The Women Behind the Chadors

SINCE I had never mastered the etiquette of the polite afternoon social visit, I was really thrown into a panic by a thoroughly improbable event. I taught English to foreign students at a nearby university, and one day my Saudi students (all male) told me that their wives would like to come and visit me. These women, who seldom left the shelter of their apartments, were curious about how Americans live and wanted to meet some women.

Most of them, I would soon realize, felt homesick and isolated in a strange culture. Their husbands had come for a year of intensive study, bringing their wives and children along.

For these women who stayed home day after day in small apartments, it was a long year. The rules of their Muslim religion are strict and forbid them to go out in public without covering their faces, keeping them apart from men other than their husbands. Saudi women do not drive, and so, often with three and four small children, they passed the days inside.

How could I refuse them a small bit of hospitality? After all, I had traveled and knew how much a warm welcome could mean in a new country. But, still, as I wondered how to entertain these exotic women, I was nervous. What could we possibly have in common? Wouldn't they be passive and brow-beaten? Did they have their own thoughts at all, or were they stale from endless isolation? It was hard to imagine what I'd find, and I dreaded the awkward silences that seemed inevitable.

One thing I had learned from teaching the Saudi men was the importance placed on socializing in Saudi Arabia. For the Saudi, a guest is honored with the best of everything. Food preparation may take days; no expense is spared. Visits could go on for half the night. But the men were vague about what I should plan for their wives. They only said that their wives spoke a little English, that my husband should be out of the room, that six wives would come without children.

Eager for moral support, I enlisted the help of my good friend, Debbie, who was always open to new experiences. We decided to serve a dessert and coffee, since the women would come at one o'clock. And since our strawberry patch was overflowing, I used my most elegant strawberry recipe, an elaborate concoction with whipped cream, sour cream, and shortbread. After rinsing the dust off my china, perking the coffee, and cleaning the house, we were ready. My husband sat in his office behind a closed door and promised to be invisible (though he threatened to peek through the transom above the door).

AT 1:30 a car drove up crowded with dark figures. One by one, six black shrouds emerged and started walking toward the door. I was so engrossed with the sight I had forgotten our two large dogs. At that moment, they came bounding around the house to extend their usual loud, leaping greeting. Saudis generally dislike close contact with dogs, considering them unclean, but these women were terrified. While I locked the dogs in the basement, Debbie escorted the women to the door. At least I assumed they were there underneath the floor length black coverings, which I later learned were called chadors.

When I got back to the porch, I found them all huddled there refusing to go in. They were afraid that my husband was somewhere in the house. I assured them he was in another room behind a closed door, but that was not acceptable. If I was ever to see a face I had to remove him from the house. Indignation would be a mild word to describe his reaction to my order. But finally, all dogs and men were banished, the women could come in.

With real anticipation Debbie and I awaited the unveiling of these six black figures sitting around the living room. As they slipped off the black coverings, the faces that looked back at us were striking. I guess we had expected pale, undistinguished faces. Instead, what we saw were the exotic yet modern faces of women who knew the secrets of make-up and the latest fashions.

They were beautiful faces with dark eyes outlined in kohl. Gold earrings and bracelets that jangled. But most of all, these faces that looked happy and contented with quick, playful smiles. I was surprised and had been sure these women, whose lives seemed so restricted, would be angry or dull or subdued. It became clear as the day wore on that my American image of them could not begin to explain the behavior of these Arab women.

After introductions in halting English, we realized that only two could speak well enough to carry on a conversation. They would translate often for the others. These two, Fatima and Imadia, were the main communicators for the group. As we were about to serve dessert, we were told that it was prayer time and they asked if they could use a room. It seemed propitious that the room I had for them to spread out in was covered with an old Oriental prayer rug. Had it ever been used in this way? After helping them find east, Debbie and I left them. I felt my house was honored to be used in such a way.

When it was time to serve the snack, they indicated that they preferred a soft drink to coffee, so we served the dessert with colas. Not exactly what I had planned, but we were learning to be flexible. Sitting there and feeling proud of my dessert, my heart sank as I saw them take a bite and pause. Imadia asked what it was, and when they heard sour cream, we were told that sour cream is never put into sweets. If only I had prepared a variety of foods. Oh well, I had tried and they now tried to eat a few small bites.

The partially eaten food was made up for by our conversation, which ranged from places they had visited (they all loved Disneyland) to American TV shows (they watched a lot of soap operas during all those hours stuck at home). What they lacked in vocabulary they made up for with liveliness. We all laughed when Debbie and I tried on a chador, and I was surprised by how much I could see through the lightweight cloth. I felt as if I were part of some sorority slumber party. Despite the cultural barrier, we were somehow bonding through our common sex. I could glimpse how strong female comradeship must be in Saudi Arabia, and how it may be diluted in our own society where men and women mingle constantly.

Although here they were frustrated by their confinement and isolation, in their country things are arranged for the Muslim way of life. Fatima told us that, when a mailman came to her apartment here to leave a package, she had to run into another room to let him open the door without seeing her. In America this seems silly and contrived. But in Saudi Arabia women have separate living rooms and homes have walled gardens. Women socialize frequently, and even some jobs are now possible in female schools and the women's wards of hospitals and offices that are separated.

I'm afraid I still remain incredulous when I try to imagine never allowing a man to see my face unless he is a member of my family. They will never know half the race, except for a father, husband, uncles, or sons. They explained their way of life and their beliefs with fervent dignity while we listened and learned.

We were amazed to hear about no dating and how marriages are mostly arranged by the families. They told us of one man whose family picked two sisters as prospective brides. The mother told him one was rather plain, but had a good heart and the other was beautiful, but vain. He chose the plain one, which we all thought smart. Debbie and I explained why dating makes more sense to us, though we all agreed it takes work to make a marriage grow.

``Our country has little divorce,'' they said, ``and our family life is respected.'' When we asked about additional wives they laughed and said it was too expensive nowadays. Though I had heard of one student who had two wives and brought just one to this country. These women had ideas, were informed, and could defend their points of view. The afternoon passed quickly.

BEFORE they left, we took a walk around our farm. They left their chadors in the house after I assured them that my husband had gone out in the car. They carefully avoided the pigs, which they thought disgustingly unclean. When I showed them my garden, they were shocked that I would work in the dirt. They were also surprised to learn that I spin the wool from our sheep, a task they thought was only done by primitive people like the Bedouin. When the car came to take them home, they ran giggling back to the house to get their chadors.

I realized, beyond any analysis of equality, discrimination, stereotype, that these Saudi women were engaging. They hadn't been what I expected, and perhaps I hadn't been for them either. I had enjoyed their company. When they thanked me smiling, I knew we had turned a polite social visit into a meaningful encounter. When they invited me to dinner for the next week, I was glad to answer, ``Inshallah [God willing], I'll be there at seven.''

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