One Saudi Woman Speaks Out Frankly…

The Saudi woman and how she lives and what she has experienced is a mystery to many as well as of high interest. Therefore I am very pleased that one very respectable Saudi woman agreed to be asked a bevy of questions pertaining to her life, her background, her culture and experiences. She is not necessarily a typical nor a traditional Saudi woman but at the same time some of the experiences she will share go right to the heart of Saudis culture and customs which have not changed much over the years.

Let’s begin with where you are right now… I understand you are presently a student, studying in the USA. Was it difficult or challenging for you as a Saudi female to get the opportunity to study in the USA? Do you have a male mahrem with you?

No mahrem is with me. The most challenging aspect of getting here was making sure I was educated enough to compete with all the other students. Education in KSA is not very good. The teachers are weak, and we spend ½ days in religion related class. My father, who also attended university in the USA, was excited for me. I am extremely lucky that my branch of the family values education above all things. My parents have the normal worries of any parent whose child is alone in a big city.

What are you enjoying most in being a Saudi female student in the States? What opportunities are you taking advantage of now in the United States that you would not have back in Saudi Arabia?

I am enjoying the freedom of making friends from all types of people, of freely attending concerts, museums, restaurants, parties, political rallies, etc. I can speak up in class with my true opinion. I can go to a bookstore or library and find anything I want to read.

Do you find yourself with more American, International or Saudi friends while in the United States and why?

I have made it a point to befriend people I normally would not have contact with in KSA. Obviously, I have made friends with Americans, but also Indians and Asians. I have sought out people different from me, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Agnostics and MEN. It has been wonderful to have what I suspected confirmed: a female can be friends with a male, with no “hanky-panky” or romance involved. I am friends with arabs and Saudis as well, but I find it tiring to live up to their expectations.

What are your Saudi family views on their daughter/sister/cousin attending University in the States?

As I mentioned, my immediate family is big on education. My larger family is somewhat appalled that I am over here in school alone. I’ve pretty much ruined my chances for a cousin marriage LOL. (fine by me).

What are you majoring in and what do you plan to do after graduating from University?

Ah, the $64,000 question. I am majoring in linguistics and journalism. I am pretty sure at this point that I need a masters degree. Linguistics includes sociology, anthropology, phonetics, psychology, speech development, brain development, philosophy etc. I would find it fascinating to study my mother’s people, Bedus, and analyze their language.

I understand you are muslim. Do you choose to cover while in the United States? Why or why not?

I do claim to be muslim, however, most muslims would disallow me for my non-adherence to certain tenents. I no longer cover. When I first came here, I was in full Saudi regalia. A little child was standing next to me on a corner, whispering and giggling. Finally, his older brother got up all his courage and much to his mother’s mortification, asked me if I were a ghost!!!

First to go, was the niqab. Then the abaya. Finally, hijab. My father had asked me remain covered as I “represented” Saudi women. I pointed out that was not a good reason. I dress modestly and that’s it. I can find no justification for Saudi national costume. I also found that men are immensely turned on by female muslim garb – it draws attention to me, which is so not the point. I resent being judged by other muslims as to how I dress, and would never judge others for the same reason. Islam is so much more than a dress code, and it’s all about cleanliness, neatness, and modesty anyhow.

What has been the reaction of Westerners in getting to know a Saudi woman? Did they have specific stereotypes which you either erased or validated for them?

Oh YES!! Most westerners wanted to leave me alone. They were so afraid they were going to offend me somehow (I was still in Saudi costume). They all think we are all rich and obsessed with shopping. That we all hate Jews. I hope I erased all those feelings. Men were convinced that I was some uber-feminine flower (HA!). Interestingly, the other ARAB students had a lot of misconceptions about Saudi women as well. They were very disappointed in me – I am supposed to be Ms. Muslim for them, rich, pious, and totally subservient.

In addition, there is this weird sexual thing that westerners think about Saudi women and arabs in general. We arab girls laugh when we see the American girls go crazy over arab guys. For Saudi women, we get it both ways –from western guys (think harem) and arab guys (think subservient). Everyone wants to know exactly what is under an abaya!! I think the you tube video Suheir Hammad “not your exotic, not your erotic”.

