Blue Abaya Interviewed- What is Life in Saudi Arabia Really Like?

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.

 
I just loved how Naima described my blog and she really has a way with words, she’s an excellent writer and her questions were very interesting too!
“The blue abbaya is both a symbol and an attitude for Laylah’s blog. It’s a posture of being respectful to local traditions while setting oneself apart from the crowd through personal taste.”
 
“Reading her blog, one traverses two regions equally mysterious to many – Finland and Saudi Arabia, and her blog pierces the mystery of both lands to offer us a window into both cultures through the eyes of somebody who embodies them both to some extent.”
 
“Scandinavian ice and deserts of Arabia are physical reliefs, but like all environment, they become landscapes of the mind at some point. In ‘Blue Abbaya’, blue is the colour of the Finnish sky, and the abbaya is a cultural norm of Saudi Arabia. In its name and its nature, the blog is defined by the richly opposed but co-existing worlds that the author is part of, and the best and worst of which peppers her real and virtual space.”
Socotra island

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.
http://www.onaonaona.com/styl-zycia/kto-kryje-sie-za-zaslona-czyli-kobieta-w-arabii-saudyjskiej/

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 guess initially what shocked me was how men would not talk to me directly or look me into the eyes. My culture tells me to react to this by taking it as an offence and sees diverting the gaze as a disrespectful act. But when I learned more about Islam, I understood that in fact those men were trying to be very respectful toward me by lowering their gazes. Islam advises men to do that when talking to women they don’t know or are unrelated to, so that she does not become embarrassed or feel awkward. For a person that’s not used to that sort of thing, of course it makes us feel awkward at first. I still sometimes miss the “normal” straightforward western interaction between men and women at the workplace which I’m used to.

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 would say definitely positively! The people have been incredibly welcoming. There’s been amazing places to discover and explore that I never even dreamed of, and literally hundreds more places which expats like me currently residing in KSA are lucky to access. I didn’t think the desert could be so interesting and beautiful either!

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?

If you mean how do young people meet the opposite sex (other than through their parents for marriage purposes), then I would say online, social media, at malls and through friends, and yes in the most desperate rare cases, by randomly giving out phone numbers! I wrote a tongue in cheek post about it here: Saudi Dating Scene

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.

 

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  • ربة منزلJune 23, 2012 - 11:05 pm

    Great interview and Excellent questions. I wish it was longer. I would really like to know about how easy or hard was it to learn the in-law family customs and the Arabian way of hospitality and your first experience cooking Arabic/Saudi food. It took me a while to get used to my in-laws traditions even though my husband and I are from the same country- KSA- but from different areas.
    ThankReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 24, 2012 - 8:48 pm

      Thanks! I'm still learning! I don't cook many Saudi foods yet but haven't heard any complaints lolReplyCancel

  • GeoffJune 24, 2012 - 6:26 am

    Beautiful Picture!ReplyCancel

  • {Life of Dee}June 24, 2012 - 7:14 am

    Thank you for sharing…I'm single and IF you know some other single man who has similar character (and physics) as your husband please contact me hehe … :DReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 24, 2012 - 8:50 pm

      lol unfortunately his brother is married and if the younger one would take a foreign wife I'm not sure they could handle that anymore haha ;)ReplyCancel

  • KatJune 24, 2012 - 6:21 pm

    I read both interviews. The Jeddah one features a huge contradiction: "Expats should not live in their own little expat bubbles where they never meet Saudis. Yay! My life is great now cause I live in the Diplomatic Quarters." That was such a facepalm moment for me, although I adore your blog.ReplyCancel

    • LaylahJune 24, 2012 - 8:51 pm

      Kat-I don’t see any contradiction. I have many Saudi neighbors in DQ and most the kids my daughter plays with in the parks there are actually Saudis.ReplyCancel

  • SirehJune 25, 2012 - 12:08 am

    Hi Laylah, good interview. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read this —> I would say many Saudi families are actually dominated by the women, behind the scenes. Lol. I guess it is common everywhere, even here in my country (Asia). How about in Finland?

