JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – I’ve always wanted to run in Saudi Arabia. It had nothing to do with the beauty of the place. It had everything to do with the challenge -- particularly the discomfort.Not only do summer temperatures rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but runners have to wear sweatpants and long-sleeve shirts. Running in shorts and a T-shirt for men would draw the ire of the morality police (or so I thought). For women, it’s much worse. Women wear an abayah and hijab in public – a head to toe covering – and running in an abayah and hijab would be dangerous. (A few hotels in the cities do have gyms catering just to women.)
I dressed in black nylon long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, setting out at 5:30 a.m. for a boardwalk that hugged the Red Sea. It was 85 degrees and humid. I was sweating before I left the hotel grounds.Once I crossed over to the boardwalk, I saw something wonderful: other men were wearing T-shirts. Guiltily (thinking of women having no such choice) I removed my long-sleeve shirt as I had a short-sleeve underneath. The degree of difficulty just lowered.
Because it gets so hot here, families use the parks when the sun isn’t up or it’s down. Even at this early hour, on the grass along the sea, couples or families with young children were eating breakfast, going down slides in playgrounds, or smoking from hubbly-bubbly pipes. Others walked along the shore. A few fishermen cast their long poles into the sea. And every so often a woman walked by, dressed in black, the only skin showing were her hands and her eyes and eyebrows.The night before, we had met a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs – a group of about 15 men and women. Woman after woman (see the photo above) told stories of their work. They had so much to say that the men could barely get in a word. One woman banker had overseen a project that helped 10,000 women start businesses with small loans. Another helped train women to market their work. And a third said her theory on why professional Saudi women have a harder time than men in business was because as girls they could not join sports teams and lost the chance to both understand teamwork as well as develop a competitive spirit. Perhaps.
She did acknowledge that society’s norms made it more difficult for women. She told the story of mentoring a woman entrepreneur, but her contact dropped off because the woman had to accompany her husband whenever he traveled; eventually she gave up on the woman. Still, she said, more and more men in Saudi’s elite circles encouraged their wives and their daughters to work.On the same evening, before the meeting with the entrepreneurs, two women journalists at a press conference asked a couple of great questions -- much tougher than their male counterparts. On my run, I thought about how encouraging it was to hear women’s confident voices – this couldn’t have happened when I was last in Saudi Arabia some 15 years ago. Even though these women were from privilege, the episodes gave the impression that women were on the verge of receiving more freedoms.
Then I thought again. A half hour into my run, feeling like I had been in a sauna, I ran past another woman in an abayah and hijab. How did she feel in this heat? What were her circumstances? What rights did she possess? What was her future?They were all unanswerable questions, of course. I ran another 10 minutes, watched long-legged white shore birds dive for fish, passed a series of large concrete sculptures, and ran up a short hill to the hotel. I stretched, did a series of sit-ups, and meditated for a few minutes. As I quieted my mind, the disquieting thoughts of the differences between the rights of men and women kept intruding. The run, it turned out, was far more discomforting than I had thought.