Let’s now shift to more about you and life in Saudi. What part of the Kingdom is home for you?

My mother is from the western region , as her people were nomadic until fairly recently, I usually just say “west”. My father’s people are from Riyadh.

Can you share what is typical of your life in Saudi Arabia. How do you spend your days? What do you do for entertainment?

Well, I was 17 when I left, and when I go home to visit, my days are not typical. When I do visit home, I usually have to wait around for friends to wake up (lol). So I use that time to read, practice music or surf the net. We have servants, so my one chore is basically straightening my bedroom. I love to cook, but it freaks out the cooks if I hang out in the kitchen. When my friends, relatives wake up (usually early afternoon), I try to make plans. This doesn’t often work. Everything gets so complicated. I can’t just say, “Hey, Reem, let’s meet at Starbucks…” First, “Reem” would have to get permission, then a driver, and possibly bring sisters along. I find shopping to be poor entertainment, and truth be told, that is the main entertainment in my age group. Most of my friends are married and have children, so they like to leave the house if possible. We usually eat together as family around 8-9:00pm, and that lasts awhile. Then we all go to social obligations that can last until the wee hours. I try to go home early because I get so sleepy and I wake up around 7:30am, but I end up inconveniencing the drivers. If this sounds boring and non-productive to you, that is because it is just that.

My girlfriends who have children seem to park their kids with either Filippina nannies or older relatives.

What can you not do in Saudi Arabia that you wish you could do and why?

I wish I could have received a good education. I wish I could have access to art, cinema, books and careers. I wish I could vote (I wish everyone in Saudi could vote). Driving, as much as I love it, is not important compared to those other things.

And what about your family? I understand you have a large family and one that is polygamous. How has that impacted on your upbringing and your views?

My family is huge. I mean, literally thousands of people. My immediate family is small by Saudi standards. My father, his first wife, their 5 children, my mother, three children, and another wife who my father divorced.

Did your mother know at the time of marriage that your father had another wife?

Not right away, but she assumed it probably due to his age. He was in his 40’s.

And on learning that she was not his first wife, how did she react? How did she adapt?

Carol, she was only 12. Her problem was not that he was polygamous, but that she was scared to leave her family. When she won her concession to be educated, I do believe my father could have had two heads and she would have accepted him. When my father brought her to Riyadh, she already had one son. My father’s first wife was horrible – vicious and nasty. My mother tried to stay out her way, but it was no good as the servants tried to curry favor with wife #1 by ignoring my mother. Remember, in really big houses, the sister wives live somewhat together. They have separate bedrooms but common rooms as well. My father finally had to get a second house.

How did your Dad divide his time between families? And growing up knowing your Dad also had another family, how did that make you feel? Do you feel you and your siblings received enough of your Dad’s attention?

My father spent most of his time with family #1. His first wife is his cousin and since a lot of social life revolves around family, I guess this made sense. I resented my “other” family terribly when I was little. I love my father, and adored him when I was small, but he was always so busy. When he came to see us, it was primarily to see my mother (can you say conjugal visit?). I tried hard in everything to make him notice me and my efforts. I never spoke about it to my school chums or to my family. I felt very lonely. As I grow up I realize many children, from polygamy or not, can have this experience, but at the time, I resented my father’s “other” family.

What kind of interaction, if any, did/do you have with your half-siblings? In fact, how do you refer to each other? Half-siblings? Brother? Sister?

I was instructed and corrected whenever I called them “half”. So, in Saudi, I refer to them as my brothers and sisters. I call them half sibs elsewhere, because it is confusing for westerners, and the distinction is important in the west. No one in Saudi really cares whether they are half or not. This only becomes important when marriage candidates are involved. Anyhow, my sibs, all rather older than my family, were hostile to us out of loyalty to their own mother. As we have all grown, we have formed an alliance that works with the boys, but the girls still dislike us.

What impact has growing up as a child of polygamy affected you and your siblings?

