It’s still a pretty good idea, which would partly explain why Karen Post said she went shopping not long ago for an abaya, the robelike dress worn by some Muslim women. Ms. Post, who is a branding consultant, was headed for Saudi Arabia on a business trip.
“Online, I found a company that sells Islamic clothing,” she said. “For like $49, I found a really nice black abaya that fit perfectly.”
Late last month, she flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to give a talk on branding to about 400 executives and marketing employees with Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Now, doing as the Romans do is one thing. Doing as the Saudis do, especially for a woman, is something else.
A State Department travel warning advises American citizens to take precautions in the country, where laws against alcohol and even playing music in public are strictly enforced. Women are especially restricted. State Department guidelines note, for example, that the religious police can “pressure women to wear” the full-length black covering known as an abaya, “and to cover their heads.” Women can’t drive in the country and are strongly advised not to appear in public without an approved male escort.
Nevertheless, Western female business travelers do venture these days into Saudi Arabia. Like Ms. Post, they make it a point to learn the drill.
“I did a lot of homework through global companies, and I also used social media and talked to a lot of other women who had been there,” she said.
“I didn’t want to break any rules and go to jail.”
Even reading material was a concern. “People told me, ‘Don’t bring magazines like Vogue or Cosmo because they will be seen as pornography.’ ”
She flew in first class to Jeddah on the Saudi airline from Kennedy International Airport. “You can wear regular clothes on the airplane, but when you get into Saudi airspace, things change. All the ladies on the plane go to the restrooms about an hour before landing and take off their New York City clothes and cover up,” Ms. Post said.
She was met at the airport and driven to the luxury hotel where the event was held. Saudi hospitality, which is famous, was in full force, and, of course, the food was excellent. But she ate her meals in a dining room reserved for women. She noted with satisfaction that about a half-dozen Saudi women were among the airline employees who attended the conference, which featured several other speakers. Ms. Post said she was told that she was the first woman to address the conference.
Still, there is no real indication that the culture is changing just because a few more foreign women are traveling there. At a hotel spa, Ms. Post said: “I got to talk to some of the workers, women from the Philippines who are there because they can’t find jobs at home. They told me stories about how you really have to be very careful. You really can’t go anywhere by yourself. They all had had bad experiences.”
Recently, Cathay Pacific Airways began making overnight stops in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, as part of a scheduling shift. Some female Cathay flight attendants are not happy about the layover. In a statement, the union said it had written the airline to “demand a serious review” of the new layover plan after a female flight attendant was accosted in her hotel room by a strange male, and several others reported receiving anonymous phone calls to their rooms.
According to China Daily, the English-language Chinese newspaper, Cathay issued behavior guidelines to flight crews before the layovers in Riyadh began and even purchased abayas for flight attendants to wear.
Cathay, based in Hong Kong, said in a statement that it was “monitoring” the situation. Meanwhile, the union is advising female flight attendants to be “extra cautious” on their layovers in Riyadh.
Ms. Post said that she followed colleagues’ advice about caution. “Obviously, as an independent woman, there are certain things that they believe and that are not part of my value system,” she said. “But I knew that I was a guest, and as a guest I was raised to be respectful of a culture.”
She added: “I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into, though. I had convinced my brain that this was kind of just like going to New York, except it’s in a different part of the world. Until I got there.”