Category Archives: women in saudi arabia

Guest Post:24hrs in Riyadh- Female Solo Travel in Saudi Arabia

Yes, you read it correctly. I did actually put the words Saudi Arabia, female¬†and solo travel next to each other and I am just as excited about that possibility to occur as some of my readers may be confused. ūüôā

For a blogger or a writer of any sorts, there is nothinng better than getting in touch with his or her readers. Since I started this blog, I have received many  E- Mails from Saudis and internationals, journalists and PhD students, filled with praise for my work or questions regarding my experiences in Saudi and of course some occasional, inevitable criticism.

If any of you are reading this right now: Thank you very much for your time, you are what keeps my work going. I love you all, even my critics!

A couple of months ago, just as I was pacing in front of the lecture hall before my first exam of the semester, I received an E-Mail from Kiera, a lady living in Dhahran who asked me what I would recommend for a short trip to Riyadh. I stood still for a second. Traveling alone in Saudi? As a woman? ALONE?? That was definitely interesting! Women traveling in KSA was nothing new but the ones I knew of did so in groups of at least three in the company of their personal driver.

I immediately forgot about my exam stress as my head started filling with questions. My trip to Jeddah at the end of my stay in the Kingdom ended up not happening so I didn’t really know what to tell her. I admired her decision to take a trip to Riyadh by herself. I wished I would have had the time and the courage to do the same so I did the best I could and told her about¬†things I had done in Riyadh and some of the things I wished I had done, had there been more time and more opportunities.

Today, I am beyond happy to share her story with you! To give you a taste of what awaits you, here’s my favorite quote so far: ‚ÄúPeople in Riyadh are open-minded but the laws are strict somewhat‚ÄĚ.

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Service Denied

I came across something on my Facebook feed today that sparked in me a new load of thoughts that may keep this blog going.

There was a video about how a Starbucks in Saudi Arabia had denied service to women and asked for their drivers to get the coffee instead.

Dear haters and critics out there, I don’t want to proclaim that Saudi Arabia is a paradise for women (not by comparison to other places, in my opinion). ¬†I know that finding yourself in a situation where you can’t even get a cup of coffee just because you are a woman sucks. No matter how minor the issue is, it’s just not a nice thing to experience.

The video I saw made the wrong impression that women are now generally banned from entering ANY Starbucks in the ENTIRE country. As someone who has spent some time in the field of journalism, seeing this twisting and omission of facts, makes me want to roll my eyes as far as possible.

My further reading on this ban revealed that the women have been banned from entering this one particular Starbucks because the wall that separated single men from single women or women with their husbands, collapsed and therefore women could not enter the place until the issue was resolved. That is something the makers of that video apparently chose to ignore. I have no idea how such a wall can collapse and why it would do so but the absence of a separation medium as a reason to not allow women in sounded like a realistic explanation.

The average Westerner may think that setting up physical barriers between men and women in 2016 is absurd and I agree with that. It is a matter of principle to be offended by the fact that someone is not allowed to do something based on gender. But it should also be said that if gender segregation is a part of Saudi daily life based on religion and tradition and if Saudi society thinks that they want to keep that up even in 2016, then, dear¬†haters and critics,¬†I doubt that there is anything we “civilized modern people” can do about it by raging on social media. So just save your energy for more important things that your discontent can actually have an effect on once you add a pinch of action to it. Something like climate change or the waste of still edible food or Trump becoming president of the United States!

Some of you may argue that if there was no separating wall in that Starbucks, then why not just leave the men outside and let women in?

Good idea! For the sake of a change of scenery in the media coverage on what happens in Saudi Arabia, let me tell you that while women are banned from only one particular section of a shop, men can sometimes not enter at all unless they have a woman who accompanies them. Not to mention whole floors in malls or entire shopping malls as a whole that are reserved for women only.

There are quite a number of shops in Riyadh that have “Family Only” written above their entrances. In that case, a man who is on his own, will not be allowed inside the shop no matter how much he wants to get in.

