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saudi arabia

Editorial, Society, Where Am I (Going)?

3 Myths about Women in Saudi Arabia You Should Stop Believing

December 30, 2015

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?”


Saudi Girls Surrounded by Street Harassment Mob, Are Blamed For It

July 27, 2015

If anyone ever says to you that women should dress properly in order to avoid sexual assault or harassment, please send them the link to this video, which shows girls in head-to-toe Islamic dress being harassed by a mob of males.

A street harassment mob seems like the most terrifying thing ever.

From Al Arabiya News:

Police in the Saudi city of Jeddah arrested on Sunday one man suspected of harassing two girls on the city’s Corniche after a video of a group of teenagers and young boys collectively harassing the two women was circulated on social media.

Authorities launched an investigation into the incident and are in pursuit of the remaining harassers, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.

The video shows a group of teenagers and young boys collectively harassing two women along a park in Jeddah’s Corniche. It is unclear when the video was filmed, however it was uploaded to YouTube in the past week.

A police source told Al Arabiya that authorities in Jeddah are analyzing the video to identify those involved in the incident and summon them.

Here’s the video:

At one point it seems that they are completely surrounded and cannot move, and one of the girls seems to be clearly frustrated.

If you’ve never experienced street harassment before, it’s a mix of feeling unsafe, objectified, anxious, and dirty all at the same time. I don’t know what I’d do if I was ever surrounded like this. I probably wouldn’t leave my house again for days.

They say that the abaya, or other types of Islamic dress is supposed to protect women from the male gaze, or keep men from being tempted by women. But here these girls are, covered from head to toe except their eyes, and they are not protected at all. Street harassment can happen to anyone, whether they’re wearing a bikini, or pajamas, or an abaya with a head scarf.

A few days ago, Arab News reported that there is new information about events that led up to the harassment mob. Apparently, there’s a new video, shown below, which shows the girls acting “provocatively“:


The new video showed the two girls driving a quad bike at the seashore, waving their hands and gesticulating at the boys.
A number of people condemned the provocative behavior of the girls. A few called for accountability of the two girls as they started it; others said that it doesn’t justify their harassment and that punishment for their harassers should be stiff…

Musa Kalo, a Saudi journalist, said on his WhatsApp account that the video shown on the channel and posted on social media revealed the true character of the girls, who provoked the boys in the first place and showed “immoral behavior” while riding the desert bike on the Corniche.
“Most of us watched the video of the harassment that occurred in Jeddah, but the video shown on MBC revealed the real reason for this harassment; I hope quick sanctions will be launched against the girls and boys who showed immoral behavior,” he said.
Another social media user, Shazia bint Abdat, said the video showed the immoral behavior of the girls. They started harassing the boys first and were trying to grab the attention of the young men, while riding on the bike which was also improper behavior.
“We wear abya to cover and protect ourselves. It doesn’t mean that after wearing abya women are allowed to move around among men. Not only this, they were totally wrong in their behavior which showed that they were trying to catch the attention of the boys. The girls are the main culprits here,” said Abdat.

Ah, ok. So it’s the girls’ fault. Even though they live in a society where men have much more power over them. Even though there were 20-30 boys and 2 girls.  I guess the boys simply could not control themselves and just had to form a mob around a them. They had no other choice, right? And how dare these girls ride bikes, I mean, how immodest of them to think that they can have fun. How dare they try to catch the boys’ attention, something no girl in the history of the world has ever done.

It’s the girls’ fault. They were the ones being provocative. Boys will be boys. The girls shouldn’t have been there. They were asking for it.

Sound familiar?

Here’s another terrifying video of women getting harassed in Saudi Arabia.

Street harassment is common in KSA, and people are using social media to fight back. Al-Monitor reports:

In Saudi Arabia’s virtual world, which is way ahead of its reality, a Facebook page titled “Childhood without harassment” was created to shed light on the issue of child molestation. The page was created after an incident in which minors were raped in the city of Jeddah and in response to the light punishment given to the criminals. The punishments were limited to several lashes and short prison stays against perpetrators who caused great psychological and physical devastation to the victims.

A study conducted by a female Saudi researcher about “sexual harassment of women” on a sample of women aged between 18 and 48 has shown that 78% of respondents claimed to have experienced sexual harassment directly, while 92% said that sexual harassment is on the rise. The study found that 27% of them have been subjected to verbal harassment; 26% were subject to “tarqim” attempts, which is the attempt to pass on a phone number; 24% were subject to harassment by looks; and 15% were physically touched…

In a study of 24 mostly Western countries, Saudi Arabia was ranked third in the rate of harassment.

