I did some interviews for a couple of magazines which focus on what life in Saudi Arabia is like from my personal point of view, as a Finnish expatriate nurse. I think these interviews will be beneficial in answering questions of readers who are new to Saudi Arabia and/or new to Blue Abaya blog. The below interview talks about life in Saudi Arabia from a woman’s perspective, foreigners and Saudi women alike, and is something I highly recommend as reading for anyone planning on moving to Saudi Arabia.
One of these interviews I did with Naima Rashid, read it here: “A Bonny Blithe Blue”. Here’s an excerpt from the interview on Jeddah Blog:
The blue of ‘Blue Abbaya’ is a shade apart, merging a spirit of deep inner freedom and an infectiously positive attitude. Jeddah Blog chats with Laylah of Blue Abbaya, investigating the meaning of her blue, and generally, a lot of this and that.
The below is my interview with Anna Sierant from the Polish women’s magazine OnaOnaOna (SheSheShe in polish) about what life is like in Saudi Arabia as a woman.
How did it happen that you came to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
After I graduated I knew I wanted to go work abroad and Saudi-Arabia has always fascinated me as a country, I wanted to know more about it and find out for myself what it’s really like there. Of course I heard of all the benefits expats receive there so it was not hard to make the decision.
Can you describe an ordinary day of Saudi woman?
Actually, I can’t! Mainly because it’s like asking, what is the ordinary day of a Polish or Finnish woman like? It all depends on the person. Saudi women are just like us, some work, others are stay at home mothers. They have very similar lives to us. The main differences are they aren’t allowed to drive so they must arrange transport by taxis, relatives or their own drivers.
Saudi women spend much more time with their close family (meaning their parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles) than we western women do. They see these relatives weekly, which to me is something really amazing but also a foreign concept. Another difference is many of them have hired help in the house so this enables them to have more time to spend with family and friends.
Do Saudi woman think that they are treated worse than men are? For example, do they want to have the possibility to driver a car, to work without a mahram’s permission? Or it depends of womans’ education, origin?
Again this depends on the woman. Some are very actively trying to change these things, demanding to have equal rights as citizens. One such amazing woman (among many others) is Manal Al-Sherif who is not only campaigning for women to be allowed to drive, but for women to have the same rights as men. Rights which religion gave them long ago but only recently humans (men) have taken it away from them. On the other hand there are women who are genuinely happy with the way things are now, they see it as a privilege to be “taken care of and protected” by the men of their family/society. It really all depends on the woman and how liberal or conservative her family is.
I recommend you read this Blue Abaya post: Takalamy; A conversation with young Saudi females, you will be very (positively) surprised.
I’ve read that a Saudi woman must have mahram’s permission if she wants to work, study, go abroad? Is it true, how does it look? Must he sign some papers?
Yes the mahram, also called a male guardian is the one who ultimately gives legal permission for a woman to work, travel abroad, study and marry. This comes from culture, not religion. Yes he has to sign some papers of approval.
What shocked you the most in male-female relations in Saudi Arabia? Are Arabian marriages always dominated by a man, the head of the family?
I would say many Saudi families are actually dominated by the women, behind the scenes.
What would you change if you could to make women’s life in Saudi Arabia easier?
I would abolish the mahrem system (need for male guardian permission for everything) because I see it as the number one cause of difficulty, taking advantage of and harm to women in this country. Most women are not lucky to have an understanding, flexible and fair guardian, who agrees to everything she wants. Even adult women need a guardian, she may have given birth to her guardian! Women are not children, but fully capable human beings, just like their male counterparts. And naturally, allow women to drive would be on my top priority list.
In the opinion of the West KSA is like a prison for women. Isn’t it a stereotype? Could you point out the benefits of being a woman in Saudi Arabia? Something that they can do, have, something that a typical American, European woman could envy them?
It’s a terrible, untrue and unfair stereotype. What I can say is Saudi women have in general more spare time than western counterparts because the domestic help is cheap and easy to find here. So generally speaking they have more free time at their hands. Also they have very close family relations and help always available from family members. Those are things that money cannot buy. In general Saudi women rarely have to worry about financial issues. Most other practical “everyday” issues, like going to government offices, banks, post offices, paying bills, dealing with paperwork etc the men of the family will take care of all that for her.
