The Saudi Experience

Traveling To Saudi Arabia Is Different For A Woman, As CBS News Producer Mary Walsh Discovered

Written by CBS News producer Mary Walsh, on assignment for 60 Minutes.

The experience of putting on an Abaya and scarf just to get into Saudi Arabia is unsettling, even for a journalist used to hop scotching countries and cultures. I'd spent time in Muslim countries before, but in Saudi Arabia the rules are strict - all women must cover themselves in black robes and head scarves. This is said to safeguard public morality.

Preparing for the trip, I reached out to CBS News correspondents Sheila McVicar and Elizabeth Palmer, veterans of the Saudi experience, to get the wardrobe lowdown. I needed an Abaya just to get off the plane, they told me. No, I wouldn't be able to buy it in the Paris airport en route.

So my journey to Riyadh began with a frantic drive up Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C. I had been searching for an Abaya store with no success and my flight was in less than 24 hours. I was desperate.

So, as Friday prayers at the Islamic Center ended, I drove up the avenue stopping my cab to ask covered women walking by "Where'd you buy your outfit?" One pointed to the Islamic Center itself.

In there, she said. Who knew?

The gift shop has books and Abayas. I came away with a hooded one for day wear, another with a few shiny beads for evening.

But wearing robes does not necessarily open doors in Saudi Arabia. I had booked the Four Seasons Hotel specifically because its gym is expansive and well known. It's also off-limits to women. Ditto the swimming pool. To get some exercise I had to go to a tiny room in an obscure location. The front desk gave me a secret code to open the door. Inside there was a treadmill and a couple hand weights.

In the morning I learned another rule when I sat down for a working breakfast with the CBS News camera team - women are forbidden in restaurants' main dining rooms. The maitre d' interrupted our conversation and moved me to a side room. My CBS colleagues kindly joined me.

But truth be told when it came to getting my work done, none of these cultural strictures mattered. Inside that robe I was still a CBS News producer working with CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

We were there to do a story on the rehabilitation center the Saudis have put together for ex-jihadists, men who had joined al Qaeda and spent years in jail - either in Saudi Arabia or in Guantanamo. It's a serious subject and the Saudi psychologists, social workers and, yes, even the sheik, took me seriously when I explained how we wanted to proceed with our story. We would need extensive interviews, I told them. We're here for 60 Minutes; we must have in-depth access to the work you're doing.

As I said the words "60 Minutes" I saw expressions soften, small nods of recognition. Most of these men were educated in American universities. "60 Minutes," one doctor responded. "If I had known, I would have brought my son."

Watch the full segment below:

Written by Mary Walsh