Friday, September 10, 2010

Guest Author Zoë Ferraris

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


  1. It seems the customs and the laws are a huge conflict. Sometimes we forget how easy it is to make purchases in America. This is a nice reminder.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed both your books. FINDING NOUF was quite a learning experience. The infantalizing of women deprives society of so much talent.

    Although their lives are much more open then those of the women in Saudi Arabia, I taught at a high school for ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls. The greater part of the school day was given over to Jewish studies; late afternoon the girls had secular subjects like math, science, history (my subject), and English.

    I could not bring in any articles from newspapers or magazines because the girls were not allowed to read either. Some of the girls heard the news on the radio when they were being driven to school but most had no idea what was going on in the world. I was teaching there nine years ago when the World Trade Center was attacked. It was never mentioned, that day or any other.

    One of the girls had very long, beautiful hair; it had never been cut. She was growing it so that when she married, her own hair could be used for the wig she would have to wear from then on.

    They believed that dinosaurs and dragons were the same thing; it was a tough line for science teachers to walk.

    None of the girls would go to college although the mother of one was a pediatric cardiologist. She had gone to the very far right when she married. Her very bright daughter was not educated beyond high school.

    All would be married within a year of graduation to men (boys) they would barely know in marriages arranged by their parents and various other female relatives.

    It has fascinated me that the rules for women in Islam and in the ultra-Orthodox are so similar.


  3. What an insight, and what insanity. It's amazing to me that a mentality like this -- old-fashioned in the eighth century -- not only persists today but is attempting to drag the rest of the world in its direction. For years it was fashionable to sneer at people who celebrated Western culture at the expense of others, but I think this is an exception that can safely be made.

    I just ordered your book and can't wait to read it.

  4. FINDING NOUF is a book like no other I have read. It isn't just what happens behind the veil; it's what happens behind closed doors.

    I reviewed both books and FINDING NOUF generated much interest.


  5. I've read both of your books, just finished City of Veils last weekend. What beautifully written books, and great insights into another culture, one so often hidden (behind the veil). Not sure if you saw, but this week a fashion designer in Britain introduced bluetooth fashion. :-) Looking forward to your next book. Any time you'd like to Guest Blog on Mystery Fanfare, let me know.

  6. Everyone, thanks for your comments!

    Mason, yeah maybe a little *too* easy to shop here. :-)

    Beth, your teaching experience sounds so interesting. Thanks for all the details. I'm curious to know why the girl was going to have to wear a wig? I know very little about orthodox Jewish women and the expectations on them, but I hear from people in the know that they have many points in common with Saudi women.

    Timothy, just today I was talking with friends about the differences between what I think about the Saudi implementation of the virtues of modesty in public vs. what I really FEEL about it. Intellectually, I tend to go with "live and let live". But having experienced Saudi myself, I can say there are few things worse than being made to feel bad about your body in public. Like when showing the skin of your forearm is going to invite a disapproving stare (while you were probably only checking your watch). It's a little bit like telling a four-year-old girl to wear a shirt because her breasts are showing. I hate being made to feel ashamed of my body and I am grateful all the time that I live in a culture where I can feel comfortable in public. So woo-hoo America! And thanks for ordering my book.

    Janet, thank you for the guest blog offer! I'll keep it in mind. And I'll have to look up the Bluetooth designs! I had no idea. I think I saw a review you posted - maybe on twitter? So thank you for that as well!


  7. I read both books, and appreciate the insights into how Saudi women live.

    That said, the thing that blew my mind was the ending of "City of Veils," which showed the insanity of the criminal (in)justice system--no attorneys, trials, witnesses on one's behalf, civil rights, democratic rights, and with suspects' relatives detained, questioned and tormented, with no rights either. That ending traumatized me--the brutality of it. It's a brutal monarchy all the way around, the religious police backing up the government.

    So, it's not only women who lack democratic and civil rights; it's men in many circumstances, too.

    Your writing is good, but the reality of what goes on there is shocking and brutal.