The Saudi Sisterhood

sisterhood-aThe Saudi Sisterhood.  What is it exactly?  Here is my own take and definition which I open up for your comments and discussion.  Due to the segregation which is practiced in the Kingdom I believe that it does in turn lead to additional closeness in relationships among women.  The enforced segregation brings women together of all ages frequently and at times for extended periods.  It is most typical for gatherings to be among relatives both immediate and extended family and since many Saudi families are large families, even a family gathering can quickly number in the 100’s.  That’s not to say that Saudis, both male and female, do not have friends who are not relatives such as colleagues, classmates or neighbors.


However I have noticed that the relationships among women in Saudi Arabia seem in some ways to have closer bonds than those of women from other countries and cultures.  The women in Saudi Arabia are naturally much more at ease and comfortable in the presence of women for long periods of time.  They will share together, laugh together, cry together even dance together.  At some gatherings where there might be music, it’s not unusual for the women to dance together with women playing the part of the man to put a smaugh on her head.  This is done in good fun and not meant to be interpreted in any inappropriate way.


For those of us from different cultures and more accustomed to mixed functions it may feel awkward to be with a group of women for hours on end and routinely.   But for the women of Saudi Arabia, this is their Sisterhood which they respect, enjoy and cherish.  Perhaps due to the segregation and/or the Saudi family values and traditions, these women will watch out for each other, support each other and be there for each other.  This is a lot like in the Western world with a woman and her best friend(s) but it seems in the Saudi culture those numbers are easily quadrupled.

30 Responses

  1. That sounds so nice,and it must be so easy to make friends there.

    It sure is different from Iceland where we the women compete in everything.And we compare ourselves to each other.But,still I choose not to hate them and love them instead.The men are not like that.No wonder they go to Thailand.Oriental women have a sweet disposition,I really like them.Are Saudi women nice?

    I’m so blessed to live in South Carolina,now.The women here are the kind one can only dream of.I like it ,that I recognize it and it makes me appreciate them more and not take them for granted.

    I do have one girl-friend in Iceland,whom I miss,but she is half Dutch.

    South Carolina is the greatest place on earth to live and the people are the biggest reason.

  2. Because of the segregation, tribes of women can spend days – even half-a-lifetime – not seeing a single grown man.

    If a widow did not have a job or classes to leave the house for, and groceries are brought in by the driver and the maid – like my cousins in Mecca – and surrounds herself with female members of her family, then half the world’s population seem to shrink into the television: The only grown men she sees live in there.

    I agree that it’s nice to some extent. To a very far extent, even. But, after a while, it can get claustrophobic, don’t you think?

  3. Krystal, thanks for sharing. I do think that women (even Saudi women) can sometimes be pretty tough on one another and do lean towards a tendency as you mentioned to compare one another with themselves and others. It raises a good point as to why generally speaking women overall can be much more catty and critical than men?

    Hning, I never thought about the life of a woman such as a widow who (at least in my eyes) appears to be so very isolated. I think it would get claustrophobic but then again I’ve been brought up in an unsegregated environment. Even a widow can go out by herself (with a driver) whether it is to the grocery store or a souk and depending on the disposition and personality of the woman, there are activities for women to engage in. But you’re right…when I have spoken to traditional conservative Saudi women the number of men whom they see or speak to is very very minimal and like you said…this is their life not just a brief period of time.

  4. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that there wouldn’t USUALLY be great cultural, religious or career differences between the women? Guessing. :]

  5. Bedu, your post echos the experience I had while living segregated in the Kingdom. I must admit, however, that my first year in that society did produce a kind of claustrophobia that was relieved only by periodic forays out of the Kingdom, not for seeing men but for moving around freely in unsegregated society.

    Eventually, though, I grew to appreciate the segregation and even like it. When I returned to the States, I needed another year to re-learn polite behavior in free society!

  6. Mrs. C, I do agree that having the same cultural and religious backgrounds and probably no career differences does impact on the “Saudi Sisterhood.”

    Marahm – I’ve not yet been back to the States since coming to Saudi Arabia so I cannot comment from that perspective. I do know that I’m such an independent person that I can only tolerate (for myself) segregation in small doses.

  7. Ahhh the ‘Saudi sisterhood’ as you call it, is to us the muslim women sisterhood. I find that my Saudi, Morrocon, Egyptian, Palestinian, Asian, Indian, American, German, Native American sisters and etc. all to be of the same types and calibre in quality as a whole. Each culture has its own splendid differences in clothes and dance yet with Islam we are all brought together as one.

