Remembering My First Time
Beginning at the beginning. Or at least, at one beginning.
I still remember the first day that I had to wear an abaya. It was April. A few days after Easter. I stood in the square hallway between the kitchen and the back door, a small corridor that trapped heat from two directions. Slivers of sun spilled into the hall through the minuscule slits in the frame where the door had expanded and contracted too many times to meet the edges anymore. Heat managed to squeeze through with the sunlight. Outside heat. Desert heat. The heavy kind of heat that punches every single alveolus of your lungs. And from the kitchen, mixed with the stench of used oil, a different kind of heat oppressed.
I stood in that square hallway and stared at an abaya that I didn’t buy as it hung from a wire hanger on the coatrack closest to the kitchen door. It probably smelled of oil, or onions, mixed with some cheap shop fragrance.
The only daughter in a family of sons, I was the only one compelled to wear this stupid black cloak and headscarf, evidence of difference that ran counter to all my attempts to blend in with my brothers. When I was old enough to use scissors, I chopped my own hair off, much to the horror of my parents. When two small embarrassing bumps first started to appear on my chest, I wore baggy No Fear shirts to hide them. I tried everything to conceal the signs of my female-ness.
That April day, I felt alone. I felt hot. I felt filled with rage and resentment at a system so obsessed with hypersexualizing the female body that it forced girls as young as 13 to cover themselves.
And I remember that day because more than anything else, I felt embarrassed. Even though the cloak would cover me – its function, after all, is to efface – the idea of wearing it made me feel naked and exposed. I felt conspicuously female.
Paradoxically, I relived these feelings when I first moved to the US to go to boarding school for completely different reasons. I had only spent a year covered up in public, and I had spent time in different countries throughout my childhood. My elementary school in Riyadh didn’t require students to maintain the strict dress code of the outside world. But when, in jeans and a sweater, I walked around my boarding school and the tiny town that framed its outer limits, I felt naked. Exposed. Overly conscious of every curve, every strand of hair, every inch of forehead or cheek or chin.
This self-consciousness and shame would take me years to overcome, partly because between semesters, I went home to a country that tried to stamp me out, and partly because I had internalized the shame that infuses Saudi society’s treatment of women.
Leaving Saudi Arabia and no longer having to wear the abaya was literal and symbolic steps toward freedom, but they were steps that at 14, were as exciting to take as they were difficult and as difficult to take as they were exciting.
On the April day that I stood before a black silhouette hanging from a wire rack in a corridor, the abaya and veil symbolized my difference from my brothers, my female-ness, and woman-ness. Being forced to wear it was not just a symbol of oppression, but an example of the many ways in which women were discriminated against and controlled. Even if the abaya wasn’t – and isn’t – the worst problem facing Saudi women, the first time I had to wear it reminded me that I was Saudi and a woman.