When the headmistress at a state high school in Antwerp, not far from where I live, banned the headscarf on school premises last year, 30 Muslim girls were forced by their angry fathers and imam to drop out of school. Demonstrations followed and plans were made to create separate Muslim schools. At the time, Belgian lawmakers were the first in western Europe to take the initial legal steps towards barring women from wearing Islamic face veils in public. Since then, many countries have considered the same ban, most notably France where the law was recently passed.
At the time, I felt proud of my country, a rare feeling for me. As a 25-year-old woman who had travelled the world and enjoyed a university education in all its freedom, I empathised with women who had been deprived of the same privileges. My perceptions had been shaped by my first direct encounter with the larger issues of integration roiling Europe when I was 16. A young boy who I presumed to be a Muslim spat on my shoes and told me to dress properly while I was out shopping in Brussels on a sunny day.
It was only after my trip to visit my expatriate father in Saudi Arabia, to the heart of Islam, that I learnt to swallow my shallow pride as I was trying to understand Islam and its influence in Europe. My encounters with a number of educated, worldly Saudis, each of them leaders in their communities, revealed a world very different from what most Europeans have seen. Access to the kingdom proved exceptionally difficult for an unmarried woman below the age of 39 who was travelling alone. I had prepared myself that every cliche about oppressed woman would become reality - but instead, I met Reema.
Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud warmly welcomed me to her luxury wellness centre in the middle of Riyadh, where Saudi women exercised in the pool to the tunes of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas. One woman was lazily reclining, sending text messages and discussing with her friends where to enrol her little girl in ballet classes. No newspaper in Saudi Arabia will tell her this, but she has her ways.
Their bikinis in the latest designs and trendy sports outfits were bought at the women-only floor of the Harvey Nichols department store in the city centre. The same store is working on a lighter, breathable fabric for fashionable abayas. From her experience as CEO of Harvey Nichols Riyadh, Reema told me how Saudi women were slowly but surely finding their way into the job market. "Before my clients were mostly buying evening wear and holiday wardrobes, but now they increasingly look for a suitable outfit to wear to work."
She smiled at me as if to gently allow my preconceptions to melt away under the unrelenting sun, much like the ice cubes in my strawberry smoothie, which was also her favourite. I learnt that beneath abayas and niqabs, these Saudi women were free to ponder world politics and even religion. "I can download every interpretation of the Quran ever written right here on my iPhone," said Maha Taibah, the head of the education sector at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority. She caressed her red snake-skin phone cover with delicately manicured fingers as she went on: "The voice of suppressed women is often misunderstood in the West as mass media fail to convey the real issues Saudi women are facing."
They have more important things on their minds than the driving ban or having to wear the abaya. They still have to deal with abuse, the widespread lack of freedom for women throughout society, and various restrictions in the job market. Dr Maha Almuneef, a paediatrician and leader of a national programme on the prevention of domestic violence, introduced a bill to the Saudi parliamentary council on domestic violence, while her child rights act will be approved soon. She told me how Islamic extremists have, in a strange way, made Saudi Arabia more willing to change.
It's a point echoed by Prince Mohammed Al Faisal, CEO of one of the largest holding companies in the country. "September 11 was a blessing in disguise," he said. "As horrific as the attacks were, they forced religious scholars into defensive debate." And I finally understood. "You know what?" Princess Banderi Al Faisal, the director general of the King Khalid Foundation, asked me shortly before I left for Brussels. "I am happy I don't need to think about what to wear in the morning. I actually think my abaya is a blessing."
Lisa De Bode is a freelance journalist and marketing professional in Brussels