    Enjoy your summer holiday and don’t leave us here for too long.
    SirehReplyCancel

  • AliceJune 25, 2012 - 5:31 am

    Very nice interviews,thanks for sharing!

    Have a great time in Finland!ReplyCancel

  • Angela DondiJune 26, 2012 - 3:54 pm

    Really nice interview indeed.

    Angela Dondi
    http://www.bocadolobo.comReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJune 28, 2012 - 6:59 pm

    @Laylah
    “I would abolish the mahram system…”

    So you would allow fathers to marry their daughters, mothers to marry their sons, brothers to marry sisters, nephews to marry thier aunts and grandmothers, neices to marry their uncles and grandfathers, etc?

    I guess you’ve gotten my point.

    One can not abolish a system which was legislated by Allaah. Any thought is disbelief and any attempt to do so will be met with His Punishment.

    Many people have intelligence, but few have understanding. That is a gift from Allaah for those whom He loves.

    Hadith: When Allaah loves someone, He grants himm understanding of the Deen.

    What I do agree with is that there is a need for education. Muslims (men and women) need to be educated about the rights and responsibilites of being a guaudian (according to the Sunnah of the Prophet).ReplyCancel

  • Coolred38June 29, 2012 - 3:46 am

    Anonymous (the one above me)…is there an overwhelming desire for fathers to marry their daughters or mothers to marry their sons in muslim countries that only the mahrem system is keeping this from happening? I like how people always point out the most extreme potential of what might happen (as if this could happen)…like homophobes pointing out that allowing gays to marry will cause people to want to marry their dogs or something…are there a lot of people right now wanting to marry their dogs and only laws are preventing them? (is there even a law for that?). The mahrem system is supposed to be a caretaker role…just to guide the younger person (not necessarily a female) towards good things and away from bad things, like a mentor. It was never meant to be a parent/child relationship in which the one “guided” is reduced to being a child for her (always a her) entire life. Passed from father to husband to son (so to speak) and never able to be her own mahrem, so to speak.

    Many have intelligence but few have understanding? This is true but in this context you are indicating that Laylah is the one who may have intelligence but you are the one with the understanding…wow…such ego.ReplyCancel

    • Umm GamarJune 30, 2012 - 3:12 am

      Definition of mahrem-an unmarriageable kin with whom sexual intercourse would be considered incestuous, a punishable taboo.
      A woman’s male mahrams fall into four categories (three categories in the strict-sense definition that does not count one’s spouse). Note that mahrams for a man can be derived in a similar manner.
      Permanent or blood mahrams with whom one is mahram by a blood relationship:father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, great-grandmother and so on;
      brother, sister;
      son, grandson, great-grandson, daughter, grand-daughter, great-grand-daughter;
      uncle, aunt, great-uncle, great-aunt, and so on;
      nephew, niece, grandnephew, grandniece, great-grandnephew, great-grandniece and so on;
      In-law mahrams with whom one becomes mahram by marrying someone:
      father-in-law, mother-in-law;
      son-in-law, daughter-in-law,
      stepfather (mother’s husband) if their marriage is consummated, stepmother (father’s wife) if their marriage is consummated;
      stepson (husband’s son) if their marriage is consummated, stepdaughter (wife’s daughter) if their marriage is consummated;
      “milk-suckling mahrams” with whom one becomes mahram because of being nursed by the same woman(nursing child below 2 years of age). When a woman acts as a wetnurse, that is she breast feeds an infant that is not her own child for a certain amount of time under certain conditions,she becomes the child’s rada mother and everything concerning blood mahrams applies here, like rada father/mother, rada sister/brother, rada aunt/uncle and so on. In English these can be referred to as milk brother, milk-mother, and so on.
      For a man, mahram women include his mother, grandmother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, aunt, grandaunt, niece, grandniece, his father’s wife, his wife’s daughter (step-daughter), his mother-in-law, his rada mother and any other rada relatives that correspond to the above mentioned blood relatives. As the Prophet said, “What is forbidden by reason of kinship is forbidden by reason of suckling.” (Al-Bukhari)