That might not sound like a big deal to you (but to be honest, being banned from one single Starbucks while there still thousands of others out there should neither, in retrospect), but sometimes it also becomes an inconvenience to Saudi and non-Saudi men alike.

I remember having a conversation with a young man from Uzbekistan who had come to Riyadh for work. He had a wife back home and because in Riyadh you can find all sorts of fancy stuff not available in some other countries, he decided to go to the mall and get some cosmetics or perfume for his wife. The place where he had seen a potential gift however, was a “Family Only” shop. So he had no choice but to think of something else to get her. Something that he could get at a place where men were allowed inside.

So you see, if you are a man and you want to get an item that is more oriented at women or if your wife sends you out to get that something for her, chances are you just won’t be able to get it, unless you find it in a shop that is open to everyone.

I expected to find a reverse situation when my friend and I found ourselves at a ZARA MEN store. I assumed that since this was a store that only sold items for men, my friend would not be allowed in to pick a shirt for her husband. On the contrary! No one said a word about our presence. The staff was even kind enough to ask whether we were looking for something specific and if they could be of any help.

From the posts of a fellow blogger in Riyadh, I gathered that when little children attended organized gym classes for toddlers, or play dates or whatever it is you call that, there are cases when only the mothers are allowed to attend with their kids.

So, if you are (rightfully) going to pose the question of how come women are denied things just because they are women, then, for the sake of the bigger picture you may also ask:

Why should a man not be able to buy his wife something he wants her to have just because he is a man and has no other woman to come along with him? How come a father can’t accompany his own kid to some pastime activity just because he is a man?

The fact that men are allowed so many other things put aside because inequality is a matter of principle, isn’t that all a bit unfair despite being a minor issue? Especially if you are a man in that situation? But I guess no one has ever thought about that, right?

 

The Women Who Did it

Sometimes during my stay in Riyadh I found myself in situations where no matter where I went, I heard moans, complaints and the excited voices of those who could not stop talking about how they would go home for vacation soon, listing all of the (by Saudi standards inappropriate) things they would do once they got there, in great detail.

I was not so much surprised to find that the vast majority of these complaints came from women. Not that I have never experienced uncomfortable or frustrating moments but still did I feel like the best I could do was just stay calm. I had, after all, chosen life in Riyadh over an unsupervised, carefree bachelorette’s life in Berlin myself for the sake of a new environment and now I had to pull it through for a mere nine months. So what could possibly go wrong?

The more time passed, the more I started thinking that something must be wrong with me. I barely answered a question about my experiences in Saudi when I was already interrupted by the person talking to me, telling me how my positive or neutral impressions must be wrong because there were so many other things I did not consider that were actually bad. Whether these other things played any role in my day-to-day life or whether they were even present as such, given my situation, barely concerned anyone. Only the few negative remarks I decided to voice occasionally were approved of with a nod and an “I told you so.” Since I was brought up in the belief¬†that those older than me are wiser and therefore (almost) always right, there was not really a point in arguing.

So I just stayed seated by my table at someone’s birthday party, absently chewing on my peanuts and sipping ‘Saudi champagne’, while the woman talking to me explained how I could possibly be denied medical help and die if my male relative was not there in order to approve of the doctor examining me (a belief widely spread among westerners for some reason and supported by the one or the other interview with a foreign paramedic working in Riyadh). I still hope she did not see me rolling my eyes at her in annoyance.

Towards the end of my stay however, I did take notice of at least some positive changes in those women, who only a few months ago could do nothing but complain.

“You know what I understood now?” asked a friend of mine as we were talking on Skype, shortly after I had returned home. “I realized that I have to stop complaining and take things as they are. If I cannot find the ingredients I need for baking, I just have to use what I have available instead. Making something else if I have to. ¬†Instead of being upset about shops closing for prayer, I should find a way to get things done¬†around those times”, she said to me among a few other things.

