That was the typical response from my family and friends when we told them we eloped and got legally married (we held out for over a decade) and then immediately told them it was because we were moving to Saudi Arabia where co-habitation is not allowed.
In a few days, I will have been in Saudi Arabia for 5 months. This month is also Ramadan which is an interesting time in Saudi. I thought it would be a good month to reflect and share some interesting Saudi experiences and maybe answer some of the questions I get from family and friends.
I had put off writing about some of these experiences for two reasons:
1. I do not want my experiences to come off as solely negative or complaining
I am really enjoying my time here, but it is sometimes different than how I would do things or spend my time back home. Different is not necessarily a bad thing. I make my own happiness instead of waiting for it to come to me. I like a saying I heard from a sweet lady here at my compound, “If you think the grass is greener on the other side, start watering your own lawn!” Lucky for me, it doesn’t take much for me to find something that will put a smile on my face. Also, I think a big part of my happiness is I have a really good thunderbuddy for when things do get scary, sad, or boring. 🙂
2. I want to avoid my experiences being used to stereotype Arab people or those of Muslim faith and/or culture
Saudi Arabia is not Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, etc. Even Jubail, the city I live in, is probably different from other Saudi cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, etc. Making broad generalizations based on living in Jubail would be like saying Corpus Christi, TX is like New York City. Regarding the Muslim faith and culture, it is a super broad spectrum even here in Saudi. There are liberals and conservatives and everything in between. I am framing my stories around the government applied rules and first hand observations/encounters in Jubail and adjacent cities.
Some common questions/themes I get about living in Saudi:
What’s it like to have lady parts in Saudi?
Do you have to practice Islam while you are there?
Aren’t you scared?
So….what do you do all day?
What’s it like to have lady parts in Saudi?
I would compare it to being in the nerdy math and science clubs or the male-dominated engineering schools/environments….it’s SUPER AWKWARD…..for THEM (mostly)! As a result, the male-dominated religious leaders and government have imposed some rules on those of us with curves.
I’m not going to get too much into trying to rationalize the why’s, or into the history of women’s rights in Saudi, social or cultural implications of the rules on women, or my opinions on if it is really achieving its intent…blah blah blah….at least not without a beer in my hand. I’m sticking to my understanding of the rules and how the rules impact me day to day.
a) No showing signs of lady lumps (Dressing modestly)
b) No non-family member opposite sex interaction (Mingling of the sexes/Male guardians)
c) No driving
a) Dressing modestly
Technically, this applies to both sexes. ~99.9% of women I’ve seen wear an abaya (see pic). ~75-80% of Saudi men wear a thobe in public. Though Saudi men typically don’t wear one when working or playing sports, and expat men don’t have to wear one at all…..so that’s A LOT of men who don’t wear one A LOT of the time.
Anytime I plan to go out in public, I wear an abaya. I still let my freak flag fly in regards to my hair, but I carry a scarf around just in case my brown luscious locks become too much for other folks to handle. I do not cover my face. I see a range of dress in the malls/shops….some wear the full up burqa (head-to-toe black even over eyes), some show their gorgeous eyes with a niqab (ninja style), some show just their face with a hijab, and others dress just like me. This is the Saudi cultural dress to attempt modesty and I’ve been told that legal action can be taken against us by the religious police (don’t know if this is true, but I’m sure public shaming is involved which sometimes can be worse). I have not seen or been stopped by the religious police, but a couple of women told me they have been asked to cover their hair in public before.
I do not have to wear an abaya in my walled compound, or any of the other Western compounds, or either of the other Muslim countries I have visited (Bahrain, UAE). If I am getting in the car and going straight to Bahrain (2 hour drive) or going to another compound, I will wear my abaya like a cape, super-hero style, or lay it in the seat just in case I need to get out of the car. I would say I am ambivalent in regards to me personally wearing an abaya. I have days I want to rip it off and hurl it over my head US Women’s World Cup style. And there are days where I’m glad to wear it because it doesn’t matter too much what I wear underneath and there is none of the “OMG! Look what she’s wearing” bs, but with the Saudi heat, it limits how much time I wait outside to about zero seconds….
b) No mingling of the sexes/Male guardians
Technically, this applies to both sexes as well and it is pretty much impossible to consistently enforce. The way I see it, it’s like a really extreme version of abstinence-only sex ed….except here you should abstain from talking with the opposite sex to avoid so much as even thinking about sex. It affects me as a married woman because single men and all women are attempted to be physically segregated in public. Married women are considered “families”, because what married woman would go around town without a husband and has no children (cough…cough…excuse me…THIS ONE!!). In general, I haven’t been limited to where I go here without my husband.
