Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the outside looking in: "Shoes of Saudi Arabia"

Shoes of Saudi Arabia photography project Dhahran Aramco blog
Saja is a 25 year old business development analyst from Al-Khobar.
I've known Saja since I was a little kid. We didn't go to the same school as her father's Saudi (which makes her Saudi) and they went to a different school than us expat kids, but she was always a regular fixture at soccer. She now works for Aramco, the same company that our fathers used to work for.
What are you favourite pair of shoes?
My favourite pair are always comfortable shoes, regardless the colour or... but I tend to you know, gear more towards solid colours. I don't like patterns. So my favourite are always black, white ,beige or very neutral colours. And I don't have that many shoes in my closet.
Really? Because I would say that you're a stylish person.
I just stick to a few pairs then I just over-wear them. My favourite pair of shoes now are my Kicks.
What are those those sneakers that... Wait, I'm thinking of K-Swiss. What are Kicks?
Super comfortable, they go over the ankle. They look like sporty shoes. It's so hard to describe what they are. The bottom is white and the rest is all black. I bought them from Italy, two years ago. I buy things then I shelve them. The ones I'm wearing now are my work friendly version of my Kicks. I bought them recently from Bahrain. I bought them in the mall. I was wearing heels because we were visiting friends and I stopped by in Geox, took off my shoes as I came in and said, "Please give me the most comfortable shoes here." He gave them a pair, but they were an ugly colour so I asked them to get me this pair.

Do you wear them in public? Why or why not?
Yeah I do. I don't wear shoes at home. I wear these really fuzzy, Forever 21... How do I say faroo? Is that cotton?
Oh is that like farwa, wool?
Yeah! That's on the inside though. The outside of it is suede.
Oh so they're like Ugg boots? 
But they're flats and I wear them at home. I got them two sizes bigger. All my shoes I have I definitely wear in public and mainly to work. It was so hard finding shoes to wear to work. So mine have a tiny touch of like, "Hey the're Kicks, not formal shoes!" So nothing that attracts a lot of attention at work. I just make sure that they're black and match my abaya.
Oh so when you go to work you wear the abaya?
So do you like make an effort to wear something nice under your abaya?
No. Like some days I wear leggings and a gym shirt. Sometimes, I know that this is like ridiculous... Sometimes I wake up late and I wear my abaya on my PJs. I brush my teeth, I do my thing, I just don't bother changing my clothes. And sometimes, very rarely, if we have a meeting or going on at work, I'll make an effort to wear black pants and a button up shirt under my abaya. It will show from my sleeves. It always makes an impression when you're dressed up.
Well I wear my abaya open.
But when I'm not dressed appropriately I'll close it. You're always nervous that someone will catch you wearing your Mickey Mouse shirt or whatever. There are also days that I wear my tennis shoes because I go to the gym right after work. I like the abaya because you don't have to worry about what you wear underneath. I definitely wear heels to work, I never wear stilettos though. I wear blocky ones?
Platform but not so much. They're black and pointy, very formal. I wear those sometimes. 90% of the time it's flats and very comfortable shoes.

What do you do in your shoes? What are the different things you do with your different pair of shoes? I feel like you answered that.
Let me just add to that. I have soccer shoes and it's a huge part of my life. Recently, just in the past year I haven't had time to play, with work. But I used to really care about soccer shoes more than any other shoe. Once I was planning on going to Boston for my brother's graduation and doing some shopping, because I hadn't been back for a year. I'm going to go to the outlet, buy a carry on and put all the stuff in it that I will buy. So I literally travelled with no carry on. I just travelled with a purse and a laptop. Before I left I ran back in the house and got my soccer shoes, tied the shoelaces together and threw it around my shoulders. I travelled from Dammam to Boston with my football shoes. It's so hard to break into soccer shoes! I mean I knew I was going to go shopping, it's my once in a two year shopping trip. I still wanted to get my cleats.
So what, you were going to play soccer at the graduation?
Well in Boston I ended up playing co-ed and intramural with friends at the park and stuff. So what I do with my shoes depends on what shoes they are and what I'm doing that day.

