Rita Henley Jensen in her abaya and veil

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (WOMENSENEWS)–Jeddah, I was told, is the more liberal place in the kingdom, a little like the San Francisco of this nation. Said to be more tolerant than elsewhere because it is, and has been for 1,400 years, the entry point for the millions of travelers each year in their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest place in Islam.

Yet, as I studied my guidebook in anticipation of my first journey here, I duly noted the warning that Saudi Arabia was perhaps the most difficult place on the globe for women to travel alone and noted the guide made no mention of any exceptions.

Women on Saudi soil must have a husband or male relative as an escort. We are not allowed to drive. When sight-seeing we must wear a full-length black gown known as an abaya. During Saudi Arabia’s first elections, held the week before my arrival, women were not permitted to vote or run for office.

Yet, Saudi women have the right to own property, transact business, go to school and be supported by their husbands, while maintaining their separate bank accounts.

I was on my way to the Jeddah Economic Forum, to be held from Feb. 19 to Feb. 22, as part of the 32-member delegation organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit with offices in Washington, D.C. and New York.

The official agenda was sustainable development: the need for Saudi Arabia to create jobs for its unemployed in industries that do not rely on diminishing resources like oil.

As I prepared to leave, however, a big item on my own agenda was my safety. First off, I was a Westerner in the post-9/11 world traveling to the nation that spawned Osama bin Laden and his followers and which, in December, saw a shoot-out at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah.

I was also as a single woman accustomed to the freedom of New York City, where I can move about unfettered by gender restrictions, even feeling safe on the city’s subway late at night. In Saudi Arabia I would lose all that and I didn’t know how my internal navigation would cope.

Taking the Jeddah airport bus from the plane to the terminal, I observed that some women did not have veils or even scarves, and I decided to remain bareheaded. By the time we reached the baggage claim area, however, my resolved faded as I could no longer see another woman without a head scarf. I reached into my bag and put mine on.

To my surprise, an immigration official met me and waved me through without checking my bag. A Budget Rent A Car employee, serving as my government-required male escort, met me on the other side of customs and drove me to the hotel.

‘Private Beach’ Instead of Pool

Before I left, I learned that even though I would stay at the Hilton Hotel and attend a conference on the hotel’s premises that was sponsored by General Motors–two U.S. based companies barred by law from practicing gender bias on their home turf–I would not be permitted to use the hotel’s pool or athletic facilities.

I packed my swimsuit anyway, aware that there were "private beaches" where Western women were permitted to swim in the Red Sea.

 Jeddah Hilton's private beachChecking into my room, one of the bellstaff assured me that the hotel had a "private beach" and I could ask the concierge about it the next morning.


At breakfast, I learned that the expansive hotel dining area was reserved for men. Women were relegated to the smaller "family area," that was blocked from public view.

That was when I noticed that all the hotel employees I had seen so far–from the greeters, bellstaff, security guards, registration clerks, tenders of the breakfast buffet–were male, a fact that remained true throughout my stay. Not a single female employee.

After breakfast, I decided to "test the waters" on swimming. The concierge informed me about the shuttles to the "private beach" a half-hour’s drive away. They left at 9 a.m. and noon and brought guests back at 3 and at 5. No possibility of returning at noon or going at 3; that I would have to handle at my own expense.

I set out at 9 and, at the beach, I quickly shed my black Hilton-supplied abaya, thinking how its color absorbs the heat, while the white robes that most men wear reflects it.

Behind the Barricades

About 100 yards wide, the beach was populated mostly by Western couples, the women wearing two-piece suits and children with sand-buckets and brightly colored hats. With its solid-steel rusted entrance gate and shabby-looking lounge chairs, the beach was like any facility designed for the exclusive use of those with lesser status. The faded, stained condition of it all caused spiffy visions of the Hilton pool to dance resentfully in my head.

On my one day of sightseeing I took in the country’s famous wealth–glittering shopping malls and immense, gated mansions–from the backseat of a Budget rental car.

I also saw slums, as well as female beggars, covered in their veils and black abayas, occasionally carrying a tiny infant wrapped in a colorful scarf.

As we passed Jeddah’s one public square our guide pointed out the site where the public beheadings take place on Fridays. A female surgeon, a Jeddah resident originally from Bahrain, seated next to me, complained bitterly about the religious police who carry sticks to chastise women in public who they deem as not properly covered by their abayas and veils, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I spent my last evening sitting with a group of people in the family section of an outdoor cafe. At one point, a member of our party–a young man from Jeddah–recounted the tale of a man from Saudi Arabia who had a sex change operation in the United States and became a woman.

After her father died, her family argued that she was entitled to only a half-share of the estate because he was now a she. After a lawsuit, the Saudi courts declared that the person was always a he–regardless of surgery–and therefore entitled to a full share.

I said nothing, stunned by the thought of daughters who receive only half of what sons inherit and a legal system unwilling to reflect the changing realities.

Rita Henley Jensen is editor in chief of Women’s eNews.