Credit: Asim Bharwani/modenadude on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)--One of the first royal women I was assigned to drive was Fahima, a cousin of Princess Zaahira. She was a well-preserved woman in her 50s, with a strong jaw line, deep-set penetrating eyes and shoulder-length, perfectly blown-out hair that looked as if it was a helmet. Fahima was always impeccably dressed in chic but conservative clothing with acres of expensive jewelry.
Chauffeurs aren't supposed to ask questions, in fact can be fired for doing so, but she usually tolerated my inquisitiveness with measured graciousness. She was multilingual, worldly and well traveled, and surprisingly patient with my questions as I chauffeured her around the city, usually to get the British cigarettes she smoked, which are available only in specialty tobacconist shops.
She was a heavy smoker, as were many of the other Saudis in this group--even some of the young women chain-smoked--and carried her own Faberge portable ashtray in her purse. The Saudis regularly depleted much of the supply in Beverly Hills, so we often had to travel to Westwood or Santa Monica for her preferred choice of nicotine fix.
Fahima didn't hide the fact that she felt vastly superior to me but also that her sense of noblesse oblige compelled her to be generous with her knowledge. It wasn't that she ever overtly insulted me; her condescension was subtler and more sophisticated than that, but it was clear that she thought me to be less worthy than herself. She seemed amused by my ignorance and naivete, as she saw it, and therefore treated me like a child who needed her help. It was in her company that I first felt the pang of being an infidel, a heathen, a nonbeliever. I tried to ignore it.
"I am sure it is difficult for you to understand the uniqueness of our society, but I am happy to help you to know more about my country and our customs, Janni Amelia, if you insist," she said. "Please, what is it you would like to ask?"
"Why do you have to wear the abaya [black cloak]?" I asked. I really wanted to ask why the Saudi women spent so much money on designer clothes and jewelry and then let themselves be wrapped up in a black blanket, but that didn't seem politic.
"Please understand, Janni Amelia, in the Kingdom, a woman must be fully covered, in abaya and hijab [headscarf], and sometimes the niqab [veil], when in the company of any male who is not a son, brother, husband or father. Ofcourse. Not to do so is tantamount to prostitution. When we are inside our home, with our children and family, we do not have to cover. But we do not walk on the street without the abaya, we do not talk with a man who is not a relative, we do not sit in a Starbucks cafe with a man who is not a son, brother, husband or father. Nor do we care to do this! There is always a very comfortable family room in the back for the women and the children, where we are more at ease," she told me.
"But why is it up to the woman to cover herself? Why can't the men just not look? Why is it her problem?"
"You see, Janni Amelia, women tempt men. We are temptresses. It is our nature; we cannot help it. And if men respond to the temptation--a glimpse of a cheek, or a wrist, or an ankle--then chaos will ensue. So we women cover. It is our duty, or we will provoke chaos, and then society and all mankind will suffer."
"Then why don't you have to cover when you're not in Saudi Arabia? Doesn't Allah see you always?" I asked her.
"Yes, of course, but most Saudi women do not cover when visiting your country because we do not like to capture attention or discrimination, especially since the unfortunate tragedy of Sept. 11. But in the Kingdom, we must cover, or we may be arrested for indecency. This is the law, of course. For the Saudi woman, this is shameful behavior not to do so, but the American woman has no conception of this," she said.
From "Driving the Saudis" by Jayne Amelia Larson. Copyright 2012 by Jayne Amelia Larson. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Jayne Amelia Larson is an actress and film producer. She has an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a graduate degree from Harvard University's American Repertory Theatre Institute. She lives in Los Angeles.
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