The Saudi Butch Girls

In speaking with some (female) university professors who teach at Riyadh universities, they shared some views on a phenomenon surfacing at universities in the city. There seems to be a trend with more and more of the female Saudi students in the desire to appear “butch.” Specifically the university students are cutting their hair short like a man and using generous amounts of hair gel so the hair is spiked up. Having this style where long hair is dominate and cherished makes them stand out, they also are choosing to wear man cut jeans and trousers hanging low and baggy from the hips coupled with a man’s shirt. Lastly, the ensemble is completed with men’s sandals or sneakers. In a society where flaunting ones femininity and beauty is a national past time among young women, the choices of the “butch” girls is indeed an anomaly. So the question asked when observing these girls are they gay or is this just a fad they are going through? Or perhaps this is a phase of rebellion? Is this yet another side-effect from the conservative culture which continues to mandate segregation among its sexes?

Interview with Blogger Carol Fleming from Saudi Arabia

I’d like to share with readers an interview I gave today with a Pakistani publication:

Interview with Blogger Carol Fleming

By The Pakistani Spectator • Jun 29th, 2008 • Category: Interviews • (3,521 views) • No Responses

Would you please tell us something about you and your site?

I am a former American diplomat who had 20 years with the U.S. foreign service before meeting and ultimately marrying my Saudi husband. As a former foreign service officer I have had the opportunity to work and travel to more than 75 countries including living in Pakistan. I started my blog prior to my departure from the United States for Saudi Arabia. The initial intent of the blog was to keep my family and friends informed on my experiences and observations on daily life in the Kingdom. However on their encouragement I opened the site up to anyone who wishes to learn more about the Kingdom from the perspective who routinely crosses that bridge between East and West.

Do you feel that you continue to grow in your writing the longer you write? Why is that important to you?

Absolutely. The longer one writes I believe the greater confidence one will have in choosing the appropriate words so that a reader can feel, smell, sense, touch and emphasize with the details and images one wishes to share. That is important to me for several reasons starting with wishing to be able to accurately and appropriately convey my views through the written word and also to give readers a realistic view of life in Saudi Arabia through my blog.

I’m wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

The experiences are many and range from the great feeling of accomplishment when I as a “non-techie” managed to set up a blog in the first place to watching my blog grow and blossom. I have been blessed with a cadre of regular readers who further enhance my blog through their stimulating comments and resulting dialogues. And in turn, my blog has led me to new friends, new experiences and opportunities. It is a feeling of pride and self-achievement when I learn that Reuters, Chicago Sun Tribune, Computer Shopper and other publications have chosen to reproduce some of my posts because these publications believe my words are important and worthwhile. Through my blog I have been interviewed by the Washington Times as well as having participated in some radio interviews and tv interviews informing viewers about life in Saudi Arabia and the impact blogging has had on opening up the Kingdom.

What do you do in order to keep up your communication with other bloggers?

I believe it is critical for me to respond promptly to those who comment on my blog, even if it simply to acknowledge the comment and let the reader know how much I appreciated that he or she took the time to make a comment. I also have a round of regular blogs which I find enriching and informative and in turn I will routinely make my own comments to these blogs. A successful blog is an interactive blog. A successful blogger will be cognizant of the theme of his or her blog and make every effort not to deviate from that theme. Additionally a responsible blogger will respond to the needs of his or her readers and keep the blog active. A responsible blogger is dependable. If the blogger says he or she will post daily, then do it. Do not build up any false promises or unkept promises for your readership.

What do you think is the most exciting or most innovative use of technology in politics right now?

I think using the technology to keep individuals informed within politics is exciting and important. I like how during U.S. presidential debates viewers can submit their queries via web videoconference giving a broader chance for voices and views to be heard as well as receiving the answers.

Do you think that these new technologies are effective in making people more responsive?


What do you think sets Your site apart from others?

I believe my site is unique as I remain focused on Saudi Arabia. The primary objective of my blog is to provide observations, experiences and inform about the daily life, customs, cultures and traditions of life in the Kingdom which gives me so many topics on which I can continue writing upon. Maintaining this focus, responding to my readers queries and requests further make my site unique.

If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success in life, what would it be?

A positive outlook and attitude.

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?

The happiest moment of my life was the birth of my son who is finally going to make me a Grandmother in October! There is no greater and precious gift than life. The gloomiest moment is when one faces death of a loved one. And at present, I am facing a battle with cancer. While I did have initial “gloomy” thoughts and fears, I am now facing this battle head on and prepared to fight and win!

