Monday, March 9, 2015

"Shoes of Saudi Arabia:" The other women that wear the abaya

I originally set out to get to know Saudi women living in Saudi Arabia and while I will continue to do so in my project, it got me thinking about whom I was excluding as participants. Every woman in the kingdom is required wear an abaya, whether they are Saudi or not. This means that expat women have to wear them too. Of course not all women choose to wear it. Some are rebels like my mom, who remember what it was like to live here in the 1980s, when you could get away with wearing loose fitting pants and shirts. In fact, she now has an entire wardrobe of flowy, drab coloured ensembles that I call her Khobar outfits. But I digress.
There are many women who come to work in Saudi. While some come from North America or Europe to teach, most of them come from Asia to work as nurses, medical technicians, maids and nannies. There is a large Filipino community downtown and they have their own bakeries, cafeterias, and schools. They even took over a mall, which locals now call the "Filipino mall." You see the women walking downtown, all wearing the abaya. Now I'm pretty sure they don't have one for every season, but they all wear one nonetheless. While I am half Filipino myself, I don't know this community here very well. I decided to expand my project to include the different nationalities of women who live in Saudi, because they all have to wear this outfit and all I see is their shoes. I want my audience to know that this country has a diverse population, with many stories to tell.

tsinelas Filipina nanny photography project Saudi Arabia blog
"Jane" is a 25 year old housemaid from the Philippines. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.)
What are your favourite pair of shoes?
Slippers? Like "going to bed slippers" or sandals?
Like ballet flats, like this one?
Ah yes, flats. Her friend says, Doll shoes! 
Yes, doll shoes. In the Philippines we call them doll shoes.

Do you wear them when you go out in public?
Because they are easy for me to wear.

What do you do with these shoes? Do you go to the mall?
Back home I wear them when I go out with my family. Here I wear them when I am with my friends.
In the mall?
No, here in the compound.
Here in the library?
So you're part of a library gang, huh?
She laughs.

How do they make you feel?
She shakes her head.
For me, when I wear my boots, I feel strong. They make me feel better when I wear them. Do your shoes make you feel like that sometimes?
She laughs, but still doesn't answer.

How do you think about them in relation to your abaya? Do you just wear your abaya and go or do you think, I have to wear a different pair so it matches?
Yeah a different pair sometimes, I have other shoes. 
So you wear them to match your abaya? Does that mean that they're always black?
No not black, any colour.

Do you make sure you wear a different pair of shoes every time you go out?
Sometimes it's the same shoes.

What do you want your shoes to say about you? What do they say about "Jane?"
She laughs. I don't know. 
You're too shy, huh?
She laughs again.

With "Jane"'s interview, it's more of what she didn't say that spoke volumes about her situation. The life of a migrant worker is a precarious one in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. One tiny perceived infraction against the law or your employer and you can be sent home, with an exit only visa. For this reason, I can understand why "Jane" was so hesitant to be very open with how she felt about herself, in case it landed her in hot water with her employer. But when I took a photo of her shoes she was excited to explain that her "madam" had given the pair to her. Whether it was because she genuinely liked the pair, was trying to show that she was grateful to the woman she works for, or just enjoyed wearing a pair of shoes from somewhere else, like Naseem, I don't know. Maybe it was a mix of all three.


  1. I really appreciate this post. I think what you are doing is really admirable and insightful for others who may not have a similar opportunity to learn more about different cultures. It is easy (as an American) to forget how other countries and cultures do things and how society can affect how people dress and how they act. Great share! :) #ibabloggers

    1. Thank you for your kind words! It means a lot. There are a lot of Americans that live and work here too, but most of them live secluded in little compounds, with little to no interaction with people like "Jane," or even Saudis themselves. You really have to work hard to get to know people from other countries here!

  2. Isn't culture so very interesting, it is where you get to know the real person. That would take a lot of work to get out to get to know people.
    Thanks for sharing #ibabloggers

    1. Yes and each person shows you how different one culture can be! Thanks for commenting Kathleen!

  3. I love posts like this because they always open my eyes to things I have not thought of before but also help me understand other cultures that I probably will not have the opportunity visit. Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks for reading Rebecca! I am very lucky to live in a place where I can interact with and learn about different cultures. I am thankful every day!

  4. Thanks for sharing! Other cultures are so interesting! #ibabloggers

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog! They are, aren't they? I could spend my whole day reading about all the different ones in this world!

  5. G'day! If there is one thing we can learn worldwide it is that we all can learn from and through each other!
    Cheers! Joanne

    1. Hello Joanne! Yes I've learned a lot in my project, even though it's just started! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Great post. Some of my Filipina family members have traveled to Saudi Arabia for various job opportunities, and I find this article to be very insightful. Thank you for sharing. :-) #ibabloggers

    1. Mabuhay Mikaila! One of my uncles worked here back in the 90s, but he missed his family too much so he moved back home to the Philippines. It can be a difficult life here for them. At least they have a large community here. Thanks for stopping by!