How do your shoes make you feel?
Kinda like when you put your makeup on. Like sometimes if you feel like crap and you're at home doing nothing, you'll put makeup on or lipstick on and you feel better. You look good, you feel good. When I'm wearing flip flops and going to the beach I feel sloppy. It's OK if my abaya gets wet. If I'm wearing stilettos they make me feel very uncomfortable. I'll leave my house barefoot and go into the car, lather them in Vaseline, then I put my stilettos on only right before I have to go to an event. Comfortable shoes allow me to be more productive. When I wear my cleats I feel very free and liberated. Not necessarily when I start playing soccer. Last summer my favourite shoes were my camouflage H&M boots.

How do you think about your shoes in relation to your overall outfit? Your abaya?
When I'm not wearing my abaya, it really matters what I wear. It's not necessarily about matching, because sometimes not matching is nice. But if I'm wearing... you know what, it doesn't always matter. Sometimes I wear my tiny dress and my Kicks. I know that it looks off, but it's nice to mix and match. I went clubbing in Boston once and I wore this long sleeve dress to my knees and at the bottom I had my Kicks. Thankfully the guy never looked down, but when I got inside, they were like, how did we let you in?

How do you think others will see you or judge you by the shoes you wear?
I feel like in Saudi, the people I'm around at work or at the malls, they're more like upper middle class. They care more about what you're wearing. What rings you have one, what bracelets you have on. Anything that's visible, how you're makeup is blended. Girls notice that about other girls, for those who don't cover. For girls that are at cafes and restaurants, in public, they'll notice your abaya and the colour. I've had girls come up to me and ask where I've gotten my abaya, because they like the new colour trend. Or they'll look at your feet. I just feel like they do judge you, they're very superficial.
And the abaya's supposed to not be about that.
If I wear Converse with my abaya, they'll glare at my feet until I feel uncomfortable. This is our clothing, this is what we wear in public. This is what we show to others. I just treat it as something I have to wear when I go out. If you wear your abaya more than three days in a row they say what, you don't clean your abaya? You don't mix and match with your shoes or your makeup? They have an abaya for every occasion. I think it's the same with shoes. I care less about superficial stuff.
Also because you've lived abroad, you've seen how lax they are in the States. They don't notice these things there.

You've talked about how other people judge or see you. Because of this culture, do you do the same to other people?
Yeah unfortunately. If I notice something that I'll be judged for, I'll recognize it right way, in other people.
Do you feel a kinship towards another girl that wears Converse shoes?
Yeah! I'm like, hey girl, you're cool like me. But if I saw a girl wearing opened toed shoes with her abaya and red nail polish, I'd be like, uh! Why the red? I'll get frustrated too. Now I get that there's a certain image. Anything that's out of the box, they'll comment on. And I do too. Until I noticed that I'm more comfortable not grabbing attention.
But what if a girl is wearing red nail polish because it makes her feel better about herself?
Well it's funny because most people forget, especially when you're judging others, to look at themselves first. When I was in Jizan for instance, for a business trip, I was so judgmental. I usually don't care, but when I was there at the university giving a workshop, in that position I was very judgmental.
Well you had that power dynamic in relation to these people. You were in a position where you were looking down on them.
It sucks! It makes you think that every place has their own dynamic. They all wear something different that means something to them. I made a comment to my friend and she was thinking the same way. It's embedded in our culture where we care so much about our outer appearance. I don't know why we spend so much time thinking of what women are wearing, what women are doing. It's like no, just focus on yourself. It's a very invasive culture.
But that's true in North America as well. We police what women wear there too. We shame them if they wear a mini skirt or a revealing outfit. We like to call ourselves liberal, but the judgment is almost sinister, because it lays beneath the surface. You put women in a small box. You call a woman a "bad woman" or a "good woman."
It's very universal. In Saudi you judge by the little that you see. It all depends on the perspective. If I were an outsider you wouldn't notice it, but by being here I would notice that.
Since I was born here and live here I do notice the threads and designs on the abaya, but I don't go as far as what you're describing. I wouldn't get frustrated by the colour of someone's nail polish.
I once went to a makeup parlour a couple years ago. A friend's sister was getting married and they had a makeup menu in the salon. I opened the menu and they had funeral make up.
Yeah. And they had "mikyaj a sug," which is like makeup for when you're going shopping or going out. It was like 200 riyal. I asked the lady next to me, "What the hell is this?" And she said, "You must not go to salons very much." I said, "Well obviously not these salons!" She said, "Just watch the next person." She got the makeup done only on here eyes, halfway down her cheek and up to her forehead. It was for her niqab. It changed her skin tone, her eye colour. She doesn't bother doing the rest of her face. I said, "This is intense." The funeral makeup had a sad, under eye look. People here notice everything, everything. They can tell if you have makeup on or not. They can tell why you're there at the mall, if you're there to stare at boys through the niqab. If I wear my ugly black pointy shoes at work I'm more masculine and I don't know why, but that's more respected.
Yeah I think we know why. 
If I'm wearing flats, they treat me like a kid. They treat you differently.

