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Editorial, Society, Where Am I (Going)?

3 Myths about Women in Saudi Arabia You Should Stop Believing

December 30, 2015
3 MYTHS

Back in July when I was at my family’s house in Florida, desperately seeking employment for the fall semester, I would occasionally scroll past a job ad for teaching positions in Saudi Arabia. For a couple weeks I clicked on them just out of curiosity, noting the good pay and benefits, but ultimately deciding that I could never live in such a place. Americans, and I’d say Westerners in general, don’t have a very good perception of Saudi Arabia. Some this is just pure islamophobia. For me it was the assumption that living as a woman here would be next to impossible. I didn’t want to walk around covered up all day in triple digit temperatures. I didn’t want to be treated differently because of my gender. I didn’t want to have my personal rights and freedoms taken away.

Though some of what I assumed is true, over the course of the nearly five months that I’ve been here, I’ve learned that the western public’s perception of daily life in Saudi Arabia, especially life as a woman, is somewhat exaggerated. Now that I’ve experienced life here for myself, and I know better, it’s annoying to see common misconceptions about women’s lives here. For women, living in Saudi Arabia is far from perfect, but it’s also not as bad as you’d think. 

Hiking near Riyadh a couple weeks ago. #Riyadh #saudiarabia #KSA #hiking #solofemaletravel #girlswhotravel #desert

A photo posted by Set A Course For Home (@setacourseforhome) on

Myth: Women in Saudi Arabia can’t leave the house unless accompanied by a male guardian.

Fact: Women can leave the house alone (but guardians and sponsors do have some legal authority over women and expats.)

I’ve seen this myth in several articles, including here and here. And it makes perfect sense under two conditions. 1) Everything you know about Saudi Arabia comes from the media and 2) you think that Saudi men have nothing better to do than to escort their wives and family members to work, the grocery store, and the salon.  

It’s true that, under Saudi laws and customs, Saudi women must have a guardian, a male family member or husband,  who has certain legal responsibilities and rights over her. Foreigners like myself don’t have guardians, but the companies we work for act as our “sponsors” who have similar legal rights over us. For example, I had to ask my employer for an exit visa so I could leave the country, and could not open a bank account with a letter of permission from them. A Saudi woman who wanted either of these things, or to get married or go to school, for example, would ask her guardian. (Most sponsors/guardians are more then happy to help with this sort of thing.) If you’re a dependent expat here with your family, your sponsor could be your husband, father, wife, or mother (yes, women can be sponsors too). Whether a woman has a guardian or a sponsor, she is legally allowed to leave the house, alone, whenever she wants.

I leave my house on my own all the time, and so do other expat and Saudi women. It is true that women cannot drive, so they must rely on family members to take them around town. But women can also go alone by taxis if they want. (Personally, I use Uber several times a week.) Or perhaps they can go by camel, though this isn’t recommended on the busy highways of Riyadh.

A camel outside Riyadh. Still faster than rush hour traffic. #Riyadh #saudiarabia #camel

A photo posted by Set A Course For Home (@setacourseforhome) on

Myth:Women must always be covered from head to toe.
Fact: Women must wear an abaya in public/around non-related men, but covering the hair and face is not required.

All women must wear an abaya in public, or when around non-family members. Many Saudi women (and some expats) in Riyadh also cover their heads and wear a niqab, which covers their face except their eyes, however this is not necessary. The only piece of clothing that is necessary is the abaya.

So while I do have to “cover up”, it’s not my entire body, and it’s not all the time. Having to wear an abaya isn’t the worst thing in the world. They’re very light, and I don’t have to worry about getting dressed up if I’m just running errands. The most annoying thing is when I trip on them when I’m walking up the stairs.

At home and in female-only spaces, like schools, universities, female-only gyms, or private parties, women don’t have to wear abayas, niqabs, or any sort of head covering. (In an interview at SXSW with Fast Company, Princess Reema described the abaya as the equivalent of formal wear—something you wear to look presentable in public, just like a suit.)  Abayas are usually black, but they can come in any color. In less conservative cities like Jeddah, some women can be seen walking with their abayas open and without a niqab.

If you’re wondering what Saudi women wear under their abayas, it’s really none of your business. But just to provide some perspective, Saudi women love shopping, and the malls here carry clothing and accessories of all kinds and many different brands, including international brands such as H&M, Zara, Marks and Spencer, and Victoria’s Secret. They love fashion just as much as women anywhere in the world. 

