So I went to lunch with a group of female engineering students and chemists, determined and excited to enter the work force after years of intense study. I also joined a 5-kilometer night run in full abaya with Riyadh Urban Runners, the city’s first female running club, to encouraging cheers from passers-by. I visited Sama’s Creative Hub, an art gallery and store focused on drawing together local creatives via art and design lessons and Saudi artist exhibitions. And I ate a traditional Saudi meal of jeerish and saleeg, best described as variations on savory rice pudding, with pickled lemons and slow-cooked meats, as part of a mixed-gender lunch on Al Bujairi Square with Prince Saud bin Sultan, who spoke with hopeful enthusiasm on the impending issue of tourist visas, a step that might finally open up a country whose borders have long been impenetrable to much of the outside world.
“There is so much to see in Saudi Arabia, so much to explore, but few foreigners have been able to visit here beyond Muslims headed to Mecca on pilgrimage. Now we want this to change — and slowly, we are making sure that it does,” he said.
Most people I spoke to were cautiously optimistic about the transformation. And while some were critical of the government at times, there was a deep pride in being Saudi, as well as frustrations over misconceptions about their lives as perpetrated by foreign news media. “You focus on the bad, but there is also things that are good,” said one woman who had studied in the United States. “Try also here to see that we aren’t as behind as newspapers like it to look.”
Certainly in Riyadh, far more conservative than the more liberal port city of Jeddah, I was surprised to find many women had been traveling unaccompanied around town for some time (a change catalyzed by the arrival of Uber), or wearing abayas in color or with prints. Hundreds of women attended a high-profile soccer match while I was there, posting images on Instagram and Facebook with glee. Although the fashion week proved somewhat chaotic, the sense of delight and achievement was plain.
But toward the end of the assignment I also had to read between the lines. While every woman I spoke to supported the rights of women to wear more liberalized fashion trends, most remained in black abayas — including at the fashion shows.
“Saudis are seeing the positive side of embracing change, and that is why most are not resisting it or the arrival of an event like this,” said the stylist and influencer Hala al-Harithy, from beneath a glittery veil, designer shoes poking out from beneath her skirt. “Our first fashion week might seem small to some, but it feels like a milestone to many. A lot of girls have been waiting for this moment here in Saudi; and next season will be even better.”
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