I have some lee-way as a westerner; a Saudi woman in the same situation would likely cover her hair and face, or avoid being in the same room altogether.

Outside of the house, I usually wear the hijab while in the car and walking outdoors. But if I am in the mall or some fancier restaurants, I usually feel comfortable enough to take my hijab off. But only if I am on my own. If camelman is with me, I wear it. We learned that lesson the hard way (sort of), but that’s another story.

By the way, my solutions to-date to the questions above: put hair up in ponytails/bun/hair claw, get bangs, and use lots of hairspray. Bobby pins come in handy too, and a pair of cool shades.