I hate that whenever Westerners talk about the abaya, hijab, niqab, or any similar type of clothing, they use it as an example of how Muslim women are oppressed. Let’s make a couple things clear: As I said in an earlier blog post, clothing alone doesn’t make someone oppressed. Feminists need to stop obsessing about what Muslim women wear, and instead focus on real problems facing women.

Myth: Women in Saudi Arabia must be so miserable and oppressed.

Fact: Many women here, Saudis and expats, are very happy. They lead interesting and full lives just like women anywhere else.

Saudi women are mothers, sisters, business owners, and as of December 12th, voters and elected officials. They go shopping, meet friends for coffee, take Zumba classes at the gym, edit newspapers, write novels and poetry, direct films (including the first feature made in the Kingdom, Wadjda), run ophthalmology departments at major hospitals, promote breast cancer awareness and break Guinness World Records, go to work, blog about women’s issues, train for the Olympics, tweet, and Snapchat. (Here, Hala Abdullah, a Saudi poet, performs “Woman”, a piece in the form of a letter to her future daughter.)

My students are outgoing, funny, stubborn, sassy, and talented. They love YouTube, Whatsapp, and Lebanese food. They want to study abroad in Europe or the US and become teachers, doctors, and businesswomen. They whine when I give them homework and laugh when I mispronounce Arabic words. There are many words I could use to describe them, and Saudi women as a whole, such as vibrant, complex, intelligent, and warm. But I hesitate to use the word “oppressed”, an overused term that the Western feminist world resorts to for a lack of deeper context or understanding of Saudi culture. It’s an accurate descriptor, but it’s also appropriate for women all across the world. The difference is when we talk about women’s oppression in the West or in some other countries, we also assume these women have more complexity and agency than Saudi women do.

And sure, the law does take some agency away from Saudi women. But Saudi women have their own ways of reforming their country as they see fit.  They love their lives, religion, country, and culture, and have no desire to imitate women in the West. Princess Reema, for example, had led efforts to promote breast cancer awareness and increase the number of Saudi women in the workforce. Activists such as Manal Al-Sharif have been arrested for protesting the driving ban. Change in the status of women in KSA, although slowly, is happening on their terms. They don’t need to be saved by Western feminists.

The purpose of this blog post is neither to overlook, nor to excuse the human rights issues in this country. Rather, I want people to broaden their understanding of what it’s like to live here as a woman. It’s very easy to stereotype an entire country and culture when you know so little about it. Some of the things you hear and see about women in Saudi Arabia are true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead of constantly talking about what women here can’t do, or how little power they have, let’s talk more about what they are doing and the power they do have. 

EDIT 31 Dec 2015: For further reading, check out this piece by NPR: In Ways Big and Small, Saudi Arabian Women are ‘Pushing Normal’

Where Am I (Going)?

How To Survive Saudi Arabia

October 1, 2015
islam food

Look for a teaching job in South Korea, and be picky about it. Therefore, have no luck.

Think about trying your luck with a job in the Gulf.  “Ha. No way. No way in hell.” Scroll through the International Jobs section of the Dave’s ESL Cafe job board. Find an ad for a job in Saudi Arabia. It’s almost the end of June and you thought you’d have a job by now. You’re spending the summer in your hometown after returning from Madrid and you’re worried that if you don’t get a job lined up soon, the summer is going to turn into the fall.

Send in your CV and before you can blink, receive a sample contract. Do research and read horror stories. Ask yourself if you’re willing to leave behind freedoms and customs that you’re used to for a life of relative restriction. Convert the salary from riyals to dollars and compare it to what your salary would be anywhere else in the world. Send the contract back to the recruiter. You’ve had more trouble deciding what to wear than deciding to take this job. “Meh. Why not?”

About two months later, get on a few planes and fly into the desert. Based on what you’ve read online, expect less than nothing. Expect there to be no one to pick you up at the airport. But there was. Expect the accommodation to be abysmal, or nonexistent. But it was there, and it was adequate. Admire your new, non-shared apartment. This is the first time you’ve ever lived alone, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Go to sleep on your queen-sized bed, perfectly content. The next day, go to the company office, and expect the actual contract to be totally different from the one you saw earlier. But it was the same.

