Under the Abbaya: Female Producers in Saudi Arabia
By Amy Teuteberg, Producer
\”Did you have to wear the black thing?\”
Just got back from my first \”No Reservations\” road trip, and the number one question from friends, family and co-workers isn\’t about the food, the shoot, or how it was to work with Tony. It\’s about what I had to wear.
Of course, the question is less about the garment, than how far I had to go to conform. It\’s about what the garment represents, or at least what everyone thinks it represents. It\’s about what it was like to be a woman working in Saudi Arabia.
I\’m a producer. That means I\’m ultimately responsible for everything that happens on a shoot: directing, story, logistics, details, feeding, transporting, lodging, gear, crew happiness, you name it. Big job, but I don\’t do it alone. My right arm is known as a Segment Producer, and is an unbelievably crucial member of the team. This position was also held by a woman, Nari Kye. Of course the winner of the contest, ultimately responsible for making it all happen, was Danya Alhamrani, yet another woman.
And yes, we all wore the black thing. It\’s called an abbaya, and it\’s basically a long-sleeved, floor-length dress that you pull over your head, and wear over your clothes. We also covered our hair with matching black scarves, so three women in abbayas produced an episode of \”Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations\” in Saudi Arabia. Oh, but I\’m leaving out someone else who moved mountains making this episode: Dania Nassief, yep, another woman.
How did a group of women pull off a TV show in a country where women can\’t drive, can\’t vote, and really aren\’t supposed to hang out with non-related males? Well, they have a saying in Danya\’s hometown, \”Jeddah is different.\” And for the record, so is she.
When we stepped off the plane after a brutally long flight from New York, I had no idea what to expect. Would Nari and I be shunned, ignored, treated like a lesser by the men we\’d come in contact with? Having spent the last 15 years working as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I didn\’t really worry about it, since I\’ve been dealing with that crap for years. That said, I\’ve never had to do it in a country where the separation of the sexes was so strictly enforced by both law and culture.
One of the first and most obvious signs of that division was the abbaya. You can\’t help but notice, since literally every woman is wearing one. Most men wear a thobe, which is a long white cotton tunic, worn over white pants. So it\’s women in black, men in white. Needless to say, the contrast is striking. After all, what could be more \”black and white\” than black and white?
But that wasn\’t the only sign. In fact, there were literally signs, signs denoting separate male and female entrances for mosques, the \”single\” section (for men only) and a \”family\” section (for men and women) at many restaurants. No women allowed in the hotel pool. At the hotel restaurant, Nari and I were seated behind a screen, which Nari called it our \”pen\”, separating us from male diners. I found myself wondering, \”If even the breakfast buffet is segregated, how are we going to make this work?\”
Nari and I had arrived ahead of the crew, to scout, bring over the equipment, and take care of last minute details. For about a week, we worked with Danya and Dania (names pronounced the same) taking care of the gazillion details that go into making a TV show. It took about 15 minutes in their company to realize that the separation of the sexes may dictate seating arrangements in certain restaurants, but it was not going to get in the way of making this show. Although the law may prevent the Danyas from literally taking the driver\’s seat, it did not prevent them from taking charge. Together they were an abbaya-clad dynamic duo of problem-solving, refusing to take no as an answer from anyone, male or female, that got in the way – my kind of ladies.
We also worked with a lot of local men: drivers, government officials and a \”fixer\” helping us out. Nearly every place we shot was male-owned, operated and staffed, and a whole host of male characters lent a hand along the way. And you know how all of them responded to women in charge? Great. Actually, they were a lot more than great. They were about the most warm, wonderful, welcoming group of people that you could possibly imagine. That bunch, with Danya at its center, was an extraordinary collection of people.
Now, before you think I drank the Kool-Aid, there was also plenty of evidence that things aren\’t exactly free and equal. Case in point: Danya and Dania operate Saudi Arabia\’s first female-owned production company granted permission to work without a male present. The first. And it took them over five years of fighting the system to get that paperwork in place. So they\’re not the norm, they\’re trailblazers.
And of course, Danya is no ordinary woman. She\’s pretty much the definition of extraordinary, and absolutely one of the strongest women I\’ve ever met. Having grown up between Jeddah and North Dakota, she\’s got a pretty unique perspective on the similarities and differences between our cultures. There are an incredible number of things that I learned from her on this journey, including some unexpected perspective on the practice of wearing abbaya.
I should probably mention that I hate the idea of anyone telling me what to wear. I shun uniforms and conformity, they completely freak me out. So you can imagine how surprised I was to find that I didn\’t really mind wearing an abbaya. Ok, forget all the symbolic meaning for a second. For starters, it\’s practical. You never have to think about what you\’re wearing. You can toss it over a bikini or your jammies, and head out the door. And yes, I did both.
It\’s also the best way to blend in that you can imagine. Working on the show, the last thing that you want to do is call attention to yourself, since all eyes belong on Tony and Danya. Producers are there to get the show made, and need to find a way of making that happen, while blending into the woodwork. I can\’t imagine a better way of doing that than wearing an abbaya. Accidentally stumble into a shot? No problem. Instead of out-of-place Western eyesore, I look like a local.
Of course it goes without saying that you also want to respect all the local laws, customs, and tradition and in that sense, no problem. Abbaya-me.
But besides all that, I began to realize how the abbaya affects the way you communicate with women, how it shifts your focus. Without all the visual cues that wardrobe, hair, or even subtleties of gesture provide to help you \”see\” someone, you begin to read them in a different way. The art of conversation and eye contact gain more weight, because that\’s all you\’ve got. The face, where attention really belongs in the first place, is where it stays. It forces you to work harder to see someone, and to pay deeper attention to the words coming out of their mouth. Certainly the most important abbaya-related thought I had had during the trip. Ironic that I didn\’t even notice all this was happening, till the first time I saw Danya take off her abbaya.
Although everyone wears an abbaya in public, it comes off at home. When you are hanging out with friends or family, no abbaya necessary. Underneath, many women dress just like they do in New York: skirts, heels, low cut tops, you name it. One particularly scorching day, after Danya, Nari and I had spent hours scouting locations in the desert sun, we had a meeting in my hotel room. The second the door shut behind us, we tossed our sweat-drenched abbayas and head-scarves to the floor. Danya was wearing a t-shirt and shorts. For the first time, I could see her hair, her arms, her legs. I noticed immediately how different this felt. In some ways, it was like I was seeing her for the first time. Like a layer that was new and more intimate had been revealed. I realized in that moment that that was likely the point of the abbaya, or at least part of it. It\’s saving that kind of intimacy for those that are close to you, your friends and family, who have earned the privilege. For the first time, I saw that the abbaya may have a role in protecting women, and not as something simply designed to control them.
Don\’t get me wrong, I\’m not advocating for the abbaya. I don\’t want to see them parading down the runways, in a window on 5th Avenue, or on the sale rack over at Old Navy. I don\’t want to see rules about women\’s or men\’s clothing anywhere of any sort. I can\’t even get behind the idea of Black Tie. And honestly, in terms of focusing communication, none of us should require an abbaya to make that happen. Still, having that simple \”abbaya insight\” felt like an incredibly important step toward understanding Danya\’s culture. And isn\’t that exactly what travel is all about? Taking a walk in someone else\’s shoes, or under their abbaya, and trying to find a way of seeing things from their perspective.
I\’ve been back in New York for about a week now. Last night as I walked home, I was thinking about how much I missed Danya, her incredible laugh, and the warmth and hospitality of her friends and family. The spell was broken when a stranger approached me, offering a graphic description of something he\’d like to do involving his face and my backside. For a second, I couldn\’t help but miss my abbaya.