If you could pick a travel destination, anywhere in the world, with no worries about how it’s paid for – what would your top 3 choices be?

As one who has already seen much of the world that is a tough one. I’m torn between choosing where I have already been and have such special memories or new places and make new memories! So let me ponder here…

<!-[if !supportLists]->1. <!-[endif]->Greece – I have been to Greece several times and feel very comfortable and relaxed there.

<!-[if !supportLists]->2. <!-[endif]->Costa Rica – until I met and married my husband this was the country I had planned to retire to.

<!-[if !supportLists]->3. <!-[endif]->Spain – one of the few European countries I have not been to and have always wanted to see.

What is your favorite book and why?

I am an avid reader and member of two different book clubs. It’s always hard to select just one book but I guess I’d have to say Mark Twain’s classic “Tom Sawyer.”

What’s the first thing you notice about a person (whether you know them or not)?

How easily they smile.

Is there anyone from your past that once told you you couldn’t write?

Fortunately, no. Although there have been a number of individuals who have coached and mentored me on how to improve my writing.

How bloggers can benefit from blogs financially?

I’m not sure if I am best to respond to this question but I’ll give it a shot. I write my blog as a pleasure and with the intent of performing a public service. However I do know of bloggers that through their blog and subject matter have in turn received book offers which can certainly be financially lucrative. Other bloggers will accept advertising for a fee.

Is it true that who has a successful blog has an awful lot of time on their hands?

My mother always told me if you want to get something done, be sure and ask the busiest person! I believe that most successful bloggers are active and multi-tasking individuals who probably have a high level of energy. Taking myself for example, I work full time for a medical university as well as being a media consultant for Saudi television. I also have my own international consulting firm. And, I like to write. Therefore, I blog.

What role can bloggers of the world play to make this world more friendlier and less hostile?

Providing information from the views “of the street” and not specifically from a media source. At the same time, readers of blogs need to be careful to distinguish whether a blog has a bias or agenda.

Who are your top five favourite bloggers?

Because I primarily follow other blogs about Saudi Arabia my favorite bloggers are:

<!-[if !supportLists]->1. <!-[endif]->Crossroads Arabia

<!-[if !supportLists]->2. <!-[endif]->Saudi Jeans

<!-[if !supportLists]->3. <!-[endif]->Susie’s Big Adventure

<!-[if !supportLists]->4. <!-[endif]->Saudi Stepford Wife

<!-[if !supportLists]->5. <!-[endif]->Working in Saudi Arabia

Is there one observation or column or post that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?

I have noticed with my blog that any post which references women’s issues; relationships with Saudi men; polygamy will receive many comments and powerful reactions.

What is your perception about Pakistan and its people?

Pakistan – where do I start with this magnificent country and its people! Pakistan is the land of so many hidden treasures. I can say hands down that in all my travels, I have yet to be welcomed so warmly, so genuinely and so quickly anywhere else like I was welcomed in Pakistan. I lived in Pakistan (Islamabad) from 1998 – 2001 and again from 2005 – 2006. I feel very much at home in Pakistan and have many Pakistan friends who I view as family. Pakistan has had its continued share of problems but it has always its blessings. Not enough people from outside the region get to know about Pakistan and its beauty which includes having more of the world’s highest peaks located there; the highest vertical drop; the world’s highest altitude golf course in Murree; the home of where polo started and so much more. I felt so devastated and helpless when Pakistan had its tragic October 2005 earthquake. I arrived in Pakistan two days after the earthquake representing a U.S. corporation and immediately engaged a team and traveled to Kashmir where we produced a documentary about the earthquake and needs of the people towards helping to generate international support. I’ve seen Pakistan just about in its entirety. I traveled by land from Islamabad to Urumqi, China as well as from Islamabad to New Delhi, India and so much else in between. Some of my favorite places in Pakistan are Hunza, Swat, Lahore and Uch Sharif. I have concerns now for Pakistan and regional stability given the reemergence of the Taliban, the safe haven Al Qaida and supporters have in the FATA and challenges for political and economic stability. However I know the Pakistani people are proud, strong and have been through so many challenges and wars throughout the years so I remain optimistic that peace and stability will be regained.

Have you ever become stunned by the uniqueness of any blogger?

Not really but in my view a blog and blogger needs to be unique in order to be successful.