School starts. Expect things to be disorganized. They were. Expect to dread coming to work every day, just like many other expat teachers in the Gulf. You do not. Experiment with organizing your lessons and find a good flow. See what works and what doesn’t. Get ideas from more experienced teachers, and always try to improve. Meet teachers from all over: the US, the UK, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, Jordan, India…

to be lesson

 

Get paid. Transfer money to the US and pay some bills. Imagine the number constantly floating above your head, $45,000, your total amount of debt, diminishing over the next few months. Make it a goal to decrease it by half by the end of the contract year.

Walk around your own, rent free apartment with no pants on because you can. See how good your butt looks as you walk by the mirror in the living room. Have private dance parties all around the flat with just you, your headphones, and the iPod in your hand. Realize that this is better for alleviating headaches than aspirin. It’s also your substitute for going to the club. In some ways, it’s much better. Decide that you shall never live with roommates again. Fill the fridge and cupboard with whatever food you want. Clean up after yourself–when you feel like it. Look at the bidet spray in your bathroom and consider trying it for the first time, then forget about it. Watch telenovelas in the living room at maximum volume. Be an anxious introvert without anyone judging you in your own home. Stay in your apartment and go hours or even days without talking to a single soul. Bliss.

There are no (dance) clubs here, no movie theaters, and no bars. For fun, the locals and expats visit each other, go shopping, or go out to eat. There is so little to do, and even though you’ve always been a homebody, you find yourself feeling bored. But because you like staying home anyway, it’s not so bad.

Read about Saudi cyber crime laws, and how the slightest criticism of politics or Islam can get one jailed or deported. Always make sure your VPN is activated so that you can watch Netflix, but also so you can access sites that may be censored by the government (and so they don’t spy on you). Keep up with the news of whats going on in your new home and surrounding countries. Read articles about Saudis who are facing execution for blogging, tweeting, and protesting. Read about expats, here and in other gulf countries, who are jailed and deported for “offensive” Facebook posts. Set your Facebook posts to private just in case someone is watching. Read about how the government is monitoring everything from Twitter to Whatsapp. Make sure the VPN is activated for your phone too. Keep certain views and ideas about politics, human rights, and religion to yourself. Keep certain parts of your identity a secret. Become slightly paranoid. Wonder if you can even blog anymore. Read other blogs from expats who live here and realize that yes, you can still blog, but that doesn’t mean you can say anything you want.

Be careful. Remain paranoid. Stay woke.

me side hair

 

Wear an abaya whenever you leave the house because you have no choice. It doesn’t bother you much. Although, you always seem to trip over it when walking up the stairs. And you’re waiting for the day it gets caught in the escalator at the mall. Go to the mall and add to your wardrobe, because you brought over very little from the states, and your job has a dress code. Long skirts. You hate skirts. Make it a policy to cover your head with a scarf in public, even though it’s not required. Change your mind when you realize that people think you look like a local, and therefore speak Arabic. There are many more black people than you expected. Stop covering your head in public so that you look more foreign.

Watch women like yourself, covered from (almost) head to toe, go into shops that sell tank tops, mini skirts, and lingerie. See winter coats on the racks and wonder who would wear such a thing in the middle of a desert. Hear from long term expats that it gets cold in the winter, and wonder if it’s really cold, or just “cold.” The same way a Floridian would say that it’s “cold” whenever it gets below 70 degrees (Fahrenheit). The malls here are just as good as, if not better than, the malls back home. Your favorite store, H&M, is at every mall. Even though you’re making more than you ever have before, you’re still very frugal and think hard about buying anything over 100 riyals. You don’t like shopping anyway.

Remember the stories and advice you read about not being seen in public with an unrelated man. How you can be arrested even if you were to ask a man for the time. Don’t even make eye contact with men unless you are at the register in a place of business. For the first few weeks, be very uncomfortable in public, and very anxious. Worry about doing something wrong. Are you sure you’re in the family section, and not in the men’s section? If there are only men in a particular store, are you allowed to go in? If there’s a man on a bench at the mall, can you sit several feet from him, on the other end of the bench, or should you just find an empty bench? Can you smile and say thank you to the guy who bagged your groceries, or would that be interpreted to be flirtatious? At the grocery store, you don’t see any lanes with partitions and veiled cashiers reserved for single women. In all the other lines, there are single men. Which line should you get into? You’re clearly waiting to speak to the attendant at the cell phone kiosk, when a group of men get in front of you. Are they allowed to do that because they’re men? (To be fair, you’ve realized that properly and patiently waiting in line is not really a thing here, among men and women alike. Having someone practically breathing down your neck while at the ATM is not a pleasant experience.)