A big concern for all these girls, so it appeared to me, was the fact that as a woman in Saudi you have plenty of time. If you don’t know what to do with all of it, it is not a surprise that you let frustration and anger get the better of you.

I have observed how some women discovered a new hobby and expanded it to professionalism. Starting with baking over photography to showing newcomers around town.  I met a group of eastern European wives of Saudis who, naturally feeling a bit lonely in their new residence, got in touch with other wives like them through social media and joined forces when it came to making time pass faster, be it by going on weekend trips to al Khobar or Jeddah, taking their children to the zoo, visiting art exhibits and whatever else they found.

Others were still floating in a bubble of negativity but nevertheless decided that they will probably never have such a luxurious life again and enjoyed their swimming pools,  sinfully expensive Armani pants and deadly high heels while working on their dissertations, teaching English at school or university or just volunteering where they could.

Reflecting on all the stories that these women shared with me, I would say that even though these activities seem so mundane to those who live them every day outside of Saudi, for the women on site, they are indeed little achievements. I would say that they did it. They somehow figured out how to make it through the day and if they can, I am pretty sure so can you.

No Woman, No Cab (Unless You’re Lucky)

When I wanted to get from A to B while I lived in the Balkans, I had the choice between walking, taking the bus, hitchhiking (which a lot of peope in Kosovo do, even female KFOR soldiers) and taking a cab.

Here in Saudi, there is no such thing as public transportation yet, hitchhiking in this society is probably as unthinkable as the possible invention of a time machine any time soon and walking can be taken off the list almost entirely for two reasons: a.) It is way too hot, even in the winter time and b.) There are less sidewalks in this country, if any, than there are in Pristina.

So the one thing that is left here, besides owning a vehicle is taking a cab. As a woman however, that is not as easy as some of you may think. Since women are not allowed to drive here, they are dependent on either an own driver or the mercy of a cabman. Now what do I mean by that?

The thing about taxis and being a woman here is that not every driver will be willing to take you.

When I first came to Riyadh in September, I needed a taxi to drive me home from school. What happened was that the secretary had to call three different taxi services until she found one that would drive a female unknown to him.

I am not so sure what exactly it is that frightens the drivers here so much but I assume that they are just scared of being detected with a female customer that they usually don’t drive around, and that all goes back to the idea of no social interaction between non relatives.

I was reminded of that whole taxi issue just yesterday. I really needed someone to drive me to an interview meeting. So there I was. Questions ready, dressed in my old school uniform from Kosovo, abaya all buttoned up and the only thing I needed was a cab.

The first driver that I called had absolutely no clue where the compound was that I had to go to, the second one didn’t pick up the phone and the reception in my compound was closed as it was friday which is a free day here.

At some point I was just so frustrated with the situation that I almost wished myself bak to Kosovo where the drivers barely manage to find you and if they do, they will talk to you non stop during the whole ride, of which the first one and a half kilometers will be free of charge.

Somehow, I managed to get a taxi at the end but I really must say that this process has never been as tiresome as it is here. Particularly if you are a woman.

So the best thing to do here is either have an own driver, which most likely will cost you a little fortune or have a relative escort you everywhere.

If you have none of the above, I would strongly recommend to bring a lot of patience and stress management skills with you, if you chose to leave the house here.

How Do Women Eat Or Drink When Covered Up?

While taking a break from my catch up studies for school, I thought I could take the time and answer a question that several people have asked me before I left for Riyadh.

Women in Saudi Arabia must wear an abaya, burqa or niqab when leaving the house. When wearing the burqa or niqab, the woman’s face is covered either entirely or it leaves a little room for the eyes.

So how do you eat or drink when you are covered from head to toe??

I have beeen wondering myself at first but after an observation by coincidence, this question was answered for me easily.

I am not sure whether that applies to the burqa or the niqab in particular, but if a woman wishes to eat or drink, she just lifts the veil (only as much as necessary of course), takes a bite or a sip and puts the veil down again.

Simpler than I thought really.