Remember the Ladies in Riyadh

Posted by Tara Foley
October 20, 2007
Ladies in Riyadh

“Remember the ladies.” –Abigail Adams

Last week, I shared some of my personal experiences as an American woman in Riyadh. Today, I’ll discuss a related, but separate, issue: the women of Riyadh. The role of women in Saudi Arabia is changing. Too rapidly for some, too slowly for others; nonetheless, it is changing everyday. As in many cultures, the Saudi woman’s historical role has typically been in the home. Women and men are strictly segregated in public, and women must cover anytime they go outside the home. Restaurants and cafes have separate entrances for “singles” (men) and “families” (women and mixed groups of relatives). Individual tables even have curtains to screen women from prying eyes. A number of establishments are men-only; more than once, I was turned away at the door because the restaurant my friends and I had chosen did not allow women inside.

These outward appearances are all part of a larger question over the place of women in the public sphere. Some segments of Saudi society are uncomfortable with granting women greater visibility and independence. Driving means increased mobility, which causes worry about what will happen to a woman in public absent her husband’s or father’s protection. Some worry that it will be easier for young men and women to socialize together, or even date. Many people ask what will happen if a woman’s car breaks down and a man tries to harm her. Similarly, some argue that the abaya and hijab are necessary protections against male aggression. Personally, I have a hard time understanding the principle of curbing women’s rights in order to curb men’s behavior. Aren’t we all responsible for our own choices and actions? These attitudes, however, are slowly transforming within Saudi.

Modern Saudi women are creating new roles for themselves in society. Greater numbers of women enroll in university and enter the professional arena. Saudi women today are more eager to participate in public life, demonstrating their best qualities in the workplace and in their volunteer work -- their confidence, intelligence, elegance, and ambition. Many young women in Saudi today are entering fields like finance, engineering, and medicine. They have degrees from top schools in Saudi, Europe, and, often, the U.S. Saudi society is working to adapt, in its own way, to accommodate all of these brilliant young minds while remaining true to cultural and religious values. For example, Saudi women work in separate offices, or even branches, from their male colleagues. Still, these changing realities challenge many of the traditional restrictions on women. As women and men share greater responsibility for work outside the home, women have an increasing need for mobility. As a result, the driving debate has recently resurfaced in Saudi, and I, for one, am keen to see what happens.

Of course, not every Saudi woman shares the same outlook. There is often a generational divide when it comes to gender roles. I remember working at one embassy event, where I had to check guests’ invitations and identification. In response to my request for identification, one woman indignantly pointed to her husband and stated, “HE is my ID!” Saudi Arabia only began issuing women their own national ID cards relatively recently; prior to that, the woman’s identity was subsumed into that of her husband or father. Many women prefer this traditional way of life.

Still, the status of women in Saudi society continues to change. There are advances, setbacks, and false starts. The “ladies,” as Saudi women often refer to themselves, discuss many of the same hopes and concerns my friends and I talk about together at home: excitement over landing a new job, questions about how to balance work and family life, trepidation over starting a new degree program. That would not have been the case a generation ago. In the end, the question of women’s rights is one that Saudi women and Saudi society will answer for themselves. As women continue to assert themselves and forge greater independence, they will do so in a way that also makes sense in the context of their own values and tradition. The world can only benefit from all that these women have to offer.

(Post Script: Readers may be interested in the novel “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea. The novel tells the story of four young Saudi women and their search for identity and purpose in their careers, friendships, love lives, and families. Originally written in Arabic, the novel was banned in Saudi Arabia when it was published, and is now translated into English and available in the United States. Ms. Alsanea is a sharp, witty writer who discusses some complex issues with humor and grace. I found the book offered insight for anyone wanting to learn more about this issue from a Saudi woman’s perspective.)



October 22, 2007

John in Greece writes:

You have a great mind and objectivity in the way you see and write things.

I have not been there, but I understand it through your writing.

Here is one of the best ever written: "Personally, I have a hard time understanding the principle of curbing women's rights in order to curb men's behavior."

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ John in Greece -- I'm glad you’re enjoying our blog! It's been a lot of fun to reflect on my time in Saudi, and I do try to relay it in a way that accurately reflects both the positive and the negative aspects of my experiences. I hope you'll keep reading!

New Mexico, USA
October 20, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Personally, speaking as a gentleman and scholar..if praying five times a day to Allah can't make good samaritans of men, then there's little hope for ladies in distress. Or for peace in the world at large.

Saudi Arabia
October 22, 2007

Ahmed in Saudi Arabia writes:

I am not very good in writing in Enhlish, so please put extra effort.

In our culture we put big value in honor and modesty.

It is absolutely forbidden in our religion for men and women to commit extramarital sex.

But we may be gone too far with segregation.

Most Saudis I know (men and women) think that there is big injustice facing women in our society . But we equally agree that women in the west are facing another type of injustice by using her body to sell goods and please men.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Ahmed in Saudi Arabia -- Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing your perspective! You are right to point out one very important detail that I was remiss not to include in my original story. Men in Saudi have an important role to play in advancing the rights of their sisters, and many men are doing so. Many brothers, husbands, fathers, cousins, and colleagues give strong support and encouragement to the ladies in their lives and all that they achieve. Thank you, Ahmed, for the support you give to your sisters, and thank you for writing! I hope you will return and share your thoughts with us again on future posts.