Wow we've talked about a lot of stuff! But I'm really happy that you feel comfortable enough to be open with me. It's giving me a view into a world where I'm not an insider. My next question was, do you wear a different pair of shoes every time that you go out?
No, I repeat a lot of my outfits or my shoes. But I like to change, every once in again. I'm the type of person that gets bored. Even if I've worn the same dress to three weddings in a row, I want to wear something different because it makes me feel different. Even if it's something borrowed from my sister.
So I guess you don't feel like you have to change it because of your abaya? When I came up with the question I was assuming that you only have one, but I've learned that you probably have more than that.
Well my whole life I only had one, but the other day a girl at work commented on it, saying, "You've worn that abaya three days in a row." I thought, Am I the only one who's doing this? On my business trip, which was only a few days long, I was the only one who brought one abaya! Every one else brought two. They knew that their outfits were more their abayas. I could feel how annoying it was, wearing just one.

What do you want your shoes to say about you?
I'd want them to say that I'm humble and comfortable, but also confident and they look good or they're fashionable. It doesn't have to be ugly for it to be comfortable or to be humble. I still want to look professional. I mean I'm not professional at soccer. I like when I wear the newest Nike edition cleats at soccer, but I like to wear my old cleats because they make me feel like a pro.

Even though my conversation with Saja was long, she was probably the most reflective participant I interviewed. She was able to turn a critical eye to a culture that she is a part of. Having a mother that isn't Saudi, living abroad, having many non-Saudi friends, and not sharing similar tastes to other Saudi women probably contributed to her feeling of being a little bit of an outsider, of not picking up on certain social mores that other Saudis did. This enabled her to be a great link for me, between the expat and Saudi cultures. Of course it helped that there really was no language barrier that we had to climb over. She is really good in English and was able to fully communicate to me her thoughts and feelings. It makes me think, what am I missing from the girls whose interviews are translated, or whose English is not as good? Their conversations with me were much shorter. But what am I to do? Learn Arabic in a flash? I've already used a translator, but she is changing what the interviewee is saying through her own translation. All I can do is to be honest about my own shortcomings and my bias (everyone has one) and be as reflective as Saja has been.

 .شكراً  ساجا
Shukran Saja.


  1. That’s quite an interesting talk but what I wondered about is why it was being asked if they wear them outside. I was looking for mens shoe brand list in the region and got to know that lot of people prefer Nike even here!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sami! I wanted to know if women wore their favourite shoes in public, or if the conservative nature of this country dictated that they wear shoes with more muted colours and styles. Turns out it doesn't! Yeah I was surprised at the preference for Nike as well, but I don't know anything about shoes so there you go!