What is the most striking difference between a developed country and a developing country?

Usually the infrastructure. Having an established infrastructure is always key to successful development.

What is the future of blogging?

I’m sure that innovations in technology will continue to impact the future of blogging making it easier and more accessible. Already blogs and bloggers have had their impact on the traditional print media.

You have also got a blogging life, how has it directly affected both your personal and professional life?

My blog has enriched both my professional and personal life. Those whom I can call friends continually multiples as a result of my blog. I never consider myself an expert on Saudi Arabia and write my post stating the words are my perspectives, opinions and personal experiences. However I routinely receive private emails from individuals who follow my blog who have asked for advise and guidance on differing aspects of the Kingdom and its culture.

What are your future plans?

To begin with to win my battle with cancer and then become a spokesperson towards helping to educate and inform women in the Kingdom on the need for proactive care and exams. Otherwise to basically continue as I am keeping a blog, working hard and have my work make a contribution which leaves me feeling satisfied.

Any Message you want to give to the readers of The Pakistani Spectator?

First I want to thank the Pakistani Spectator for giving me the opportunity to voice my views. Bahat Shukria! And in regards to a message to the readers, keep yourself informed. Knowledge is power. Furthermore, be all you can be. Think positive. Don’t be afraid or hesitant to think out of the box and try new approaches to solve traditional problems. Last but not least, live life to the fullest – it is one of our most precious gifts from God.


Are Women Good Screeners to Find Husbands for Others in Saudi Arabia?

Let’s face it…in the Kingdom following the cultural traditions, there are indeed few opportunities for men and women to meet one another. So how do eligible men and women find someone to marry? I’m writing this from the perspective that both the man and woman are Muslim and following the cultural customs here although they may not necessarily be Saudis. Basically the women would generally rely on their mothers, sisters, aunts and female friends to watch out for them in hearing about an eligible man. The same (in reverse) applies to the man.


So let’s think about finding a husband for another woman. Are women really good screeners to find a life partner for another woman? And what about if a Muslim woman is in a Muslim country without having any family there? What kind of guarantee is there that other women will try to place their criteria on eligible men? How can the other women be sure they know their family member or friend well enough to find a husband for her? Now of course this has been taking place in the Kingdom for decades with successes and failures among Saudis.


Many of the marriages end up between families and tribes for the women who are able to make queries and “matchmaking” are limited in the knowledge of what eligible men are available for marriage. And Saudis overall prefer to keep marriages among families known to each other as well.


Why am I writing this post? I’m not trying to become a matchmaker but I’m realizing there are a lot of women in the Kingdom who are not married, enjoy life in the Kingdom but still would like to find that ideal partner. How do they accomplish these goals successfully when not having a family member to look out for them and their interests so they can fulfill their hopes of love and partnership? And how do they accomplish this dream in an Islamic manner? Lastly, how receptive are Saudi women to assist in finding a good partner for a non-Saudi woman in the Kingdom?

Saudi Arabia & Dress Codes

I’ve received a number of private emails from individuals, non-Saudi male and female wanting to know what is appropriate attire in the Kingdom. Naturally the woman must begin with her abaya. So starting with the abaya she needs to decide on what kind of abaya she will wear depending on the occasion or function. What I mean by that is in some cases when a professional woman in business may be having a mixed meeting with men and women or meeting with a man or attending a mixed function such as a conference or seminar, then the abaya will be her professional dress. In that capacity there are a wide variety of selections of abayas available. Yes, the standard abaya is predominantly black but they also come with swathes of color and differing styles of sleeves which can set abayas apart. The trimming and appliqués also make abayas individualized. And last the cut of the abaya can vary as well. Many professional women I know who have to wear abayas when making presentations usually have several “business” abayas which are made of good clothe and suited to their tastes. Women, like the men and their thobes will have multiple abayas in different fabrics depending on the weather. It is also typical for women to design their own abayas.


When a woman is simply out and about (in a non-professional capacity) depending on her preference, she can wear an abaya that is very simple or if she chooses, more elaborate with color and various designs. But what about underneath the abaya? Again, it really depends on the circumstances of where one is going. Some work places such as hospitals are mixed and a woman will generally wear a lab coat over her professional clothes. In other places such as universities, banks or other women-only work areas, women can freely wear what they choose. However one should remember that the Kingdom is a conservative culture so modest professional dress always makes the best impression. A fashionable business suit whether with slacks or long skirt (to the ankles) always looks nice in such settings. If invited to a reception or a Saudi’s home and there is a possibility that the function may be mixed and an abaya not required, it is still suggested that a woman dress modestly which also subtlety conveys her understanding of the culture and traditions.