Summer B.
October 21, 2007

SB in France writes:

It's nice to see that you are sharing this view with us. The status of women in Riyadh will not change for the better so long as the Iranian Islamo-fascisim gets away with exercising dress codes, and hundreds of other limitations in private lives of its citizens, especially women in the country, insist on implementing stoning, and other cruel and inhuman punishments under the name of religion. The world is just watching and no one is courageous enough to step in and say "Hey, stop! Its the 21 st century, and if you want to live in the Community you have to be abiding the International laws and stop pretending that you have your own laws. They invent laws and break them as it pleases their lust for power. But due to their demagogy, they are used to deception, so one things very much used as tactic by the mullahs is a famous saying every one knows in Iran; They steal and shout ...THEFT >>>THEFT.. So please see that the only way to solve problems in the region is to change this regime. This is what the Iranian people want. More than 460 demonstrations in one month is just a symbolic gesture from their part to expose the fragile position of the mullahs in Iran. The only way to bring a change is to help the NCRI opposition to get out of the black list and be able to act actively with their forces in Iran. No foreigner powered and no foreign substitute that has no credentials in the people would be able to do that. This is because Iran and the Iranian people have a history of interferences and lackeys; they are very much familiar with any gesture that implies interdependence with a foreign power. So they would only accept organizations and movements not people that have been so far in a face to face confrontation with this regime and have proved their ability to stay and fight under harsh conditions. They would only trust those who have so far paid heavily. So I think its time to chose between the US short term interests in the region, which would be to continue with political deception of this regime, or its long term interests which means taking a decisive position, a gesture that proves that it is with the Iranian people and not the regime and that is to de list the pivotal force that can bring about change in Iran. THE NCRI, is the only name that brings hypertension amongst the mullahs and the Hierarchy in Iran. They know very well that the only force and real threat to them is the PMOI. All they have done so far has been to try to deface this movement so that they'd be under restrictions enough to stop them from any serious move. But this would not work. Only recently the student demonstrations have proved this wrong. Then came the 2 week workers demonstration. And this will continue. The only difference the US could make in adopting a firm action is cut short eh life of the Mullahs and save the world of a possible third world war, by acting quickly. Of course its obvious that the Iranian backed lobbies would not like this, but, then it would be too lat or the regime to react. I though should let you all know. I am a realistic journalist, for at least 16 years; I have been following the mullahs -- pattern of action. NO SENSE what so ever, unless we put our selves in their shoes, and THAT is difficult.

United States
October 24, 2007

Kashif in America writes:

Hey Tara I know it may be hard for you to see things from a Saudi perspective or maybe even a male perspective but trust me I have not yet met a straight man that isn't a pervert deep down inside. I thought at one point in my life I could simply think of women as equals that I could be friends with but that is frankly too hard to do since women have attributes that make them appealing. Now if I get appealed to women that may seem harmless at first but from my experience it usually ends up becoming more serious it is just the nature of man to lust for women. I love women but my love for them can lead me to do very foolish stuff in order to impress them and that is why I would like more women to dress like those in Saudi Arabia.

Maryland, USA
October 25, 2007

Dan in Maryland writes:

Ms. Foley -- Thanks for sharing your very interesting and thought-provoking perceptions. As you mentioned in your first message on this topic, some -- if not many -- Saudi women seemingly have no problem with dressing in contemporary "western" styles and without their abaya and hijab when visiting nations and public places outside of Saudi Arabia. Did you get a chance to discuss this specific matter with any Saudi women? If so, what did they say about why they wear the abaya and hijab only in some public places, i.e. when in Saudi Arabia, but not when in other public places, i.e., when outside of Saudi Arabia?

Thanks again for your insights, and for your service to the State Department and the United States.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Dan in Maryland -- The question is largely one of personal belief and preference. Many Saudi women do forgo the abaya and/or hijab while abroad, but wear it in the KSA because the law requires it and society expects it. Many others choose to wear a headscarf or abaya wherever they go. Many women choose to go even further, wearing the niqab, which covers the entire face. Some wear black gloves. In many parts of the Muslim world where it is not required by the law, covering is actually on the rise. In fact, in some countries, more women my age are wearing hijab than in their mothers’ generation.

These choices reflect differences of opinion within the Muslim community about the obligation of covering. Some Muslims see it as a religious requirement that Muslim women must be covered at all times while in the presence of non-relative males. Others see the hijab as optional, a voluntary way to express religious beliefs or cultural heritage. Perhaps we have some Saudi women readers who might share their own thoughts on the subject!

October 24, 2007

Murat in Turkey writes:

Ms. Foley,
Thank you for sharing your experiences and views. It's indeed an informative text and fun to read. Anyway, it must be a good thing for you to know that you have a homeland where you can express yourself freely as a woman, even when you are temporarily in a very different cultural environment.

Massachusetts, USA
October 29, 2007

Yvonne in Massachusetts writes:

Ms. Foley - Sharing your first-hand experiences in SA is important to us in other cultures and brings reality directly into our homes devoid of censorship.

What are those blue pants the women in the photo are wearing? Are they lightweight? Covering oneself in black in the heat seems unbearable. Is air-conditioning available? Some comments on this please. Thank you.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Yvonne in Massachusetts --

Thanks for writing. The pants the women in the picture are wearing are their own wardrobe choices. The mandatory aspects of the women’s dress are the abaya (robe) and hijab (headscarf). The niqab (face covering) worn by the women in this picture is voluntary. The women can wear whatever styles and clothing they choose under the abaya. The abaya itself is usually black polyester, so, yes, it is very uncomfortable in the 110+ degree summer heat. Most everyplace in Riyadh is air-conditioned – malls, office buildings, banks, grocery stores, homes, etc. In terms of structure and amenities, a mall or office building in Riyadh is often comparable to what you would find in a large city in the U.S. or Europe.


Latest Stories