It’s my pleasure to introduce you to an extraordinarily brave and positive woman, expat nurse and friend of mine. Her memories of the years spent in Saudi Arabia are predominantly positive, despite some negative incidents(such as a terrifying trip to jail) that occurred to her. Read on to find out more about her experience in the Magic Kingdom. To read more about my personal experience about living in Saudi Arabia as an expatriate working in the medical field, go to this post: Blue Abaya interviewed- What is life in Saudi Arabia really like for women?
First of all thank you for agreeing to this interview and for sharing your experience about life in Saudi-Arabia as a working western expat woman. You had some pretty out of the ordinary experiences while you were here!
So what sparked your interest in coming to Saudi-Arabia in the first place?
What was your very first impression about the Kingdom, and did it match what you had expected it to be?
You worked as a RN in a large government hospital. How would you describe the hospital compared to ones in Finland and what was the most difficult thing to adjust to in Saudi?
So how did I end up in Saudi-Arabia for work? It wasn’t my plan… I just needed to get out of Finland during that time and do something extreme. One call to the agency, and next thing I noticed I was filling up the papers to Saudi! Nobody believed I was really going there, neither did I, but 6 months from that call I was packing my life to move to Saudi.
I left with mixed feelings, didn’t know what to expect, so I didn’t expect anything. I only knew I will wear abaya for next one year and work like crazy!
I landed in the scary Riyadh airport after midnight. Men all around and all looking at me! Where’s my abaya?! Of course I didn’t have one at the time..Only thing I knew I needed to get out of this airport as soon as possible, luckily after passport check there was a hospital sponsor waiting for me.
It took me a short time to settle down around my hospital, I was open to everything! Seemed everyone were super friendly and helpful! I met loads of people, and started to make contact with the surroundings. Hospital was massive, things looked and sounded as if they were going smoothly there. But after working a while I started to notice many things that only sounded good but in reality they didn’t actually work. As long as things were looking good to outsiders, people were satisfied with their work. That was hard for me, but then I realized it was impossible to come and change anything, only thing I could do is follow my nursing ethic and do my work, do my 12h shift and go home.
What were your days-off like, and what was your typical weekend like in Saudi?
Free time in Saudi surprised me in a positive way, there was loads of things to do on your days off.
I always admired your courage to walk long distances around the city, which is so uncommon in Saudi! There are no sidewalks and traffic is very unfriendly toward pedestrians. What sort of places would you usually walk to and how was your experience, did you get harassed a lot?
We did walks with a few of my friends around the city center, usually we walked all the way on Olaya or Takhasousi street. We went mainly to the malls from the hospital compound which is a long way, even though it was a bit scary sometimes since the streets weren’t made for walking, no sidewalks! Many stares from men, but we kept walking! I missed the feeling back home where you could walk freely.
So now to the jail incident..
Tell us what was the situation before you were confronted by the Saudi religious police, Haia (more familiarly known as muttawa)?
What were the factors that lead to your arrest? Were the Hai’a officers accompanied with police officers?
How did the Haia treat you and others involved in the incident? Did you feel you were treated with respect? Did you understand what was happening at any point?
I had some incidents during my 2 years there with muttawa, but the scariest one was when I ended up in Saudi jail during Ramadhan. The worst nightmare I could ever think that could happen to me! I was asking my male Arab colleagues (western nationality) to pick me up after work for take away food. While we were waiting for the food to be ready, I decided to step out of the car and wait outside since it was crazy hot! In a few minutes there were muttawa and policemen around me asking questions!
My friends were inside the restaurant picking up the food. Things started happening when they came out with the food, no questions were asked anymore, we were separated. I was put inside a different car and my friends were taken away in another. I sat in the back seat, doors were locked. I didn’t know what was about to happen. I was scared, they took my phone and talked only in Arabic. I couldn’t reach out to anyone! Worst case scenarios crossed my mind, horror stories that I had heard happening in Saudi to females – is it about to happen to me?
After driving around quite a long time, I was brought to a big building and saw Saudi females in their uniforms. I felt relief seeing females.. But when I was entering to the building I realized it was a Saudi female jail! I saw scary looking females banging the bars, screaming and crying! And in no time I found my self inside with them, I was so horrified. I really thought they would hurt me. I was so shocked of the situation, I separated my self from everyone else, I was just sitting in a corner for hours.