For me personally as an expat woman in the Kingdom, I feel lucky to be able to travel and explore Saudi Arabia which is closed off from the rest of the world. Working here has many benefits, long vacations, tax free salary, free housing, and other benefits which make it easy to travel throughout the year. I have traveled alone as a woman around Saudi Arabia without ever having any problems. I realize this is something extremely rare, but it can be done.
What do you find the hardest thing of being a woman in the Kingdom?
Not being able to drive because it limits my movement so much and I hate being so dependent on my husband and having to nag him to drive me somewhere. Luckily we now live in an area (Diplomatic Quarters) where I can walk to the store, parks, spa, gym and restaurants and so on so it has eased my life tremendously.
What is like to come to Arabia and see the ocean of women dressed in black abayas (do you really wear a blue abaya? I’ve read on Polish Umm Latifa’s blog that it was forbidden or “not right”) How the Saudis react when they see a woman in non-covered face? Do some Saudi women show their faces or it happens very rarely?
When I first arrived I must admit that it was a little bit of a shocker. But you get used to it and start seeing the little differences and details and everything starts looking more colorful instead of just black and white.
I have several blue abayas, mostly I wear them to special occasions because they’re so beautiful and I want to preserve them. I never had any issues with wearing blue abayas in Riyadh and I’ve been wearing them since 2009. It’s definitely very rare though. On occasions I have seen other colored abayas in Riyadh but they are much more common in the relaxed Jeddah or Khobar. There’s no rule or law which says black is the only option, as long as you’re covered and modest it’s fine.
In Riyadh most Saudi women wear niqab, (face veil). There are many more Saudi women nowadays who wear head scarf only compared to when I first came. Foreigners are not obligated to cover their hair, but it’s a good idea to carry a scarf with you anyways. Again, Jeddah and Khobar will see more uncovered faces and sometimes Saudi women there don’t even cover their hair.
Did KSA surprised you positively of negatively? What were you most scared of before you’ve came to Arabia?
I was at first most scared of wearing the abaya incorrectly, of too much skin showing. I was scared I’d accidentally offend someone by doing something “culturally wrong” in public and I was worried about not being able to communicate with patients. I learned Arabic at work so that was easy fear to overcome.
Most of non-Arabic people consider Saudi women as passive persons, without any rights, that they can’t fight for these rights. Isn’t it just another stereotype?
I think it is, unfortunately. There are so many active women out there but we just don’t hear about them! Why? Because what the western media likes to tell us (and what sells stories) is about abused, oppressed, veiled, helpless Saudi women. So of course that’s the image most people will have. I am trying to change that wrong perception through my blog.
Is the situation of women in Saudi Arabia changing for better? Or is it still worse and worse? What about the mahram system – does the society want to abolish it? Do they think „my mahram knows better what’s good for me” or, like Rajaa Alsanea, the author of „Girls of Riyadh” they say: „we must change some cases”.
It’s much better but change happens slowly. King Abdullah is very supportive of women’s rights and he recently granted them the right to vote and participate in Shoura Council. He has done numerous other changes you might not have heard of as well. They might sound like small things, such as allowing women to work as cashiers in grocery stores and lingerie shops, but it does have a huge impact on Saudi society as a whole. Women are becoming more visible and a part of the public life, which will eventually give them more and more rights.
What people think of this system of women needing a legal guardian “mahrem” for everything varies a lot. Some people are against mahram system, some think it should be changed or eased a little, others think it’s fine as it is (mainly religious hardliners).
How do young people meet in Arabia? By parents, the Internet? Or by giving an unknown woman the phone number in the malls?
What do you miss the most in Saudi Arabia?
Do you miss your homeland?
Of course I miss my homeland Finland a lot, especially my family. Funny thing is I actually see them more often and more at a time since I moved here, because when I go visit them in Finland they will all travel to the same city at the same time, which is otherwise rare. My family members have visited us here in KSA many times and they like it. You can read posts about my mom in Saudi Arabia here.
What I miss the most from life in Finland: I miss the sea, the fresh air, that things are so organized and well-managed. And my dog.