Tag 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.

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.

The ‘Women May Not Walk on the Street Alone’ Myth

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 clich√© 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?

DSC03235 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.

The Bright Side of the Dress Code

It’s always the same old story. You go to the mall with a solid plan of what it is you need to get and all you want to do is get in, buy what you need and get out again. ¬†Yes, this type of woman actually exists…

But if you are a group of women on a sunny day in Riyadh and in a fabulous mood, you may end up buying something completely different.

We were actually doing groceries for the most part and had some time left after bringing the bags to the bus. So I thought that I may just as well try and get the jewelery I need for prom until it was time to leave. But the display windows in some of the clothing shops are just too pretty to simply pass by and so my company and I ended up inside a shop that sold what I assume are traditional, colorful Saudi dresses.

The actual traditional dress for women here is the black abaya. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, there are also some female dresses that seem to be for special occasions, hence they are more colorful and more fancy decorated. ¬†Maybe what I stumbled upon is actually not really Saudi but I mean it was all labeled in Arabic, it is sold in Saudi Arabia and the women on the posters cover their hair…well, all in all it is something very Middle Eastern for sure and for me that is reason enough to be fascinated by it. Saudi or not.

Just as I came up the stairs to the second floor, I was captured by a sample I have seen earlier and that I always stopped by and looked at until my mother would call me impatiently. This time all of us seemed to agree on taking a look inside and I said to myself “This one or no other”.

catalogue by alqassemiya.com
catalogue by alqassemiya.com

But sometimes, at the sight of the price, you may end up changing your opinion or prosponing the wish for another day and buy something else instead because ‚ā¨ 200 for a dress that you will probably never have a chance to wear in public…? Well, see for yourself.

However, I did not have to leave empty handed in the end. The good thing about shops here is that the more people buy the same thing, the more discount there will be. So I received a very nice gift after all.

IMG_3872 IMG_3871 IMG_3869

So yes, the general dress code here may appear sad and monotone and is quite a torture during the summer months, unless it’s made of silk, but there is also a more bright and more colorful side to it. At least for special occasions.