I Forgot Where I Am

Saudi Arabia is unique in that it currently restricts women from driving, and limits their movement in public places without a male custodian.

In Saudi Arabia, usually at prayer time stores close their doors and draw the blinds and cease operation. Restaurants, however, allow diners to eat, but they stop taking orders and serving food. Restaurants sometimes lock their doors, which creates a fire hazard.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, are large and allow shoppers to remain inside with there doors open, though cashiers are absent, and shoppers cannot make purchases.

One day, at prayer time, outside a supermarket, I waited to seize my opportunity to enter. Seeing that the store’s doors were open and lights were on, I presumed that it was okay to enter the store, so I made my way in.

At the front door sat a Saudi woman. I couldn’t tell whether she was an employee or not. I hadn’t seen her grocery bags behind her. Since she was sitting at the front of the store I figured she was an employee monitoring the door. I thought it better to ask her if I could enter the store during prayer time.

As she saw me approach her and open my mouth to ask “may I enter?”, she immediately shouted: “What?! Too close!”

Her audible “What?!” was enough to scare the bejesus out of me and remind me that I am in Saudi Arabia — an extremely repressive and conservative country [especially for women] where men and women do not speak to each other in public unless they are family members.

I dropped my head, did an about face, and moved away from her quickly to avoid any cultural misunderstandings.

In Saudi Arabia, a woman who feels threatened by a man’s presence can scream and men will rush to her aid. The man if deemed a threat could be arrested, beaten up by her family, or worse.

Close call.

I think I felt too comfortable here, since it has been over one year that I have lived here. Also, I returned from another Muslim country, Oman, which I visited over the weekend, where the culture is slightly differently and much less repressive. For instance, in Oman, women drive and are not required to cover their bodies from head to toe.

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