behind the niqab (my time in saudi arabia) a short story

Please see below my short story reference my experience in Saudi Arabia working for a female, Further Education college in Qassim.

I left Heathrow on 21st October 2018 to start a new beginning in the Middle East.  The opportunity came by my employers at the time who, as part of the Colleges of Excellence further education joint venture, had female and male colleges in Onaizah in the Qassim province of Saudi Arabia.

I knew that living in Saudi Arabia would be a huge test but, I needed to see if I could survive without the use of being able to make calls via WhatsApp, no places of entertainment such as bars and cinema and mainly, having to wear the abaya, hiqab.  I learnt that the Niqab (face covering) isn’t compulsory by law but it’s a culture choice depending on which part of Saudi Arabia e.g. areas like Riyadh, the Niqab wearing is not as much.

When I arrived at the compound where I would be living, it was like a barbed wire fortress from the outside with guards at the gate.    Once inside, it was like a holiday complex, kitted out with swimming pools, mini supermarket, restaurant – all the necessities of western living and not forgetting the all-important Mosque on site.

Overtime, I learned that some compounds were more luxurious than this and had bars that served alcohol.  It turned out the compound that I was in was more than sufficient once I got an insight into the life of the Saudi woman.

The female only bus left the compound every morning at 7.00 am and drove us to the College.  Again, the college had guards and outside the Mutawa (religious police), were parked.  Once inside the college you could remove your abaya, hijab etc. but female clothing must cover arms and legs so long sleeves and long skirts.

However, the students craved western culture from their clothes and makeup they wore once they removed their abayas.    It was the same at the shopping malls, long queues for the Starbucks and shops like Zara and Ted Baker.

The Saudi women called me “sister” as according to them everyone is related.  As a black British woman, I felt this endearing.  There would appear not to see colour.

My contract in Saudi Arabia ended the following year in May.  I would have loved to have explored other parts of Saudi such as Jeddah and Dammam as my spirit felt deeply connected to the place.  Who knows – maybe there will be another opportunity for me to visit?

Juliette Sharras

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