Now at women-only functions and especially weddings, one will see the full gamut of attire from modest and conservative to the most revealing. My recommendation in general is to remain leaning to the more modest side. Is it really necessary to display large amounts of bare skin just because all the other women are? And again, I try to remember that I am not only the wife married into a respected and known Saudi family but also realize I may be looked at closely as “that American and let’s see how well she understands the Saudi culture.” Therefore this reinforces why I may also choose to dress more modestly perhaps than some of the Saudi women. I don’t want to appear too revealing or risqué and end up having inaccurate impressions made either of me or sending a message about stereotyping of American women and their dress code.


Seguing to men and what is appropriate dress code for them… to begin with I have come to know a number of expat men in the Kingdom who have chosen to take on the traditional Saudi dress of thobe, smaugh and ghutra. They have told me they chose the Saudi dress for several reasons: it is practical; made for the weather and climate of the Kingdom; and makes them feel more comfortable and accepted. But if you are a non-Saudi man and do not feel comfortable in the Saudi dress, then what is appropriate? Again, it depends on the circumstances. For example, if working in a professional environment and depending on the position held, a traditional western suit with tie may be most appropriate. Or perhaps a “casual suit” will be appropriate if in the heat of summer where one has a lightweight suit, shirt and no tie. In other working environments trousers and shirt may be acceptable without a suit coat. I have seen men in both short and long sleeve dress shirts. It is unlikely the Saudi man would wear short sleeves to a working environment but some expats have chosen to do so. It is not recommend that the expat man wear shorts, tshirts or other casual clothing to work, especially if working in an environment with Saudis. Again, I stress the emphasis on understanding the culture and traditions of the Kingdom.


The same applies to the man if invited to a reception or function that will either be mixed or at the home of a Saudi. He should remember to dress perhaps more formally in the sense of not wearing jeans or tshirts. Depending on the formality of the invitation, khakis and sport short are acceptable for a casual function. And if invited to a male only function such as an informal gathering at an estraha, it may be okay to wear shorts and tshirt if one has a close friendship with the host and has ascertained the function is very casual and informal.


If male and female expats live in a western compound, then they may basically wear whatever they choose. And if meeting with other expats then the general western dress code rules will apply.


Lastly, for women, I always recommend that when out and about, carry a scarf. I am not suggesting one must cover their head but it is a wise idea to have one in the event of an unexpected scenario such as coming face-to-face with some muttawa, or if one is in an auto accident (God forbid) and not wanting to draw further attention to oneself. It is always a wise idea to plan ahead for an unexpected situation.

Where Does One Acquire a GPS System in Saudi Arabia?

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If one wishes to do desert trekking in a GPS or for just general navigation around the Kingdom, a GPS is not a bad device to have in one’s car. But where does one acquire it if it is not pre-installed in the vehicle? Put your worries at ease, GPS systems can be purchased from Jarir bookstores. They may be available at other places too but this is the one which I am aware. However I am advised that the cost of the GPS system is about double as compared to buying the same kind of system in the USA so be prepared.

Are Saudi Men Bigger Hypocrites Than Most?

Let’s face it, there are hypocrites all around the world, no doubt about that. But sometimes I think Saudi men practice hypocrisy more often and in more ways than others. Take drinking for example; alcohol is strictly prohibited in Islam. Yet a large proportion of Saudi men will enjoy their drinks Thursday night (similar to a Saturday night) but of course be right there in the masjid for Juma’a prayers on Friday. I guess to their credit these same men will acknowledge what they are choosing to do is haram but the fact it is haram (prohibited) does not stop them. In many cases these men will be in the Kingdom doubling the ramifications of their act. Drinking is prohibited and alcohol is prohibited. To have alcohol AND drink it in the Kingdom is a severe offense if caught.

Then you have the men who secretly take other wives whether as a misyaar marriage or as a second, third or fourth without revealing that they have been married before or rather are still married. In their view, it’s their right and something that does not need to be discussed or hold consultations upon.

And lying… for many lies come easier than the truth. First there is the culture that noone likes to be the bearer of bad news or hurt someones feelings therefore it makes it more acceptable to lie.