Hate having to depend on drivers. Be glad that Uber is a thing here. Stare out the window as you go to your favorite grocery store, Tamimi (Safeway). Everything is the same tan color here. The sand, the buildings, the rocks stacked into piles at construction sites. Depressing Desert would be the name of the Crayola color that represents this city. Find out that the taxi driver is from Sudan, or perhaps India.  They are away from their families and have been here for years. Get to Tamimi and buy your pita bread, imported valencia oranges, and ice cream. Manage to check out just before prayer time, when the doors and cash registers close for 30 minutes, five times a day.

Kabsa + Betty La Fea

Kabsa + Betty La Fea

After a while, realize that you miss the company of men. You have no interest in dating or anything like that, you just simply miss being around guys once in a while. Your closest friend in the US is a man. You have a dad, brothers, and a nephew. You’ve had male roommates on multiple occasions since you moved out on your own seven years ago. You’ve always shared classrooms and workplaces with men. Sometimes, you’ve even felt more comfortable around men than women. Imagine what it would be like trying to explain this to a Saudi. Hope it never comes up.

You don’t really miss your country, but you do miss certain things about it. Little things, like wearing shorts in hot weather, public transportation, and the Bill of Rights. You’re a huge critic of the politics, policies, and culture of your home country, and you know it’s far from perfect. But there are certain things you can do there that you can’t do here, and sometimes it makes you want to scream.

Read and watch videos about Islam. Try to understand why things are the way they are here. Try to wrap your head around why Islam is the fasting growing major religion the the world, and why many expats come here not just for money, but to feel closer to their God. Realize that despite your controversial views on all religion as a whole, there are things to be admired and respected about people who are devout. Have much respect for Muslims, and really anyone of any religion who dedicates themselves to being the best person that their God wants them to be. Understand Saudi Arabia for wanting to keep the country, culture, and people as uncorrupted as possible, since it holds the holiest sites of Islam. Even though you disagree with the lack of religious and other freedoms here, you can understand their wanting to protect their country and culture from outside influences.

islam culture

You’re sure that many Saudis, including women, would not have their country any other way. Despite what the media has made you believe, Saudi women are not waiting to be saved by the west. They are not necessarily locked away in their homes, like slaves. You read an article that says that women may not leave the house without being accompanied by a male, wear makeup, or go swimming, and you know that this is false. You know that there are real, vibrant, complex humans behind the niqabs. They have families, and friends, and hobbies like swimming, cooking, and going to the gym. They go to university, and not many, but some of them go on to have careers. Your students, who are all female, do not seem to be under the crippling oppression the western media has warned you about. They aren’t begging you to “free” them and take them back to the United States. They’re too busy using Whatsapp and laughing at you when you pronounce Arabic words wrong.

Once in a while, think about the expat population that is less fortunate than you are. The ones from less economically developed, less “white” countries. The ones who work much harder than you do, but get paid much less. Remember the documentaries you saw on YouTube about expats from developing countries who move to the gulf, have their passports taken away from them, are paid much less than what they were promised, and basically treated like slaves. The horror stories that you’ve read about expat teachers like yourself are nothing like the horrors some of these people live every day. Sometimes, expat workers like maids or cleaners are abused, denied food and water, and not paid. Read a forum post about someone looking for advice on how they could help their expat friend who is depressed but not allowed to leave her accommodation except to go to work. Think about how the kafala, or sponsorship system, in which expats may not do things like travel or open bank accounts with permission from their employers, is designed to control workers.

Every day, think about how lucky you are.

Promise yourself that you’ll try to get out of the house more. Look for Arabic classes. Make a list of things you want to see: the stunning views from the Edge of the World, the beaches of Dammam and Jeddah, the trees of Al Baha, the natural pool in the Al Heet cave just outside town. Gaze at the stars in the desert. Walk, and run around the Diplomatic Quarter without wearing an abaya. Plan to meet up with other expats via Internations events. Make plans for all the places you want to see in the region, and all the places around the world that you can now afford to visit. Buy tickets to Dubai to go dancing, visit the tallest building in the world, and see Dave Chappelle live.

Overall, be content with your life. Know you made the right decision. Even though you’ve been here less than two months, consider doing a second, third, or even fourth contract. Realize that the answer is obvious.

“Meh. Why not?”

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