I have noticed that a lot of the people who are new to Riyadh, including me at the very beginning, are convinced that women are not allowed to leave the house alone, meaning that it is also not allowed for them to walk down the street without male company.
That is a very widely spread –I am tempted to say cliché on the internet when it comes to doing research on this country’s social regulations.
Yes, there are certain rules in this country that appear strange to the western world. Yes, some of the regulations here are strict and YES, it does take some effort to adapt to the local customs but that does not mean that there is some sort of… TOTAL control going on.
When I first told my Saudi friends about the whole “I may not leave the house on my own” thing, they were probably laughing at me in their heads, saying that this rule is just a myth.
In fact, I do go to malls on my own. So today I thought why not just go for a walk in the street and see what the whole drama is about? What’s the difference between a mall and a street after all?
So this afternoon I put on my abaya and my headscarf and went outside. I am actually not obligated to cover my hair, unless the religious police sees me and tells me to do so. But quite frankly, I have nothing against hijabs and if I am outside in the street on my own, it is probably for my own good not to attract anyone’s attention and Saudi Arabia is really a place where you don’t want someone’s attention in the street. So the least I can do is prbably just look like any other woman here.
Well, guess what! I went outside for a walk and nothing terrible happened to me, Alhamdulillah! It is okay to be on the street as a woman. Be it with or without the male guardian. I have seen women walk down the street alone all the time. Who knows, maybe I was just lucky today but I mean I passed by so many people, if it really were forbidden for women to walk alone, someone would have notified the police for sure and I would have been in trouble, probably not writing this right now.
The problem with being a pedestrian here is not whether you are allowed to be one or not but whether you can find any pavement to walk on. Riyadh reminds me a lot of Prishtina sometimes. With all the cars parking wherever there is a spot, making it almost impossible to walk on the street and all the small shops with apartments above them.
As for my neighborhood, there is lots of construction debris and cars on the streets. As well as many small shops, like a Sugar Sprinkles store and even two shops selling thobes that I did no dare to go into because there were only men inside. Then, there were also a lot of shop spaces just standing there empty, before I got to a row of residential homes that look a little bit like some houses in Spain, except that the ones here are fancier decorated and have the color of sand.
I even found a shop that sells Arabic sweets and various plates of different chocolates and cakes and ice cream, you get the idea, right?
So I obviously went inside and bought this delicious box of sweets. Since I showed up with my hair covered, I have been addressed by the salesperson in Arabic and he had a relatively surprised expression on his face, when I asked him to please repeat in English.
By the time the prayer calls sounded from two or three mosques at the same time, I reached the end of the street, that led to a traffic light on a street filled with driving cars. Since it would get dark soon, I turned around and walked back to the compound. And here another interesting observation:
As I approached the end of the street and was ready to cross the road, a car that was approaching stopped as the Saudi driver saw me coming closer, letting me cross the street. I was astonished. Based on my prejudices towards Arab men’s views on women, I would not have been surprised if he would have driven faster, making things difficult for me.
Ladies, if you really want to go outside and buy something in that store down the road, there seems to be nothing wrong with doing that. Your main concern will be actually finding a road to walk on without having to watch out for cars.
However, I should also note that it is very important to have an ID with you. Actually your iqama is best. You don’t want to appear too lost when being outside alone. It may happen that a mutawa or police officer approaches you if you look like you got lost and asks to identiy yourself.