    In following the Quran and Sunnah we all believe that no one and no thing has the right to be worshipped but Allah. And that Allah is over all things ominpotent. In this unanimous belief in one God, creator of the heaven and earth; we find that we practise the same cleaning rituals, acts of worship, positions in our families, abstain from the same types of food and live to worship Allaah. OWe spend our lifetimes working to perfect ourselves and care for eachother while our men go out and work to care for us. Though we may be different in countries we are one and the same.?

    The Muslim woman loves to hide hear beauty from strange men and cast her eyes only on her husband. In this way she is always pleased with her husband’s appearance. She is able to keep herself chaste and precious in her delicate disposition.

    Our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and fathers in law are enough for us. We do not find a need to be walking around some strange men in a ‘non segregated’ area to feel normal. Mixing freely wioth the opposite sex is not a normal thing at all, and has only recently introduced it’s self into society recently.

    In American history the woman used to wear bonnets, behave shyly and not socialize freely with strange men nor look at them. This was the custom and practise everywhere in the world for the women to behave shyly and not act ‘loose’. In every Christian film the woman always wears a type of veil and acts shyly not engaging with strange men. The woman were not wearing those things on their head because they were simply following the fashion. It was an innate belief around the world that this is how the woman should behave.

    The devil loves to trick others into following his schemes and draw themselves further and further from the truth. Until the people find their sinful acts to be fair seeming.

    “Thus have We made fair seeming to every people their deeds; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did. ”
    Quran 6:108

    Sincerely & Gratefully
    Halimah bint David

  8. Thanks for sharing your views Halimah.

  9. “Our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and fathers in law are enough for us. We do not find a need to be walking around some strange men in a ‘non segregated’ area to feel normal. Mixing freely wioth the opposite sex is not a normal thing at all, and has only recently introduced it’s self into society recently….”

    Well I imagine it must have taken you quite a large chunk of your life to ask every Muslim woman on the planet whether they believe exactly as you do…otherwise why the “us” in your lecture?

    My father beat me all my life…my brother ignored his family most of his life…my husband abused me and molested his children….while my father in law ignored the fact that his son was a psycho abusing his daughter in law and grandchildren….and my sons are having to shed the burden that living in an Arab society has placed on them…struggling with the fact that their mother has taught them women are equal and deserving of respect and not what their culture has taught them…that women are for marriage and babies only…nothing else….so excuse me when I say…the “halal” men in our lives are not always “enough” for us…sometimes I feel like I would take a complete stranger over “family” any day of the week.

    Speak for yourself sister…and let others speak for themselves…

    “Thus have We made fair seeming to every people their deeds; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did. ”
    Quran 6:108

    Why is this always pointed out to Muslims/anyone that try and bring the position of women up…and refuse to accept that God intended us to be submissive and subserviant to man…God is the only one worthy of submission and subserviance…keep your spot if your comfortable with it…but some of us are not content with the spot man has relegated us too…and will not remain quiet about it….but then again…maybe thats just me.

  10. No, it is hardly just you Coolred. Go Sister!

    I have to wonder how tight that bond of sister-hood is when one of those ‘sisters’ become the 2nd, 3rd or 4th wife to another sister’s husband? That seems very UN-sister-like to me even if they didn’t look at him before marrying him.

  11. Why is it that when pure Islam is presented, others use the example of how man has degenerated inwardly and outwardly to an abominable and immoral course of conduct? Should we stop presenting what is pure and correct because mankind is at lost? Of course not. This is why Allah sent the Prophet as a teacher and role model. To bring us out of darkness to light and to follow his example. He did and said everything in accordance to the teachings of the Quran and his life is the reflection of the Shariah of Allah. He maintained the best characteristics in his roles as father, husband, friend, ruler, governor, teacher, statesman, protector of the weak, widows, and poor, a guide to the rich, a guardian of the orphans, and a servant of Allah. No one could ever equal the Prophet (sallallahu alaiyhi wa sallam) in the whole history of mankind and no one ever will, insha Allah.

    Coolred, I’m truely sorry you’ve had such bad experiences with men, but when Muslims like Halima remind you of the beauty of Islam it’s not proper to be bitter about that. The things that you mentioned were not from Islam. No matter how bad a person behaves that does not take away from what we know is correct. It’s unfortunate that the people you mentioned and others that we all know of – chose to follow the way of shaytaan over the path of Allah. That is the bottom line. As Surat Al Asr tells us; Wal Asr! Innal insana la fii husran. We are one of those unfortunate human beings who is lost.

