Tag Archives: daily life saudi arabia

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.

On Social Segregation: Beware of the Sections!

Yesterday my mother and I went outside (outside as in “outside the actual compound” YES, my dear people, that is actually doable here…SURPRISE!!!) to get something for lunch. Luckily for us, there are some small places near us that sell (fast) food.

However, since my mother has not been outside very much so far, she had some trouble figuring ut which of the two doors she was supposed to use in order to get inside.

Because Saudi society pays so much attention to gender segregation, it has come up with the concept of having two sections. One for singles and one for families.

So, as in our case, if you want to go and eat outside (that is especially for the fast food places) you have to make sure to go through the right door. The singles section is reserved for men (why don’t they just call it men section then?) while the family section is either for women, single or in groups, or for families.

Now, I don’t think that if you are let’s say a woman and you accidentally open the door to the men’s section, you will cause the apocalypse or something horrible will happen. But I think that would be just awkward and may cause some social discomfort since that would go against cultural norms. Besides, I can imagine that some men, especially the conservative ones, will be very confused seeing a woman in a male space all of a sudden. So let’s not upset men’s testosterone levels, ladies, by always entering either through the door that is tinted, or that says family entrance / section above it. 

Dear men, if you want to avoid hysterical screaming of hysterical and confused women, never walk into a place (accidentally or not) that has mostly women in it. They actually do start screaming. I have seen it happen.

Once I had ensured my mother that we had to go through the tinted door, we came to a staircase and went up to the second floor where a man was standing behind a counter in an empty room with some chairs and tables. That was quite a strange sight but I guess here is where the idiom other countries, other customs comes true.

Segregation does not only take place at restaurants though. You can see it in other places, too. The actual elimination of women from male places and vice versa happens at restaurants mostly. If you go to a bank there is one huge main entrance and somewhere around the building there will be a door which says ladies branch  above it but I have never been inside a bank here, so that is all I can say.

Some shops also have a families only board hanging over the entrance. That is mostly for shops that are for women like lingerie or cosmetics etc. An Uzbek man here told me that he wanted to get cosmetics for his wife but was not allowed inside the shop because he was a single male and had no female with him.  What I find very ironic though is the fact that women are allowed inside shops that are for men. Like shops that sell thobes or the Zara branch that sells male clothes (been inside there today and did not get kicked out). I have a feeling that it is the women who are being protected from men and not the other way around.

Sometimes there are also two waiting lines at fast food stands or grocery stores in malls. However, these are disregarded most of the time.  I have seen it several times that men would be standing in line under a board clearly having “women” written on it.

Those of you ladies who are sick and tired of being surrounded by men all the time, I suggest to visit the women’s sections in malls or a whole “ladies mall” all together. Places like Panorama Mall or the Kingdom Tower have a whole floor with shops where only women are allowed and men can’t see anything from the other floors because of the tinted glass all around it. In these places, the women who sell things walk around without abayas.

THAT must be the reason why some VERY desperate men sometimes put on niqab and abaya just so they can sneak in to the women’s floors to look at women in western clothes. That is what I have been told. I have not seen that transformation happen with my own eyes but based on my personal experiences at mixed gatherings I would not be surprised at all if this was actually true.