Practically all restaurants have a “Singles” (men) entrance and a “Family” entrance, with the family entrance typically on the second floor. To apply rules a) and b), a lot of restaurants have curtains or dividers (sometimes optional) separating you from any prying eyes (like me, because I LOVE to people watch). But if you are at a restaurant/shop without a husband, you must interface with the driver/waiter/cashier and those are ~90% male, so the rules get fuzzy when business/money is involved. My most memorable and favorite experiences at the restaurants have been without the curtain. It has given us the opportunity to meet and mingle with other female Saudis. On a couple of occasions, we have had young really sweet Saudi ladies come introduce themselves. Some wanted to practice their English, some just wanted to talk and ask us questions….and of course take selfies….particularly with my “exotic” beautiful blonde friend.
Another side effect of the rule, unaccompanied/single men (like some of my husband’s co-workers) live in a separate compound on the other side of town, which adds an extra hurdle to getting together to just hang out. Adding to that, there is virtually no form of entertainment here that we were used to enjoying in the US…bars, bowling, movies, liquor stores, sports events, karaoke, breweries, arcades, go-karts, paint ball, etc. Bahrain, our neighboring country, has most of these things….and they make A LOT of money. We still hang out with the “single” guys. When we eat at restaurants, they are allowed to sit with me and my husband in the family section. Other than that, we have to get creative on our compound for recreational activities and invite folks over. It’s how I picture boarding schools…but with more challenges to that whole carpe diem thing. We also travel a lot.
c) No driving, ladies!!
You know that saying “Be careful what you wish for….” Yeah, that applies to me. I often complained back home about 45+ min drive one way to/from work. I wished upon multiple stars, that I could have a driver (or efficient public transportation) so that I could get my breakfast in, sleep a little extra, or always have a DD. Well, I got what I wished for….
In Saudi, women are not allowed to drive (or vote). Women will be allowed to vote and run in local elections in 2015, but if I want to cruise down the street with the top down….I am SOL. Talking with a Saudi friend, his concern is safety for his female loved ones and adding more cars/drivers to the already scary traffic conditions. I can definitely understand his concern, I have the same concern for everyone. Saudi roads can get scary…like no joke, no exaggeration, they are scary!! And I’m used to driving with crazy Houston drivers. In Saudi, it feels like the traffic laws are “really more like guidelines.” Often (like ALL the time), people drive on the shoulders and those white lines on the road….pshhhh…who needs those. By the way some of the drivers stare at their mobiles all the time, I swear there must be an app that shows the road in front of you. Stories about accidents are abundant from neighbors and other expats. Sometimes we can feel the whoosh of a car as it speeds past us on the shoulder! I have never seen a cop pull someone over for speeding. There are lots of speeding cameras on the highways, but they are obviously not a strong deterrent.
A side effect of it being illegal for women to drive is we get drivers. It is a little weird scheduling and having someone drive you to the supermarket, but it is nice to have some help loading and unloading the groceries. Or if you had a weird experience at the store (like the awkwardly nice guy at the store who kept asking for my number), there is a kind smiling face waiting just outside in the parking lot to take you home. All of our drivers are from Kerala, India so I’ve had to the opportunity to learn some words in a new language, listen to some new music, and meet some really nice people. What I miss is the privacy and independence to go where I want, when I want, without checking with anyone. What makes me feel a little less bitter about it is…. all the guys working on the project have to deal with the same thing. Yay for universal loss of rights? Or as my mama would say to 16-year old me…driving is a privilege!!
Do you have to practice Islam while you are there?
No. Expats are exempt from practicing Islam, but you can’t openly practice other religions and there are government applied religious rules that apply to everyone including us. Let’s just say, it makes me appreciate separation of church and state even more. It is not that anything is hard to deal with, it just adds an inconvenience at times and changes how I do things. The big one for me is that EVERYTHING shuts down during prayer time and it is announced (sung) over loud speakers so everyone knows. If you live near a mosque (they are on almost every block), the first prayer time happens before sunrise…..uh, good morning?! It’s not a big deal for me since I am a heavy sleeper, so I’ve heard the early prayer call only once or twice. Some stores/restaurants will stay open during prayer time, but they lock the doors to new customers or the cashiers leave and you can’t check out. Prayer time happens five times a day, and four of those are during standard business hours. So if you need to go out to the grocery store or just want to hit up the mall with friends, you have to schedule around prayer times or haul ass to the next stop before they lock the doors….maybe that is why folks are always speeding?
The first time I heard the call to prayer in public was at IKEA (listen below). I was so excited I made an audio recording. I was going to see a major Saudi cultural and religious event and get to see everyone piously head out to the mosque and pray together. Uh, no. That was me with my generalizations and stereotypes in my head. In fact, there really wasn’t too much change from one moment to the next. A small percentage headed to the mosques that were built into IKEA, but many others continued shopping or doing what they were doing. The cashiers left and people just left their carts in line while they prayed or took a seat somewhere. So, it’s not a super big deal, but if you’re hungry or tired and ready to leave the store and timed it wrong….it could be another 20-30+ minutes wait before you can get in or leave the store with your stuff.