Third out of 24 countries. Wow. My first thought is to assume that the high rate of harassment in KSA has something to do with women’s oppression and sexual repression. But given that street harassment is also very common in places where women are supposedly less oppressed, and where sexual expression is allowed, like the US and Europe, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think what it comes down to is patriarchy. Sexual harassment, and violence against women in general, is just another way for men to control women. No matter what women wear or do, no matter what our religion or culture is, patriarchy will find a way to hold power over us, and a reason to blame us and shame us for it.

Society, Where Am I (Going)?

I Wore an Abaya and Didn’t Feel Oppressed

July 25, 2015
his is me in an abaya. Still need to learn to tie the scarf right. And yes, that's a new hairstyle.

So I ordered an abaya from Amazon, and it came in the mail today. If you still don’t know, I’m moving to Saudi Arabia in just a few weeks. I decided to just get an abaya now so that I can wear it as soon as I get off the plane. I’ve read that sometimes people go straight to the mall after landing to get an abaya, but now I don’t have to worry about people staring at me as I walk through the mall to get one for the first time.

First, lets get something straight. An abaya is not a burqa, is not a chador, is not a hijab, is not a niqab, is not a…I know it’s a little confusing. I think this page on BBC explains the differences well enough. (If you know of a better resource, let me know.)

When I got back from DC today it was sitting on my bed in a DHL package. I immediately ripped it open and tried it on. It’s actually not bad. It’s like a long loose fitting dress. It’s very comfortable, not too heavy, and I like how it flows, though I don’t know how I’ll like it in 40 degree (C) desert weather. But if women in that part of the world can put up with it then I’m sure it’s doable. It covers my arms up to my wrists, and my legs down to my ankles. It has breast pockets, and pockets near the hips (YAY for pockets in women’s clothing!) and buttons from the collar bone to the waist.

So this is something I’ll have to wear anytime I’m in public or around men. I’ll be working at an institution for women, so when I get to work, I believe I’ll be able to take it off. Also, I think in the Diplomatic Quarter, a very nice part of town where all the foreign embassies are, I won’t have to wear it. But I’ll be wearing it much of the time. Being able to wear literally anything underneath is very convenient. I’m sure I’ll be doing errands and going to the mall in my pajamas.

I got my abaya from a company called East Essence. They have a website, but you can also order from their Amazon store. It came with a belt, but I don’t think I’ll wear it with the abaya. The city of Riyadh seems to be quite strict about the dress code, from what I’ve been reading on blogs and forums. From what I understand, abaya’s are about hiding skin as much as they are about hiding a woman’s figure. A belt would give me too much of a waist so it wouldn’t be culturally appropriate.

The abaya I bought. $27.99.  lLink

The abaya I bought. $27.99.

East Essence, and similar stores, have clothing and accessories that come in many styles and colors. They’re really beautiful, but in KSA, especially in the capital Riyadh, which is very conservative, only black is culturally acceptable. So I got a black abaya and a black pashmina scarf that I’ve been practicing wrapping as a hijab. But to be honest I’ll probably just end up throwing it around my head most of the time. I hear that foreigners are cut a little slack when it comes to the head covering.

So yeah, I kinda like the garment, and the only thing I’m worried about is the heat, especially since it’s black. And no, I don’t feel oppressed when I’m wearing it.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that. As an American, non-Saudi, non-Muslim, non-Arab woman, this garment has no cultural significance for me. I only bought so I can respect the culture that I will soon be living in. Otherwise I wouldn’t wear any sort of Islamic garment, not necessarily because I don’t like them, but because that would be cultural appropriation. As someone who is not culturally connected to the abaya, my opinion on how I feel when I’m wearing it is, in most cases, irrelevant.

But in this case, since I’m going to have to wear it, I thought I’d give my opinion for a couple reasons. 1) It might be helpful for future expats who are moving to KSA. 2)To highlight that it’s silly to call a woman oppressed based on what she wears, something Muslim feminists have been saying for years. (Side note, Femen can go to hell.)

I would guess that because it’s a part of their culture and something they grew up wearing, Saudi women love abayas. I came across this piece in the Huffington Post about a Saudi woman talking about her experience with abayas:

At one point in my teenage years, my gang of close friends and I designed and tailored our own special abayas with our logo — a small cat’s paw print on the back next to the letter of our first names. Mine had a huge purple “R” across the back, made up of shiny purple Swarovski crystals. I even wore a matching purple cap over my headscarf just for kicks.