    The Prophet (sallallahu alaiyhi wa sallam) said: The example of guidance and knowledge with which Allah has sent me (Quran and Sunnah) is like abundant rain falling on the earth. Some of which was fertile soil that absorbed rainwater and brought forth vegetation and grass in abundance. Another portion of it was hard and held the rainwater and Allah benefited the people with it and they utilized it for drinking and to irrigate the land for cultivation. A portion of it was barren which could neither hold water nor bring forth vegetation (then that land gave no benefits). The first is the example of the person who comprehends Allahs religion (Islam) and gets benefit (from the knowledge) which Allah Taaala has revealed through me and learns and then teaches it to others. The (last example is that of a) person who does not care for it and does not take Allahs Guidance revealed through me. (He is like that barren land.)

  12. I define Sisterhood to mean that small tight knit group that through thick and thin stand by their “sister”, regardless of culture, origin,blood ties,marital ties, religion, econimic, or social status…

    Everyone defines it this differently…I know…

    But for someone who grew up in a household of men…I can say that the Ultra-Consersative jewish girl I met in second grade, the wild and vivacious spanish girl that joined our set in 8th grade and the exotic japanese girl who moved in across the street that same year are the enduring Sistas in my life…all others have for very female reasons fallen away and only us die hard YA Ya’s have stuck it through- even when more than 30 years later we live as far apart from each other as we are… But we have been there for births of children, divorces, remarriages and death… Only one of those women would I want to wash my body for burial- none other…

  13. Sisterhoods seem to me to be mixed blessings always.

    While there are definite bonds which are more important the more segregated the society, there are also usually rivalries-regarding beauty, marriage partners, children, intelligence, talents, family background, wealth, career, etc. The more traditional the society the more these rivalries are about beauty, men (handsomeness, wealth, social position), children and domestic talents. Still a sisterhood by choice, family obligation, or societal imposition can be a wonderful source of support, understanding, comfort, aid, companionship and fun.

    While I have not experienced Saudi-style segregation, I have experienced more limited forms elsewhere, and feel that the plus of the sisterhood bonds should be complemented and complimented with the pluses of positive relationships with men. Like American Bedu, I am too independant to be comfortable with prolonged high levels of dependance, and, like Inal, I think choice is important.

    The large size of Arab families generally allows for more choice even within the family. Women who have fewer female relatives to choose from may be disadvantaged, as is the woman with few or no brothers, in terms of permissible male relationships. Sometimes the quality of the obvious choices is poor, as Coolred pointed out.

    Finally, Marahm’s one-year of culture shock and one-year of reverse culture shock is about average. The first six months are the worst with gradual improvement for the next 6 to 18 months. I personally find reverse culture shock the worst as it usually takes the sufferer (including me) and her entourage by surprise, and there is less recognition, support and understanding for the sufferer.

    Another great topic, post, and comments!


  14. “…Muslims like Halima remind you of the beauty of Islam it’s not proper to be bitter about that. The things that you mentioned were not from Islam….”

    Who said I am bitter about Islam?

    Im confused though…men are the runs “running” Islam today…men are the ones “making (up) the rules”…men are the ones that do the shaming…punishing…and abusing when as how they see fit…from a purely “religious” perspective..speaking in Gods name and all that…so excuse me if I complain about “Islam” as practiced today…because even if thats NOT Islam as God intended…its still the one I and millions of other muslim women around the world have to deal with. We are not blessed to be living in an actual Islamic society designed and presided over by God…we live in the Real world…and the real world is run by Muslim Men…so yes…that is where my bitterness comes from…because as long as Muslim men are “in charge” and as long as Muslim women allow them to be in charge…is how long Hislam will prevail and Islam will be lost and forgotten and a distant memory…sigh.

  15. Of course I have no room to comment on Saudi Sisterhood. But, as female I can comment on female sisterhood in general, and honestly…it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, in regards to the term “sisterhood”. In relationships with most women…it’s inevitable for some to become competitive, jealous, and petty, all traits I don’t deal with. Being an independent type, I will hang out by myself, go to the movies by myself, and read a good book before I subject myself to a bunch of kackling, garrulous women. On the other hand…if you find a real true girlfriend (and I’ve had a few), they’re to be treasured, as these people are truly not a dime a dozen. But…as I’ve mentioned before…my best friends have almost always (80% of the time) been of the male persuasion.

    Coolred: You’re Feisty!! I Love It!!

  16. I’m enjoying all the comments which allow us to explore the Saudi sisterhood and sisterhood in general. Depending on our backgrounds and nationalities it is clear we have had varying experiences of sisterhood and/or whether we have had as women close male friends who have filled that same special role deemed to a sister. However I’m sure we can all agree that is unlikely a Saudi woman would have the same experience of an unrelated male friend being nothing more than that… a best friend.

    Until coming to KSA I worked primarily in male dominated environments which in turn resulted in good friendships with men. I’m glad of those friendships and in general found them easier, natural and less “catty” than one might find over time with a female friendship. At the same time, I do consider myself blessed for having a solid network of female friends which has greatly expanded since being in KSA.