Saudi Arabia: Private versus Public (Government) Hospitals

I wish to share my personal observations and experiences in regards to the private hospitals versus the public or government-run hospitals.  My view will be from the Riyadh perspective.  The key government hospitals in Riyadh are King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre; National Guard Health Affairs; The Military Hospital; Security Forces Hospital; King Fahad Medical City; King Khalid University Hospital; and King Khalid Eye Hospital.  Two of the best known private hospitals in Riyadh are Habib Medical Center and Kingdom Hospital.


For an individual to be treated at a government hospital they need to be accepted either as an employee of the facility or an employee of certain institutions whose employees are entitled to coverage at the institution.  Additionally government hospitals will accept certain referrals.  Some of the government hospitals will also have out-patient clinics operated through a business center where individuals can receive treatment and care but they must either self-pay or have appropriate insurance.  The majority of individuals treated at the government run hospitals receive free treatment and care.  However because this care is provided free of cost, there can be significant or rather major delays before one can be seen let alone treated.


Private hospitals will readily accept any individual but the individual must have excellent insurance coverage or the resources to self-pay.  At a private hospital there is less waiting time and usually one has more amenities.


While both the government run and private hospitals will have multi-national staff there are distinctions in the way the facilities may be designed.  The government hospitals in general remain more conservative and in compliance with cultural traditions.  For example, rather than have a mixed waiting area or reception area, there will be separate areas for men and separate for women.  The waiting areas are usually very simple such as a room lined with chairs.  There typically is an absence of any magazines and unlikely to be a tv.  At the private hospitals the waiting areas and receptions areas are open and mixed.  At Kingdom hospital the waiting areas were similar to that of a hotel lobby with comfortable chairs and couches interspersed in groupings.  At each grouping a flat screen tv was mounted on the wall with either a major English or Arabic channel broadcasting the news.  Husbands, wives, families were able to sit and wait together.


At the government hospitals, unless one has extenuating circumstances or high wasta, for any inpatient stays an individual will probably be in a ward, sharing the large room with about four other patients.  Even if a patient specifically requests and willing to pay for a private room there is a lesser chance a private room can be provided.  Whereas at the private hospital, if one requests a private room, it will be available to the individual.


I think the distinctions between private and government which stand out most prominently are more in what I would call cosmetics and amenities.  The government hospitals can be described as “no frills” and down to business whereas the private hospitals include window dressing and are in a sense more luxurious.  However most importantly when it comes to care, I do not see distinctions.  The hospital personnel are all dedicated professionals and do not “short change” a patient just because he or she may be at a government run hospital instead of a private hospital. 


Now speaking very personally, I am presently being treated for cancer at National Guard Health Affairs as this is also my employer in the Kingdom.  While there were some initial glitches in getting appointments made, once I was registered in the system as a patient requiring specialized care, the attention and care I have received has been outstanding.  I am pleased to say that National Guard Health Affairs has state-of-the art equipment and apprised and drawing on the latest techniques and applications.  As an employee I am entitled to free care without a loss of pay, service or any benefits while I undergo treatment and procedures.  My doctor is a female Saudi doctor who is specialized in breast cancer.  I value and appreciate her approach to treatment.  She speaks to me directly on her findings and recommendations.  She answers all my questions in detail and I never feel rushed or ill-informed.  I feel very fortunate to have someone of her caliber overseeing my case.  She was trained in Canada and also practiced in the United States before returning home to the Kingdom.


As a matter of due process when I was given my initial diagnosis, I did seek out a second opinion from a cancer specialist who practices at Kingdom Hospital.  I am pleased to say that his findings and recommendations were identical to that of my doctor practicing at National Guard.


While my preferences would naturally be to combine the amenities of a private hospital such as Kingdom where I could have a private room with own bath and tv and my family able to visit and stay with me at any time, with the treatment and care I will receive from National Guard, I do not have any qualms or misgivings that I am instead being treated at National Guard Health Affairs.  At this writing I do not know whether I will be able to have a private room when I go in next week for surgery followed by a hospital stay of at least 5 to 10 days.  But more importantly, instead of worrying about privacy, I do have peace of mind knowing that I will be receiving excellent treatment and care by dedicated and competent professionals.


So in closing this post, I want to assure readers that while there are pros and cons in regards to whether receiving treatment from a private or government run hospital, the most importantly factor is the expertise, care and competency.  And fortunately these are available at both types of institutions.


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