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.
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.
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.
— Mozah S (@MozahsS) December 12, 2015
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’