The sleeves, the length of it, always felt foreign, at first. But it never took long to work its alchemy, to plant the insecurity. After a day or two, the notion of appearing without the robe felt shocking. Stripped of the layers of curve-smothering cloth, my ordinary clothes suddenly felt revealing, even garish. To me, the abaya implied that a woman's body is a distraction and an interruption, a thing that must be hidden from view lest it haul the society into vice and disarray. The simple act of wearing the robe implanted that self-consciousness by osmosis.
The kingdom made me slouch.
SAUDI men often raised the question of women with me; they seemed to hope that I would tell them, either out of courtesy or conviction, that I endorsed their way of life. Some blamed all manner of Western ills, from gun violence to alcoholism, on women's liberation. "Do you think you could ever live here?" many of them asked. It sounded absurd every time, and every time I would repeat the obvious: No.
Early in 2005, I covered the kingdom's much-touted municipal elections, which excluded women not only from running for office, but also from voting. True to their tribal roots, candidates pitched tents in vacant lots and played host to voters for long nights of coffee, bull sessions and poetry recitations. I accepted an invitation to visit one of the tents, but the sight of a woman in their midst so badly ruffled the would-be voters that the campaign manager hustled over and asked me, with lavish apologies, to make myself scarce before I cost his man the election.
A few days later, a female U.S. official, visiting from Washington, gave a press appearance in a hotel lobby in Riyadh. Sporting pearls, a business suit and a bare, blond head, she praised the Saudi elections.
The election "is a departure from their culture and their history," she said. "It offers to the citizens of Saudi Arabia hope . It's modest, but it's dramatic."
The American ambassador, a bespectacled Texan named James C. Oberwetter, also praised the voting from his nearby seat.
"When I got here a year ago, there were no political tents," he said. "It's like a backyard political barbecue in the U.S."
One afternoon, a candidate invited me to meet his daughter. She spoke fluent English and was not much younger than me. I cannot remember whether she was wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, inside her home, but I have a memory of pink. I asked her about the elections.
"Very good," she said.
So you really think so, I said gently, even though you can't vote?
"Of course," she said. "Why do I need to vote?"
Her father chimed in. He urged her, speaking English for my benefit, to speak candidly. But she insisted: What good was voting? She looked at me as if she felt sorry for me, a woman cast adrift on the rough seas of the world, no male protector in sight.
"Maybe you don't want to vote," I said. "But wouldn't you like to make that choice yourself?"
"I don't need to," she said calmly, blinking slowly and deliberately. "If I have a father or a husband, why do I need to vote? Why should I need to work? They will take care of everything."
Through the years I have met many Saudi women. Some are rebels; some are proudly defensive of Saudi ways, convinced that any discussion of women's rights is a disguised attack on Islam from a hostile Westerner. There was the young dental student who came home from the university and sat up half the night, writing a groundbreaking novel exploring the internal lives and romances of young Saudi women. The oil expert who scolded me for asking about female drivers, pointing out the pitfalls of divorce and custody laws and snapping: "Driving is the least of our problems." I have met women who work as doctors and business consultants. Many of them seem content.
Whatever their thoughts on the matter, they have been assigned a central, symbolic role in what seems to be one of the greatest existential questions in contemporary Saudi Arabia: Can the country opt to develop in some ways and stay frozen in others? Can the kingdom evolve economically and technologically in a global society without relinquishing its particular culture of extreme religious piety and ancient tribal code?