But at the same time, we wanted to wear them when we felt like wearing them. Anything that is forced is hated and eventually people rebel against it.

One of my religious teachers in Saudi Arabia used to tell us: “Great fruits, like an apple, wear a protective cover to protect their insides from the harm of the outside.”

Of course, being teenagers, we would all protest that we were not fruits and we should be free to customize our abayas to reflect our personalities. There were times when my friends and I would get told off by the tough morality police in Jeddah for our more outlandish abayas, and, on one occasion, a whole group of us were chased down the street by a car packed with stick-carrying religious police because we were running to our cars (we were late — as usual) and our legs were showing as we ran…

Even though it doesn’t stop men from staring and cat calling, I do feel that an abaya somehow empowers women in the Gulf.

While I have no idea who decided that women should be in black and men in white, I have no complaints. Black has remarkable slimming powers — and it goes well with any purse or pair of shoes.

I’d say that clothing can represent oppression, but they do not equal oppression. Lets take bras, for example. From when we’re preteens with boobs the size of mosquito bites, we start with training bras, then we upgrade to regular bras, and we wear them for the rest of our lives. They’re uncomfortable as fuck, and many people, including myself, would rather not wear them. But for some reason, our society thinks that free flowing, slightly droopy boobs rolling around under your shirt are indecent.  Now what if an alien race from Kepler 452b (aka Earth 2.0) came to Earth, saw that many people wear bras, and deemed us all oppressed just because we do? Same thing with high heels. I mean these are shoes that are so damn uncomfortable because they literally force your feet into an awkward, unnatural shape, yet people wear them all the time, to feel sexy, to be professional, to be accepted. Maybe you can say that bras, high heels, and certain types of clothing are small examples of women’s/feminine presenting people’s oppression as a whole. I honestly think that’s fair. What’s not fair in the case of Islamic clothing is putting so much emphasis on this article of clothing when we talk about oppression, avoiding nuance when talking about Islamic clothing and oppression, and ignoring/silencing Arab/Muslim women when talking about oppression.

To reiterate, when talking about oppression of Saudi women, I think it’s important to:

1) Don’t put so much emphasis on what they wear. 
So, we should recognize that abayas are just one part of Saudi culture, as high heels are just one part of female/femme culture. There are other ways that women in both these groups (which may overlap, btw) are oppressed, for example: street harassment, rape, and domestic violence.

Also, we shouldn’t hold prejudice or assumptions against people based on what they wear. Unfortunately, since 9/11, we do. Which is why France has bans on face coverings, and hijabs for girls in school. And why Muslims in the US, or those who are mistaken for Muslims, are victims of harassment and hate crimes.

We shouldn’t assume that women in KSA don’t want to wear islamic clothing, something that has cultural and religious significance for them. People like the activists in Femen, who believe in “liberating” Muslim women by getting them to remove their clothing, are being disrespectful to their culture and speaking over the people they are trying to “save.”. Femen, and I think many westerners, equate oppression with clothing, and that’s wrong.

2.)Nuance is important.

We should acknowledge that many Saudi women love wearing abayas, and they love their culture the way it is. If a Saudi woman says that she believes it’s right to have to ask her husband if she can get a job, or go to school, guess what, that’s her opinion. And if another Saudi woman says she wants more gender equality in her country, but she also loves wearing abayas and going to sex segregated restaurants, guess what, that’s her opinion too. One Saudi female activist, Manal Al-Sharif, who was jailed for driving, told Fox News host Sean Hannity, “if freedom is wearing a bikini, I don’t want that, to be frank with you.” She both appreciates the modest dress of women in her culture, and thinks that women should be able to drive. It’s possible to believe both of these things at the same time.
3. They don’t need to be saved.

Muslim women don’t need to be saved by benevolent westerners. Believe it or not, there are some great Muslim activists and feminists, like Al-Sharif, who was mentioned above. In Saudi Arabia, there are women who are working to gain voting rights, the right to drive, the right to participate in politics, among other things.

Note: I’m not trying to pretend that Saudi Arabia is a leading example for women’s rights; of course it’s not.  But I do think it’s important to counteract the dominant media narrative that #AllSaudiWomen or #AllMuslimWomen are oppressed and trapped. Just from watching a few YouTube videos, I’ve learned so much that has changed my perception on women in Saudi Arabia.

In this interview with Sean Hannity, Manal Al-Sharif dispels some common stereotypes about Saudi life, while recognizing that the country has a long way to go on women’s rights. She also talks about how it’s not fair to compare Western women with Saudi women, and rightfully takes offense to Hannity saying that Western women are more liberated than Saudi women.

