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...
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