      However, I do agree with Laylah that this permission-based system is extreme and I wish to see it reformed. Why should an adult women have to seek permission to own/travel/study/visit mosques/etc unlike the time of the Prophet where women are their own persons. Saudi has taken this mahrem system way out of its intended purpose.ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJune 30, 2012 - 12:09 am

    @Coolred38 thanks for your comment, because it caused me to realize that I need to clarify my statement, so to answer your question “…is there an overwhekming desire for fathers to marry their daughters…” The answer, I hope and pray not. I hope we don’t any fathers like the German father who held his daughter captive for years while fathering several children with her. O Allaah save us! We (Muslims) pray for the good of our fathers and mothers.

    Laylah is the one that was being interviewed, the author and a Muslim. My questioning her was based one her knowledge of what a “mahram” is.

    Mahram: A person related to you by blood, marriage or fostering (suckling) that you’re forbidden to marry; either permenently (father, mother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings,etc) or temporary (sister in law or brother in law). In the case of “gaurdianship,” all muharaam are guardians to their female relative they are forbidden to marry, whether permenently or temporarly.

    As for a woman or female or for anyone for that matter to be their own “mahram” well, I’m scratching my head on that one, as it doesn’t make any sense. But for the sake of a response, who would want to marry themselves, besides Dennis Rodman? LOL!

    Anyway, I’ll pass on the homophobes and people marrying their dogs (eeewww), that’s not the topic.

    @Laylah, sorry for taking up your post. I was looked forward to your response. Hppy vacation. :DReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJuly 2, 2012 - 8:28 pm

    i don’t think the mahrem system this blog talks about has anyting to do with sibling/mahrem marriages, it talks about the need for a male to sign and give ADULT females the right to work,live, leave and exist in saudi alone :-) apparently muslims around the world seem to be capable of using the mahrem system to distuinguish who to marry and not to marry without the added necessity of wanting to control adult women… so yes a mahrem has a definition of what anonymous quoted but int his context it doesn’t mean that. i would have no problem having my BIL as my mahrem , i DO not want to marry him but i have terrible issues having him decide how i should live my life, especially since i consider myself more smarter, capabale,intelligent and wordly wise than him .ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJuly 4, 2012 - 7:50 am

    @Anon above Your brother in-law..im guessing ure a female is NOT a mahram, the same with a male who has a sister in-law. In some arab cultures the entire family mixes and u find brother and sister in laws mingling closely with non mahram family members which is no where accepted in Islam fyi.
    UmmLujaynReplyCancel

  • AnonymousJuly 4, 2012 - 10:24 pm

    @Laylah
    With all due respect. I wish that when you come up with these ideas to post topics that surround issues related to Islaam, that you do research about it. You’re aware that much of the Saudi culture is based (correct or incorrect interpretation) on an Islamic principle. Many people are posting comments based on their knowledge or lack thereof. Please be mindful that this is due to your lack of giving the correct interpretation and or information.

    Laylah know that you’ll be held accountable for what you say and do. Just as well as you blog, the angels blog. This jsut a reminder from one Muslim to another.

    You may choose to post this or keep it to yourself, because I only care that Allaah knows and that it is written that I advised you.

    Assalaamu alaikumReplyCancel

    • AnonymousJuly 6, 2012 - 10:12 am

      Maa sha Allaah I see you’ve chosen to publish this admonition. Allaahu Akbar!. I pray that it was done with the BEST of intentions.ReplyCancel

  • kobieta czytajacaSeptember 2, 2012 - 7:36 pm

    Great interviews ;) Thank you for answering the questions :)ReplyCancel

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