Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Like a queen: "Shoes of Saudi Arabia"

I find my next project participant sitting outside a cafe with a couple friends.

Shoes of Saudi Arabia photography project Al-Khobar Reem blog
Reem is a 28 year old university student from Al-Khobar.

What are your favourite pair of shoes?
Favourite shoes? I like sports shoes.
Like sneakers?
Sometimes. Heels shoes I like when I go with my friends anywhere. But in the shopping malls it's hard so that's why we wear sports shoes.

Do you wear your favourite shoes when you go out in public? Why or why not?
I have special shoes and I'm scared to get them dirty.
Yeah! Sometimes it's like, I have a favourite pair of shoes and I wear them every day or I barely wear them because I don't want them to get dirty.
I also have a favourite pair of shoes, I wear them every day. They are white and orange and from Turkey. I can clean them. My favourite pair of shoes is Fendi. I don't wear it in anywhere!

I was talking with another girl and she says that she prefers shoes that are from outside.
Yeah I buy it in Bahrain!

What do you do in your shoes? Don't just think of your favourite shoes. Think of the different activities you do outside of your home.
If I go to my friend's house... Seriously, I wear any shoes. If there is a special party I have to wear heels, it's comfortable with my dress. If I go to the mall with my friends I wear anything, except if it's sports shoes. If I'm somewhere like a cafe, I can wear heels. Where I don't have to walk around so much!
Her friend says, She wants to look elegant, attract the guys!
Reem laughs.
If your abaya is a black colour, you can wear any colour. I don't like plastic shoes, the shiny shoes. Or bright colours. For my shoes, I like brown, off white, baby pink, dark blue, black. One of my friends wears red shoes.
Reem's friend says, Haya?
She laughs, Yes! It's too shiny.
Maybe she wants to attract the boys! 
She knows I hate her shoes.
Maybe she does it on purpose to annoy you!

How do they make you feel?
Like a queen. If it's not my shoes, if I don't look good, I'll hate myself the whole time.
I'm the same, don't look at me!
Yes, look up here! Not down there!

At this point, Reem's friend asks me why I've chosen to focus on women's shoes and what the idea behind it is. I told her that I've lived here my whole life and that the only way I see Saudi women is when I leave the compound to go to the mall or to Khobar. Or in camp, when I would meet them it would be in the ESL course I used to teach. When I would meet them outside the classroom, all I could see is niqab, niqab, niqab. I couldn't recognize who was who! But I could do so by looking at their shoes.

She says that I would see a different side to things if I were invited to go to their events and groups. I replied that I would love that! According to her, when women go out and wear the abaya, they are casual. Most of their daily life is visiting and so they want to be comfortable. At this point I argued that while that was true, some women are comfortable wearing their designer shoes too. She claims the young girls are different. I asked her to tell me more once I interviewed her. She went on to say that I can't be specific if I just focus on shoes. I responded that that is true, but that this is just one project and I'm not just focusing on Saudi women, I am focusing on Filipino women as well. They have to wear the abaya too.

Finally, Reem's friend said that she hoped that my project could go deeper, that I could visit Saudi women in their homes. She said that the pictures there would be different, more specific, and more detailed.

How do you see or judge others by their shoes?
Yeah I judge people by their shoes. In malls for example, if I see a woman with good shoes, if it's good, then I look up and see if she has a nice abaya, a nice bag. Does she respect herself? If I see a woman with flats? Khalas, I don't look up.

Do you make sure that you wear a different pair of shoes every time that you go out?

Yeah even every day in the college. When I see what I will wear tomorrow, I open the drawer to see what I will wear. If I wore shoes on that day last week, I won't wear it again this week. If I have a white shirt and jeans, I will wear my bronze shoes.

What do you want your shoes to say about you?
That I'm fashionable!

Reem's friend posed some insightful concerns to me and I would have like to have discussed them with her more, but unfortunately when I went away to answer a phone call, she told my friend who was interpreting that she no longer wanted to do the interview, because she didn't think my project was thorough enough. Fair enough critique, but I never claimed that this project would be thorough. It's merely a starting off point. I'm learning a lot as I go and I have to develop contacts first before I invade people's homes and private lives and take pictures of them. And how well does she know her own culture when she argues that women spend their days socializing? Maybe her and her friends do, but what about working women? What about women that can't afford housemaids and have to take care of their children?

But if we look at her concerns again, really the biggest concern is accuracy. You can achieve greater accuracy by increasing the scope and size of your test group. Why not photograph women in Riyadh, Jeddah, Yanbu, Madina, Tabuk or any other city (and rural areas and those in between) in Saudi? It's impossible for me to do everything, but I think that my project still reveals a lot about Saudi female culture. I've already noticed purchasing patterns and that women here, like anywhere in the world, judge each other by what they wear, even though here garments like the abaya are supposed to discourage attention both from strangers.

Either way I'm still waitin' on that invite. I just don't think it will come from her.

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