First, my mother is bedu, so we did not have the social standing of his first family. I know you are probably all thinking…well, it’s the father who is important. Indeed, that did help us. Ultimately, though, we aren’t considered the first rate marriage material. I always knew his first wife had the most influence, and we could not ask for anything that her children didn’t get even if they didn’t deserve it or weren’t as talented. Out of the three of us, my first brother has two wives. My second brother is afraid to get married. And I am thinking (as Gloria Steinham once said) that I need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The polygamy disgusts me. I know it to be based on man’s baser instincts and undermines loyalty. I have been at parties where a woman has been called out of the room to have sex with her husband, while the other wife sits there. No regard for either woman’s feelings. Nothing is discussed in public, but we all understand what’s going on. My own older brother married a second time because his first wife could not have another child, and everyone commended him for it. He was a hero for not divorcing his first wife, and frankly, she was relieved. By the way, I told his second wife before the marriage that he was married. She is American, and had no idea. He proceeded to tell her that he would be divorcing his first wife soon, but “felt sorry for her”.

As a woman are you for or against polygamy, and why? What about your brothers? Have they shared their views?

I am so against polygamy. No man can treat his wives equally. You hear stories of older wives who are thrilled to have new sister wives to handle the old guy’s randiness, not to mention an extra pair of hands around – but- it still has effects on a woman’s self-worth, and her children’s understanding of a woman’s role in society.

My middle brother, who I am close with, has shared his views. He says he will not marry until he is sure of his feelings about the woman. He does not intend to marry more than one wife, as he cannot understand how he would stand it if the shoe were on his foot.

We both feel the practice cannot help to reduce women to chattel. To live with this threat reduces women to subservient status. I don’t know if you can find it, but look at the Sami Angawi interviews. These are enlightened educated people playing at polygamy. Tell me if you think his first wife is thrilled no matter what she says. Tell me which wife has his heart.

Do you think most women married to a Saudi have an innate fear of their husband taking another wife at some point? And do you think polygamy is on the decrease or increase in Saudi Arabia and why?

I think most women in Saudi fear polygamy. They know it is a very real threat. I believe that polygamy is increasing simply because there is a large socio-economic class of men who can now afford it. The fall season is “new wife season”. This is because in summer many Saudi men vacation in Syria and/or Lebanon, find a new, very young, fair wife and bring her home. By the way, usually the family is also vacationing in the same villa, whilst papa rents a hotel room.

Let’s now shift and talk about opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia. Do you believe that since King Abdullah has come to power more opportunities continue to open up for women in the Kingdom?

I think King Abdullah has been sage in moving our public toward “the light”. Look, if he didn’t believe as he does, do you think HRH al Waleed bin Talal could get away with the things he does? They exiled his father for less.

No nation can achieve economic development and social parity with ½ the population in chains. We can only hope that the King long outlives this Crown Prince. Vive le roi!

What opportunities presently do not exist that you would like to see implemented for women and why?

The education ghetto must stop!!! I am not saying that Saudi males enjoy fabulous education, but it is better than females. We are told we are not “Fit” to hear certain things, whether it’s religion, biology, literature . I would like to see an end to the mahrem system. Given Sharia, this will probably only happen when pigs fly. You cannot understand the humiliation of asking your male relative for permission to do anything. This reduces women to a state of infancy and promotes inability to think clearly AND be responsible for their actions. Sounds like slavery, yes?? I know this is all wrapped up in our honor system, but women must have legal equality. I’ve never understood how converts can smilingly agree to such things as you need two witness if they are female, one if male – don’t get me started.

When do you think women will have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia? And how important is the right to drive in your view as compared to furthering opportunities in education and job opportunities?

Every gov’t minister I know has said driving is coming. If King Abdullah lives, I think less than 5 years. Driving will be a big help to most women, and an economic boost to most families. I would like to say something a bit controversial. When a group has never been given the chance to think, decide, and be responsible, it would be better if that part came first before driving. You wouldn’t put a 10 year old behind the wheel, would you?

In closing, are there any additional comments you’d wish to add or questions you’d like to ask readers?

As you can probably tell, I am from the upper echelons of Saudi society. I know that I have chances and opportunities that many Saudi women will never have. I hope to make a difference some day soon.

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to these questions and provide readers of this blog with additional insights and experiences from a Saudi woman such as yourself.


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