Just an update about my job: Today I went to DC to get my medical exams done and get my visa application started. I think my ETA is still mid August. If you’re wondering about the degree attestation, medical check, and visa process, don’t ask me because my company arranged for a visa agency to take care of everything for me.

PS, is it weird that I feel less anxious about moving to Saudi Arabia than moving to Korea? (I’ve never been to Korea, but before this job came along, I was sure that my next teaching job would be there.) I think I know why this is, but I’ll save it for another blog post.

In the comments, tell me:
Would you ever live in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or any place where there is a strict dress code?
Do you think that western media generally gives a far and accurate presentation of Saudi women?
What is your first impression of me in an abaya? Weirded out? Disgusted? Indifferent? How do you think I look? Should I bedazzle it to spice it up? (probably not).

If aliens from Kepler 452b came to Earth, what do you think they’d think of us?

Where Am I (Going)?

Yes, I’m Really, Definitely Moving to Saudi Arabia

July 5, 2015

Sup y’all.

So, what’s been going on with me the past couple months?

Well, I left my job in Madrid at the end of April, and then in May I did a CELTA course. It was great, though very difficult. I will write a review of the course…eventually.

In June I came back to the US, and right now I’m just staying with family. I started applying to what seems like a million recruiters to help me find jobs in Korea. But it wasn’t looking too promising. There are plenty of private school/hagwon jobs that I qualify for, but I really wanted to work at a public school because the hours are better, you get more vacation time, and you aren’t overworked. Some people might disagree, but in my opinion public school jobs in Korea are just a better deal. But I guess I started applying too late, because most of the public school jobs in the cities have gone already.

I started looking into other countries for the millionth time. And just out of curiosity I applied to a couple recruiters who were looking for females to teach in Saudi Arabia. I was offered a job and sent a contract within a week. Now it’s just a matter of doing visa stuff.

Now why on earth would you want to live in Saudi Arabia? I’m sure you might be thinking this. I mean, aren’t the women there practically human slaves, and you have to live under sharia law, and you have to wear a burqa?

Well, Saudi Arabia might not be as bad as you think.

Of course, women’s rights are a huge issue there. And yes, it is a very traditional islamic country because of their history, so I, like any foreigner in any country, will have to be respectful of their laws. This includes: no alcohol, no speaking with the opposite sex in public, using female only entrances and facilities, and wearing the abaya with a head covering in public, which is different from a burqa. I think abayas are kinda pretty, actually.

But from what I understand, foreigners are given a little slack. For example, I hear that some women can get away with not wearing a head covering. And of course I wouldn’t need a man’s permission to do anything.

Also, women there aren’t as oppressed and voiceless as we tend to think in the west. They do have jobs. They do go to school. There are female only universities. They study abroad. They speak English. They can’t drive, but some activists are trying to change that. Many of them enjoy their lives. They enjoy their traditions and customs, even if it might seem conservative to us Westerners. I’m not trying to say that human/civil rights isn’t an issue in the Kingdom, but Western media does tend to exaggerate things about countries that are different from ours. The above video is part of a reporter’s investigation of women’s lives in KSA. You may be surprised to see how this working mom blends tradition with modernity in her daily life.

That being said, why the heck would I STILL want to live there? Honestly, it’s not my first choice. (Heck, Korea isn’t even my first choice.)

It’s about the one thing that makes the world go round: money.

I hate to sound superficial, but it’s true. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offers some of the highest salaries for ESL teachers in the world. I’ll be making the lower end of that salary range because of my limited qualifications and experience, but when they’re paying for my accommodation, transportation, round trip airfare, health insurance, and visa expenses, I’ll be able to save most of my paycheck. Which means I can pay off my student loans and credit card debt within 2 years instead of 20.

I am a little worried, because based on forum posts and blogs, turnover seems to be high, and teachers seem to be very frustrated about working at various locations in the country. I mean, I’ve read things that made me want to back out. But I’m going to stick with it because 1) money, 2) the experience and opportunity (how many people can say they’ve been to Saudi Arabia?) and  3) as of right now, I think it will be tough but I can handle it.

I will be sure to post updates. I’ll either be leaving at the end of this month, or the beginning of next. If anyone lives in Riyadh, hit me up! In the mean time, I still want this blog to be about more than just what I’m doing at the moment, so keep an eye out for more editorials.

Would you ever live in Saudi Arabia or anywhere similar? Tell me in the comments. 

Header image is of the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia. Via recycleharmony/flickr. 

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