This trip to Al Ula was the first time (besides visiting Mosques) that I felt like I really should cover when we were around other people. I mean, whenever I go to Jeddah, I always wear my abaya but I almost never wear the Tarha (head covering). It is common to see other women in Jeddah without their heads covered, both Westerners and locals. In Al Ula, I saw zero women. Not a single woman outside her house. It is a small town, more conservative, sheltered compared to wild, multicultural Jeddah. Furthermore, it was Ramadan, the time of year when everyone is encouraged to be even more conscientious of religious/ cultural rules. But overall, it is a strange feeling when you realize that you feel more comfortable to be covered head to toe, even if it is 120F outside, than to do without. When you are surrounded by only men, most of whom have not seen uncovered women, or at least very rarely, the abaya and tarha feel like shelter from the searching eyes. Just to close yourself off from the world to avoid any possible predators.
I have felt this myself but also, I have seen my western girlfriends go from first hating this mandatory garb, to then preferring to wear it, feeling more secure with it on than without. But what I really find most striking is that our western male counterparts, often just do not understand. If there is a situation in which perhaps tarha or abaya are not 100% compulsory, they will encourage us to not wear it. I guess to them it seems ridiculous and just not comfortable, but with this response, they force us to be kind of torn between two worlds. Our native world or native mindset, the one that the men do not have to leave, where we would never consider covering our bodies. Desexing ourselves. Boiling in the heat. And then the local world that we are currently residing in. Trying to be respectful of local cultures and also trying not to stand out any more than we already do. Trying to avoid those unwanted stares or provoking trouble. It is easy for the boys to say, "Oh no, just don't wear it, of course it is hot, you will get heat stroke." But it is different for us, forced to chose between these worlds, navigating cultural sensitivities, trying to protect ourselves, and on fire inside.
Don't get me wrong, I am not an advocate for covering women up. I think we should all display our bodies and our minds proudly, but I think when you are living in a foreign land you should be respectful of the local cultural. And regardless of where you are or what God you pray to, I think it should always be the woman's choice, and never the man's, to dress how she likes, to dress in a way that makes her most comfortable. Whether this is in a mini skirt, or jeans, or sweatpants, or an abaya and tarha.