Tuesday, April 27, 2010

dress code in compounds

Well, it's not a secret that you don't have to wear abayas on Western compounds. But something that people might not know, is that many compounds ban Saudi dress. That means you and your guests are not allowed to walk around in thobes and abayas. Some compounds, like ours, even have a policy about restricting head coverings in public spaces. Hands up - who wants to tell our lovely soft-spoken Syrian-Canadian friend that she can't wear her headscarf to a compound party when she's never had to remove it to attend any kind of party in Canada? I see there are no hands up.

You might ask just what is the big deal? If someone wants to wear a thobe or abaya on the compound, can't we just let them be? One long-timer here in Riyadh has told me that once management allows the dress codes to slide to please certain residents, disputes begin to appear. From what I understand, the problem is not so much the clothing itself, but the perceived type of person that tends to prefer wearing thobes and hijab style dress - i.e. religious conservatives. The general sentiment is that if you have a compound full of Western people doing all kinds of secular Western things, with a lot of women jogging around in their sports bras and shorts, there is just too much potential for animosity to develop if the value systems are too variable from one resident to another. It only takes a disapproving stare here or there for a snowball effect to occur. The system is flawed, because wearing a thobe doesn't necessarily mean you're religious, and covering your head doesn't necessarily mean you're going to chastise Miss Short-shorts for mincing around in her itsy bitsies. But to prevent headaches, and select for residents (and guests of residents) with similar lifestyles, rules like this are imposed, and to some degree it makes a sense.

On top of the enforced Western dress code, some compounds also restrict the presence of Saudi nationals, even as guests. For instance, our compound has permitted residents to have Saudi visitors only if they are not in public spaces. There have been many problems in the past with locals getting out of hand, or offending women at compound parties, so they have just banned them entirely. I recently attended a play on a compound that enforced a strict no-Saudi policy - and the manager who imposed the rule is actually a Saudi himself! I feel really awkward and disappointed sometimes about having to abide by these policies...however I also understand why management takes these steps. I just can't help feeling that it's unfair that all Saudis be put in the same basket just because some of them can't behave themselves...but I also recognize that I have no better solution. Hello inner conflict!!

So Saudis, if you are reading this and have wondered why you've never been invited by your nice Canadian friend to a compound party, this might be your answer. Delivered with reluctance. Or the compound parties could just be embarrassingly bad and they don't want to invite you to witness it...

6 comments:

Adnan said...

CIR (Canadian In Riyadh, lol),

It is certainly ironic that us (western) expats tend to go to places that the citizens can't. Quite a shame like you say, because of a select group, all of them get scrutinized.

For example, I tend to drive through the DQ checkpoints without any ID or checks whereas a few of my Saudi co-workers had to go through hell to get in. tsk tsk.

O well :D

Orchidthief said...

Yes, it's like reverse discrimination. I can't go into a mosque here, and they can't come to my compound pool.

People wonder how it's possible that expats can live here for years and not learn any arabic or make any Saudi friends, but the truth is that a lot of systems are set up by both Saudis and Westerners to discourage us from interacting with each other.

I also believe that for some reason most of the time the two groups see the worst sides of each other. My theory is that the 'bad apples' from each population are more likely to overstep boundaries and cause offense, and the resulting negative images fuel a further divide. It's kind of a shame...

echodepiction said...

Good post! This is such an issue here. I feel sorry for Westerners who live in the KSA and yet never really get to experience this country for what it is or never even learn to speak any Arabic. I'm not going to say Arabs aren't ever discriminating, but the majority of them like Westerners (minus Western politics) because "They're so friendly!" and will go to lengths to invite their Western friends to dinners and even family events. After everything, it's hard to explain to Saudis that they're banned from a plot of wired-off heaven in their country. At the same time, I do also to an extent agree with the compounds for being selective. It's a complicated matter. ..

P.S. Who ever told you that you aren't allowed to go into a mosque here?!

Orchidthief said...

It's just something I've always heard from other Westerners. And the couple times I've approached the doorways during prayer, it's all men inside and I've been yelled at (I assume) for hovering, so I always wondered where the women went to pray.

echodepiction said...

Yes, what you described is the men's section of the mosque. As everything else public in this country, mosques have separate sections for women and for men. Usually women pray at home, while the men are supposed to go to the mosque for prayer five times a day, so the ladies' section (which is usually located behind the men's section and can be accessed from a side entrance,not the main one) is not in use unless it's a certain time of year, like Ramadan.

Orchidthief said...

Hmm. I'm still under the impression that as a non-muslim we're not allowed in mosques here. When I've visited Oman, Morocco, and Dubai, there's usually one or two designated mosques where tourists are allowed in with their cameras, but the cab drivers and basically everyone I've talked to in Riyadh says I would not be allowed in a mosque here, much like I would not be allowed to visit the holy site in Mecca without special permission