Please welcome Zoë Ferraris whose new book, City of Veils,I inhaled on a flight to Paris. The transatlantic hours disappeared, I was totally in another world and culture-shocked to find, upon landing, I had to go through customs at Charles de Gaulle, not Riyadh.
Zoë takes us behind the veil in Saudi Arabia, into a culture and world with it's own rules and harsh treatment of women as only someone who's lived there can. Zoë lives in San Francisco some of the time and we met at a book event, the next time we met was at the Los Angeles Times Book awards where she won the Best First Novel for Nouf - read it if you haven't. It's an honor, Zoë, thanks for visiting.
Gender segregation in Saudi Arabia presents a lot of weird problems, but the weirdest is lingerie. How does one buy bras and panties in a country where women are not allowed to speak to men, and where men own and operate all of the country’s lingerie stores?
When I lived in Saudi, the women I knew would come home with huge bags of lingerie that some store owner had given them on the honor system. They’d spend an afternoon trying everything on, basically using their homes as a fitting room. Whatever they didn’t want to keep, they brought back the next day.
The other alternative, which everyone knew was a disaster right up front, was to send your husband to buy the lingerie for you. You’ve all seen that boyfriend at Victoria’s Secret, yes? He’s the guy who lingers by the door, looking like a small, scared animal. I briefly worked at Victoria’s Secret myself, and discovered that dealing with male customers was one of the most awkward things on earth – for them.
But there are plenty of women in Saudi who do their own shopping -- and who are then left to discuss cup sizes and panty preferences with strange men. For a country where women can be jailed and given 40 lashes for being in public with a man who is unrelated to them, this seems like a glaring oversight.
Unlike the Victoria’s Secret employees in America, you won’t see men walking around with pink measuring tape dangling from their necks. There’s no touching, so no one gets measured in a lingerie store. You just sort of guess. As for fitting rooms, the presence of strange men prohibits that. These days, you either have to buy the lingerie up front, take it home and try it on, or take it to a public restroom and do the deed there. In either case, a pain.
Over a year ago, women started to complain. Loudly and publicly. Saudi even has a law stating that only women can work in women’s apparel stores, but the law has not been implemented. So a campaign emerged to get women working in lingerie stores, but it was shot down repeatedly by a religious establishment that opposed women working outside the home. Apparently, it’s more appalling to have female workers than it is to have women purchasing thongs and corsets from strangers.
What struck me as weirder still is the fact that I often saw completely brazen items in Saudi lingerie markets. Everything from see-through bras to S&M couture -- things you would only find in a sex shop in America. And the lingerie industry is massive and growing rapidly. It all serves to remind me that while a cloak and veil may look conservative on the outside, what goes on beneath it is anybody’s guess. And if my own experience is any guide, the longer I wore the burqa, the more dangerous and risky my own behavior became. I just longed to get out, to express myself, to be noticed. The result? Not exactly a modest Muslim anymore.
Clearly there are more pressing issues at hand for women in the Kingdom, but the good news is that the lingerie debate was merely one of the first shots fired in the battle women are now waging in Saudi to demand more opportunities to participate in public life.
Cara for Zoë - Saturday