In the small city of Jubail in Saudi Arabia, a Muttawa — an Islamic religious police officer — while talking to his colleagues, looks over at my mother as my parents and I walk down the bazaar. He asks my mother where her hijab — a piece of clothing that covers the neck and the head — is. She then submissively pulls her hijab out from her bag and puts it on, while I contemplate why the Mutawa had asked her to do so.
Non-Muslim women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to wear abayas — loose fitting robe-like garments that cover the entirety of the body below the neck — and aren’t required to wear a hijab; why did the Mutawa ask my mother to put on her hijab? It’s because Saudi Arabia, like many other nations, has varying beliefs and standards for different sexes.
Saudi Arabia is incredibly oppressive towards women compared to a place like Woodstock, but that doesn’t mean that our school is perfect. In some ways, Woodstock needs to be more fair and equal when it comes to dress coding students, and it needs to work harder on creating a safe environment for females.
Living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for just under a year, I encountered many such instances where women were questioned about their clothing. One example was the first time I entered the country. At King Fahad airport in Dammam, a group of Filipino women was being interrogated regarding their attire. They were from a poor background who came to KSA in search of job opportunities so that they could help their families back home. They were unaware of the exact dress regulations in the country, and the airport staff in the Philippines did not inform them.
They were ultimately deported from Saudi Arabia.
This shows the utter disregard Saudi officials have regarding how they implement their oppressive laws. Similarly, Woodstock has a diverse set of students and staff that come from all around the globe to get a better education, but if such an incident took place with one of the members of the Woodstock community, it would be extremely degrading for the school.
In Saudi Arabia, all women are required to wear abayas as they step out of their houses. Furthermore, the natives of the country are required to cover their heads, using a hijab so that their hair isn’t exposed. The constrictive clothing hinders the ability of the women to participate in a multitude of tasks. In 2013, Saudi Arabia legalized cycling for women in certain public areas, but only in the presence of a male guardian. Yet, because of the obligatory abaya, riding a bicycle was nearly impossible, and the new legalization of cycling was pointless. The abayas kept getting stuck in the bike chains.
Being directly affiliated with the U.S. Consulate, my previous school, International Schools Group – Jubail, was the only one in the city where there was no requirement for an abaya or hijab. But, the women were required to wear their abayas on their travel to and from school, since random police checks could take place at any time.
It might not seem like a big deal, but experiencing it firsthand felt extremely perplexing to me.
Surrounded by women in black Abayas as soon as I stepped out of school was a glaring difference compared to the students and staff wearing colorful clothes inside the school. Woodstock in this regard is much better than my prior school, since the students are free to walk down to dorms in the clothing they desire.
In Saudi Arabia, women are deported for not wearing an abaya. Women can’t go to school without putting on blackness. If Woodstock isn’t significantly better than Saudi Arabia, it’s not doing enough; and I don’t think it is.
The restrictive clothing in the Kingdom has been partially the result of the strict implementation of the Sharia laws. This past March, crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman sat down for an interview with CBS show “60 Minutes.” In the interview, the crown prince stated that “the laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Shariah (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men.”
The very next day, my WhatsApp started flooding with images of women that went to IKEA without their abayas. A Saudi woman who sat at the front desk of our school came without an abaya for the first time. This was the first radical change I saw during my stay in the KSA.
There was confusion over what MBS actually meant to say. The message of “respectful clothing” was open to interpretation. It’s obvious that the women of Saudi Arabia are more than ready for a change. Woodstock in comparison does a great job of abiding by all the Indian laws. The school provides all the documentation necessary to the government for the school to legitimately operate and contacts the authorities responsible if confusion arises.
However, as time progressed, people started realizing what the crown prince really had to say. He was trying to emphasize the choice the women possessed in choosing the type of abaya they wear. They were no longer bound to wear a black abaya, but abayas still were necessary. Prior to Saudi Arabia, I lived in Oman — another absolute monarchy — for about four years. Sharia law is the bedrock for all Omani law. Despite the majority of the country being Muslim like Saudi Arabia, people are allowed to choose their own attire and the country only asked that the people have basic respect for others in public. There are no compulsions of wearing an abaya. The reason for this freedom over clothing is thanks to the accepting mindset of the people.
Even at Woodstock, restrictions regarding female outfits are present. Many girls at Woodstock are livid about the stricter implementation of the dress code for them. Girls are discouraged from wearing short clothes on campus.
Furthermore, even amongst the female students, the dress code is not implemented equally. Some female seniors get by wearing shorts and tiny skirts on a regular basis whereas the juniors are heavily dress-coded.
Students feel that “covering your body builds a better image” should not be a message being perpetuated. The student handbook stating that “girls in particular should be cautious about the amount of bare skin they show” is outright misogynistic. “Girls should wear thick tights or clothes that come down to their knees” should not be a rule at Woodstock, a school full of diversity.
Even during the fashion week, women at Woodstock are discouraged from showing bare skin. They should be allowed to wear whatever form of clothing they desire. The male students at Woodstock respect the girls for the choices they make and are not prejudiced by the clothes they wear.
In Saudi Arabia, women constantly need to worry about following the rules under an oppressive government. It’s not nearly as miserable for women at Woodstock, but the school should try harder to create a happier environment for everyone. If some women at Woodstock are unhappy about dress rules, Woodstock should respond with a solution.