Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dior every day: How shoes say a whole lot more than you think

To celebrate International Women's Day, I am launching my photography project "Shoes of Saudi Arabia." The theme for this year's Women's Day is Make It Happen, "encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women." The latter part of that statement is where my project focuses on.
Living as an expat woman here in kingdom, I don't get to know Saudi women very well. Growing up, the Saudi children went to the Saudi schools outside the compound, while the non-Saudi kids went to the compound school. As we grew older, we almost all left the country itself to pursue higher education. Coming back for the summer, the only way I got to know Saudi women was through my community education ESL classes. Even then it was through the teacher-student dynamic. To be honest I only ever got to know Saudi women through their shoes.

Say what?

Yup. I'd see Saudi women in the malls and at the hair salon. I'd see them in the compound having a picnic with their families. But I almost always saw black. I hate to admit that in high school we nicknamed them "ninjas" because of the colour of their abaya. (Susie of Arabia does a great post on her problems with the colour choice of this garment.)

Where I did see something different was just below their abaya, on their feet. Their shoes, like shoes worn by women around the world, say a lot about their owner. From flats to sneakers and from heels to sandals, I was able to gauge a little bit about the personality and tastes of the shoes wearer. I decided to set out and interview (and get to know) some of the women I saw around me every day, so that I wouldn't leave Saudi still saying I didn't know any women from this place.

So what I want to do is to recognize the women who live in Saudi, so that they're not stuck in the headlines as victims. While I am not debating that this is not true, they are much more than that. They are students, housewives, teachers and engineers. They play soccer with their sisters and eat out with their friends. They wear many different hats, and shoes, like the rest of us. They are women and they are missing from the visual narrative of Saudi life. While this is so because of cultural and religious purposes, I hope that my project can help my readers, myself included, learn more about women in Saudi, their lives, and what they think of themselves and others.

To do so, I interviewed women with a standard set of questions then took a photo of their shoes. Some women I audio recorded and some I just recorded with a pen and paper. Those that were uncomfortable speaking in English, I had speak in Arabic to my friend who then translated. My plan is to post one photo and interview a day and to see where I go from there! Let's begin!

Dior flats Carlton Lounge Saudi Aramco Dhahran Saudi Arabia blog
Naseem is a 20 year old university student from Al-Khobar. She is wearing a pair of Gucci shoes.
What are your favourite pair of shoes?
Mmm. Flats.
What brand?
Why do you like wearing flats?
Because they are comfortable, attractive.

How do you they make you feel?
It makes me feel... She straightens her back and moves her hands from her lap upwards.
Do they give you better posture?
She nods her head yes.

Do you wear them when you go out in public? Why or why not?
Yes. Sneakers are not a usual thing to wear in public, it's for men. Heels are for weddings and parties.

What do you do in your shoes?
I don't understand.
Think of the different shoes you have. What do you do in them? Are some used for certain times of the year, certain occasions? 
Well winter is for boots. When it's raining I wear plastic shoes, and in general I use flats.

How do you think about your shoes in relation to your outfit? To your abaya?
I think about wearing them for a long time. I'm not into trends. It has to match with my abaya.
Do you have more than one abaya?
Yes! I have about four to five. I have one for the winter, summer, and an informal and formal one.

How do you think others will see or judge you by the shoes you wear?
If you go to a wedding, they will judge you if you wear flats. They expect you to wear heels. They will notice if your shoes are new or if they are not from Saudi. They, I prefer shoes from outside. I go shopping in London, New York.

How do you see or judge others by their shoes?
I don't know. She looks to her sister who is sitting across from her, engrossed in her phone. She speaks to her in Arabic.
What if a woman were to walk in this cafe wearing heels?
It is not right to wear heels here.

Do you make sure that you wear a different pair of shoes every time that you go out?
Yes. Every day? No. If it's to different places, it depends on the place. Sometimes when I go to university, I feel like I have to impress my friends.

What do you want your shoes to say about you?
I don't get it.
Well from what you told me, it sounds like you are a confident girl. You want to be comfortable and you don't care what people think. Unless, maybe, if your friends are around.

She laughs then says something to her sister who also laughs, then goes back to her phone.

Yes, I guess that's true.

Just from my very first interview I learned a lot. While it didn't surprise me that Naseem bought brand name shoes as many Saudi families are wealthy, I didn't expect to hear that she and her friends preferred shoes from abroad. Are brand name shoes... Less "brand name" when they're sold here and not in cities like London or New York? 

I also wasn't surprised by how weddings were brought up more than once. Families in Saudi are large and the social calendar of young Saudi women is chock full of weddings. I was surprised that she had a plastic pair of shoes for when it rains. It rains like, what, one week at most out of the year so she bought a whole new pair of shoes? But if you can afford to fly to NY for Gucci, why not?

I also never knew that there were seasonal abaya. Imagine, I never knew that, but it makes so much sense. I asked a Saudi friend about it and she said that not all women wear them (as it doesn't get particularly cold here.) Some just wear another layer of clothing underneath.

This interview also forced me to be reflective and see where my own questions were coming from. Do I judge women whom I think wear "inappropriate" shoes? Probably. Do I need to make clearer questions? Probably. While Naseem served to be my trial run interviewee that will help me to work out the kinks in my project, I really appreciate her giving me her time to do this. Thank you Naseem and I look forward to who comes next!

No comments:

Post a Comment