Strong in the Broken: Female in Saudi Arabia

Today’s Strong in the Broken essay is by Ersatz Expat who lives in Saudi Arabia. The essay is a bit longer than I usually post but her experiences are unique and eye-opening, so I decided to publish the piece in full, in one post, rather than breaking it up.

A little over two years ago, over supper in our house in Ipoh, Malaysia, my husband, Mr EE told me he had been approached by a school in Jeddah looking for a new headmaster. My response was immediate visceral: ‘over my dead body’.  A bit of research ameliorated my position and a few months later we moved.  Family and friends were wary, concern for me barely hidden behind a façade of congratulations.  There is no getting away from it, Saudi Arabia has a reputation for being a hellish place for women.  Unable to drive, unable to go anywhere without the consent of her guardian, hidden, controlled, second class.  Why would I, a confident, outspoken, opinionated woman submit myself to that?

A year on and I can say that my experiences of being female in Saudi are nothing like I expected or how the media portrayed. But, time has also shown me that I am extraordinarily privileged in my freedoms and my experiences are not the same as those of others.

Everyone gets something different from a posting, even within the same family. Jobs, friends, and colleagues see to that, but Mr EE and I have had broadly similar experiences in every country we have lived in, until now.  His position, nationality and gender mean there is an inherent level of respect for his opinion and an open ear not automatically there for me, although it is given freely and generously when earned. 

Over the last year there has been much talk of Brexit and elections in key western nations. His views were actively solicited while mine were not, at least at first.  When people (ie men) see that I am informed, interested and knowledgeable, they respect my opinions and contributions but I have to prove myself in a way Mr EE does not.  My parents, my schooling, my whole life experience have given me the innate belief that my opinion matters and  built the confidence to articulate it.  I see, however, how easy it would be for women who do not have such benefits or whose cultural heritage and experience denies them the ability to develop those skills could be sidelined without overt malice, but the result of centuries of ingrained cultural expectations.

In the same way that the experience of doing business with Arab men is closed to me, there is a side of life Mr EE will never see: women’s spaces. I took a course at a local women’s university.  Demure, black-clad Saudi and Middle Eastern expat women walked in and, once past the screens, transformed into the same lively, fashionable women on campus at any university.  With the windows obscured, they were free to behave as they wished.  I asked one woman why everyone stayed until closing time every day and did not go home after lectures. ‘We are free here,’ she said.  Some worked, some socialized over coffee and others danced (more seductively than Beyoncé) to Western and Arab music.  Women love to party and dress to impress, the difference is that it is for other women not for men.

They were fascinated by my family life, so different from their own and I spent a lot of time answering questions.  Many told me they live almost parallel lives to the men they married.  One moved in with her mother-in-law post marriage and her mother-in-law knew her better than thehusband, as he was rarely with her.  She wept bitter tears when her mother-in-law died, her friend of 7 years leaving her in a house with a stranger.  One asked if I loved my husband when I married him and one told me she wished she had been able to delay her children, the way we had, to have time to get to know her husband and settle into married life.  I was often asked how I felt when my husband ‘told me’ we were moving to Saudi and they were incredulous when I said he never told me to do anything, that we discussed and agreed on big decisions and, had I said no, we would not have come.

I have freedoms many of those women will never have. With the exception of driving, I am as free in Jeddah as I would be in London or the Hague, yes there are areas I would not go alone but those are everywhere.  If I want to get on a plane and go to Dubai or Khobar or anywhere, I can. I can work, I can study.  Not all women are so lucky, a woman’s mahram or guardian, typically a father, husband or brother can control her every move, a woman’s freedom depends on her mahram’s enlightenment.  Some are as free as I am, others are heavily controlled, being told when they may or may not leave the home, for how long and where they may go.  It is this guardianship system, more than any of the other restrictions on women, that annoys my local friends.  Lawyers, teachers, business managers, 18 year old college students, they are all subject to this system which many have told me they find insulting and infantilising.  There have been recent changes in the law however, and there are hopes the guardianship system is coming to an end, a relic of an earlier age when women did not work and were rarely seen.

Are the clothing laws oppressive?  From a personal point of view I don’t mind my abaya, although it is restrictive.  Trailing hems trip people up and get caught in escalators (I recently helped rescue a women caught in one at Riyadh airport), sleeves knock over drinks and the popper buttons open at the most annoying moments.  It is almost impossible to run or exercise in public and I get undressed to go out, changing from the proper clothes I wear in the compound into leggings and a strappy top to keep cool under the abaya.  For me and women like me these are minor annoyances.  What I really mind is the compulsion, that I am not trusted to make appropriate clothing choices.  Even more than that, I mind, on behalf of Mr EE, our son and all the kind, wonderful men I know and trust, the implication that all men objectify women and that it is our responsibility to prevent them. 

There are cultural sensitivities at play, women wearing abayas here is as normal as men wearing thobes and the fact that many of my friends do not cover as extensively when they are abroad shows they have personal choice.  I know Western female converts who have taken a positive and personal decision to cover in full and some who simply wear a hijab.  I know Middle Eastern expats who cover only when they pray and wear the most daring of abayas and others who told me they never covered their hair in their father’s house but were made to after marriage.  Clothing is complex and nuanced, different in every circumstance but, naturally, the law here does make it easier for women to be forced to dress in a particular way.

Saudi is changing. My friends tell me women today have more freedoms than they had for decades.  The mutawa, or religious police has had its activities curtailed, there are moves to end the guardianship system and there are campaigns (supported by many men) to allow women to drive.  Saudi universities cater to more women than men, the number of career options open to women is increasing by the year.  The Saudi men I know are not misogynistic bullies and the women are no shrinking violets. But, but but, it remains a segregated and divided society, even young children, unless they go to one of the consular schools, are educated separately with more study and leisure options for boys than girls. 

When we are out by ourselves Mr EE may not enjoy the friendly and welcoming atmosphere of the family section of a restaurant while I may not join the men’s section.  There is a palpable sense of ‘two steps forward one and a half steps back, for example recent proposals for the establishment of sports colleges for women failed to pass the consultative council.  When change happens, it will happen (as it should) Saudi-style, slowly, uniquely but hopefully sustainably. 

A no longer 30 something perpetual expat I am Irish (but never lived there), was born in the Netherlands and am on country number 9 and posting 11 (or 12 or 13 I’ve lost count).  I lived in The Netherlands (many times) Norway, the UK (more than once), Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela with my parents.  I thought I had settled in the UK with my British husband, two children and a dog but a few years ago we decided to have an adventure and became expats again.  In that time we have lived in Kazakhstan, various locations in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, somehow managing to acquire a second dog, a third child and a cat along the way.  I blog about muddling through daily life as an expat in general and our postings in particular at

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*image via Flickr