My body was draped head to toe in black, but I still felt naked. I have spent years living and working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, yet now, for the first time, I was alone on a secluded street near the Red Sea, unescorted in public after sundown. Across the road, cab drivers in loose white robes squatted against a concrete wall, smoking cigarettes and eyeing me with open interest. I set my face with practiced indifference as I glanced quickly up and down the street. Then I saw them: two dozen women power walking, their limbs synchronized in the grainy yellow glow from the streetlights.
Out front was May Aboulfaraj, a forty-year-old fashion designer. In lieu of the other women’s traditional black abayas, she wore a custom jumpsuit made of lightweight purple cloth and decorated with reflective tape and iron-on emoji decals. As she waved to me, her sleeves fanned out, creating the silhouette of a flying squirrel. The tip of her ponytail danced beneath a green bandanna—a sporty substitute for a hijab. She greeted me with a brisk kiss on the cheek. “You missed warm-up! Yalla, let’s go.”
Aboulfaraj founded Bliss Run, a women’s running club, with three other women in 2016. Her collaborators, also in their forties or fifties, were dressed in their own custom jumpsuits. They welcomed me warmly. “Salaam, hi-hi habibti, love. How-are-you? Are you fine? Yeah? Amazing, alhamdulillah.” The women kept up a playful mood, but the gathering was an act of defiance.