Another government endorsed, religious time here in Saudi is Ramadan. It is a full month, that among other things, most Saudi Muslims fast from food and water the entire time between sunrise to sunset (think extreme version of Lent). Expats are expected to not eat or drink in public during this time. Hours for many stores/restaurants change or shift to accommodate folks being out more at night. The main forms of public entertainment for me are shopping and eating out during the day. During Ramadan, eating out is nixed since the restaurants don’t serve food during daylight hours, and shopping is limited since many stores are closed for a big chunk of the day. I decided to take part in Ramadan and have been fasting for two weeks. It has been challenging. I have had to cheat a couple of the days and allow myself to drink water because it can get HOT here. I think I have reached my desired limit of the Ramadan experience. With not eating or drinking until night time, I have a lot less energy and don’t exercise or exert myself as much as I used to….and I’m getting antsy to run, jump, etc without getting dizzy. Quite a few expats use this time as an excuse to high-tail it out of town, but other reasons are it is summertime and Ramadan started just after school let out for the kiddos, so it has been really quiet here on the compound.
Aren’t you scared?
There is some amount of danger in almost everything you do in life. I don’t want to minimize actual dangers that exist here, but what I’m saying is there are dangers everywhere and my job is to be aware of the potentials and know how to avoid, prevent, or prepare no matter where I am. Honestly, as an introvert, I probably get more anxiety/annoyance over being in a room full of new people I have to talk to than some of the potential dangers folks typically think about.
In Saudi, my biggest fear right now is the driving and traffic accident rate. Since I can’t drive, I don’t have too much control over the defensive driving skills of my drivers, but I can control when, where, and how often I am on the road for the most part. Similar to Houston, I try to avoid heavy traffic times/places. Also, the drivers I’ve had are actually pretty good and are careful. Talking with some of them, they also highly value their lives and their goal is to come out on the other end of their Saudi journey in one piece. So we’re in it together.
MERS. What I tell my grandma about MERS is…I will avoid making out with any camels! 😉 I watch the news and stay up-to-date on where cases are reported. In Jubail and the nearby areas, we do not have the “epidemic level” that other parts of Saudi are seeing. In general, I don’t like being any kind of sick, so I try to avoid germs and sick people using standard precautions. Also, I am not old, young, or sickly….and I don’t make out with camels… so I’m not in a super high-risk category 🙂
Physical violence/Stranger Danger/Terrorists. I keep up to date on the US Embassy newsletters and I avoid the “bad sides of town” just like I do with the local Houston news when I’m back home. Due to past events targeted on Westerners, ALL the western compounds I have been to have security measures similar to US government buildings (like the NASA site back home). There are badges, guards, physical barriers, etc, but this is for your home as well as work. There are no open carry laws here and I’ve never seen a Saudi regular citizen with a weapon of any kind. So at times, I feel safer than I have back home (cough…cough…creepy guy walking into gun show who had at least three visible deadly weapons). There is still the fear of being the minority (Westerner and a woman), and not being familiar with the country or cultures, and knowing the complex history between our country and the Middle East. But I think that fear of the unknown probably goes both ways. Being different, I get a lot of stares and sometimes it is hard to read the facial and body language behind the stare. But a good majority of the time, the stares come with a smile (when you smile first) and when you attempt to speak in their language you often get a chuckle or giggle.
Ok, time for the elephant in the room:
So….what do you do all day?
I’m weird. In high school, I took summer classes for fun. I spent most of my Saturdays in high school getting up early to take tests competitively. I like to read a lot for fun. The challenges of college and stuff I learned blew my mind and I loved it (for the most part). I loved my job. It was a dream job, it was what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old.
I got a lot of concerned looks and questions about why I would give that up or how I would spend my time. I was nervous about the same thing. I would joke with folks who asked what I was going to do without a job, and told them “I don’t know, whatever the f*** I want, I guess?!” But it is kinda true and it’s really weird for me. The hard part is allowing myself to be honest about what I want and allowing myself to enjoy it and not feel guilty about not bringing home an income. Right now, I’m focusing on being healthy, making friends, and having fun…so I feel that I am bringing home smiles instead. 🙂 Fun includes cooking, games, movies, reading, working out, going out to restaurants, and traveling! I am also learning new skills like how to really clean a house, how to keep plants alive, and the complexity of mahjong. I also have opportunities to learn new languages and new subjects thanks to my Arabic tutor and the thing we call the internet, but I have to force myself not to get too academic and just have fun with it.
I also have the opportunity to plan and experiment with vacations. Our next trip is Bali, Indonesia!! Josh is really excited since he has been working hard this last month, sometimes seven days a week. I’m nervous excited because I am experimenting by doing super minimal planning!! We have our flights and hotels booked, but nothing else. I’m trying to go with the flow and let each day of the vacation be an adventure. We’ll see what happens! I’ll tell y’all how it works out!
So did I answer some of your questions? Do you have any others? Submit a question to the comments and I will try to get to them in a future post! Also, check out what other ladies think about living in Saudi here or check out the other Saudi blogs on the Links page.