At the prison, who dealt with you, and how was their treatment toward you?
Did they search you and how was that done? Were you told what they were jailing you for? Did you have a chance to inform your family or anyone from your employer?
Female guards asked me to undress for ‘inspection’…I was feeling a bit uncomfortable, because I was wearing a top and a short skirt under my abaya. Anyway had to do what they asked and so I removed my abaya. First thing I hear is laughter and words in Arabic, judging my outfit I assumed. I was asked to strip to my underwear and the guards kept laughing. That wasn’t enough for them, next they told me to show my breasts and show that there was nothing inside my underwear. They kept looking at me, and going around me, repeating the word mashallaah all the time. After having their fun, they were ready and I was put into the jail cell with my own clothes on. No one spoke in English nor even tried to explain what was the reason I was there and why I was put in jail. At no point of my arrest or stay no one told me how the process will continue later on. I tried asking many times, can I make a phone call, or could somebody please just explain what will happen next! But they just ignored me.
What was your prison cell like?
Did you have other women sharing the same space? How did you spend your time there and how long were you in jail?
Did you get food, water and toilet facilities? What were your inmates like?
It was a big hall with many doorless rooms, in every room there was 6 bunk beds. There was maybe 40-50 prisoners in that area where I was. I saw females socializing with each other, they came to me offering food and water. I realized that these women were like me, jailed for similar cultural reasons like me. One had a newly born baby with her and quite many were with their kids there.
In that big hall they had a washing room that included 5-6 toilets. Going to toilet, washing yourself, doing your dishes (people had their cups for food) all were done in that same space. Also the kids were washed there too. It wasn’t too bad, but maybe too small for that amount of prisoners.
Also there was a minimarket where you could do your shoppings, it was open certain hour a day. I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t buy anything, but some prisoners had some. I don’t know how they had money since all my personal belongings were taken away before they locked me in. In that shop they had snacks, toilet paper (yes you needed to buy your own toilet paper if you felt like you needed one) clothes, like pyjamas, hygiene stuff etc…
As the night turned into morning, we were offered our first meal. Because it was Ramadhan all the prisoners were made to fast. They threw a big tray on the floor for everyone to pick up their food by their hands from there. Next meal would be only later in the evening. I was starving between that time! My jailmates where friendly, and I had a few chats. But only thing in my mind was how to get out of here. They didn’t allow me to call anyone, only asked few questions once a while.
I ended up spending two nights there because of the weekend.
What happened to the males involved in the incident?
Were you scared something serious would happen to you, or did you trust your sponsor to help you out?
How did you get out?
Afterwards I heard that my male friends were jailed also, but only for 1 night and were able to inform my family, friends, and the hospital about the situation. After the weekend was finished they called me out for an interview, I told the story as it was, signed some papers and then the officer said I was ready to leave. I couldnt believe it, the sponsor representative for these cases was there waiting for me to drive me back to hospital compound! I was so relieved I didn’t care even if I was going to be sent back home, I was only happy being safe!
How did this whole incident make you feel? What are your thoughts afterwards?
I was lucky because my jail mates were super friendly to me, some of them gave me things to use. I remember one lady giving me a new pyjama to wear to feel a bit comfortable for sleeping. Most of the ladies in jail where from Asian countries like India, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh. Many of them maids. I think I got along so well with them because my origins are Asian too. I never actually told them my real western nationality, I felt being ‘one of them’ would make my stay there easier, and it did. There was only one white western lady there, but she came just before I left. I saw her crying most of the time and nobody in jail tried to approach her and offer their friendship like they did to me. But she looked she didn’t want to be approached either, I think she was having the first after shock hours like me when I got there.
Things ended up well for me, my sponsor had no issues with what happened to me, but I’m sure not everyone will be as lucky as me if they would end up in the same situation! I continued working normally after taking a few days off to recover from the traumatic experience.
You always have such a positive outlook on things, I think that helps a lot with coping with the stressful side of life in Saudi.
What would you give as advice to women living in or planning on moving to Saudi? How to cope with the different culture and customs?
Respect the cultural rules, don’t cross the boarders if you don’t need to. Breaking the rules has consequences. It’s hard in Saudi to adapt the western life style, but you should be aware that you are living in Saudi… exceptions may be allowed, but don’t trust that you will always get away with it!
Thank you very much for the interview and best wishes to you and your growing family and good luck with your next adventures!