  17. well I’m anti social and I don’t like large gatherings or crowds. My daughters however love it all and want to take part in certain family women events. I do it for them but I’d much rather be home scrapping. We have one neice who is also a bit anti social, largely due to a medical condition which she doesn’t feel comfortable in gatherings which focus a lot on looks, party dresses and for the gals her age, presenting yourself as good marriage material.

  18. Asalamu Walaikum Halimah-It’s nice to see you all the way over here~smooch!

  19. American Bedu-I am curious, did your husband accept your male friendships, did he need “training” to do so, were there some you had to compromise on? Not to be indiscreet, I was just wondering about generalities.

    Been there, done that.

  20. Chiara – I am very fortunate that my husband is not only my life partner but truly my best friend too. He is so supportive and due to the trust in our relationship has no qualms to my having friends of the opposite sex. And the same applies to him as well. In this aspect, our relationship is very much more Western than Eastern.

  21. American Bedu-Thank you and congratulations. I would say the same about my own relationship, however depending on what country we are living in and especially earlier on, I have had to explain/remind about cultural differences, and professional necessities. Nonetheless, it is, as the Michelin guide would say, worth the detour.

  22. Glad to hear that Chiara! If i may ask, what is your ethnic background and that of your husband?

  23. Mine is 3rd generation Italian-Canadian, and his is Moroccan (Arab-Muslim). We both lived in France where we did graduate work and where we met, and have travelled alot together and alone as well as living together in Morocco and Asia.
    Although he is cosmopolitan, tolerant, multilingual, well-travelled, educated and excellent in acculturation (life experience, and the masters in social sciences help), I think sometimes, as with others, patterns from his family and culture of origin kick in. Eg. when he first immigrated to Canada he wanted to keep the car ownership and insurance with his papers in the house, to be taken out everytime one drove the car (like his Dad); or wished I wouldn’t examine and treat men (a passing idea easily deflected); or after a minor injury thought he would ONLY receive decent care if he told everyone in the hospital ER that I was his wife, and if they waited for me to arrive from home before stitching him.
    Regarding the latter, I was interning there at the time but off duty-he took the prize for the most anxious patient of the night. Later we laughed after comparing the cultural and personal responses to his minor injury of the Canadians who witnessed it, the treating staff, and myself compared to a Moroccan response and that of his individual family members. While the Canadians were respectful and helpful, the staff at the fitness club only accompanied him to ER on his insistence even though it was the dead of winter (they probably assumed he had his own car-and from my own experience as a lifeguard they were probably afraid he would make a complaint higher up), and just left him there on his own. The ER staff were also polite and helpful but overly calm for his taste, and the resident insisted on stitching him first, then letting him call me, and himself gave me a medical report (no. of sutures, suture material used). I was also too calm for his taste, being part professional (with the staff) and part wifely “oh no biggy”, “good stitching”, “lucky you got that particular resident”, etc. On the other hand, Moroccans would have gathered around, palavered, offered advice, food, comfort, rides, etc. The ER staff would have cared more that he was married to a doctor (even if a lowly intern), and treated him specially because of it. His mother and sisters would have cried inconsolably, his brother would have made jokes at his expense to cover his worry, and his father would have given him a lecture on accident prevention to cover his concern. Best of all, his injury (incurred while running in a fitness class) gave him the classic male Canadian scar along the upper eyelid near the brow (usually incurred while playing hockey)!
    Other than those type of things, I think the main cultural conflicts are as a result of inlaw issues (so many siblings/cousins, so many rivalries) or the difference in our work cultures. We are both trained and experienced in ethno-cultural issues so the work culture ones (academic vs corporate) take us more by surprise.

    Thanks for your question. It might be interesting to do a post on mixed marriages/families!


    PS I reserve for another time my own cultural faux pas!

  24. Chiara, thanks so much for sharing. I enjoy and appreciate your contributions to the blog. If you do a search in the search bar on my blog with the key word “marriage” you will indeed find a number of posts dedicated to the subject of mixed marriages and families.

    I’ve always thought it would be entertaining and informative to have a sitcom featuring a Saudi with a western wife taking the show from the beginning of when/how they first meet, the type of courtship leading to marriage, merging of the families and adaptation of the families as well as the cultural challenges and experiences. I know a good producer would have fun doing the episodes of meeting the in-laws on both sides! (smile)

  25. American Bedu, that is an excellent idea regarding the sitcom. It would be entertaining. And, if you really wanted to pursue it…it’s totally doable and with the alternative distribution methods now available, you could develop a following, which could lead to it being on television (if you didn’t have those contacts from the start). I’m curious, are Saudi women allowed to be on television (please excuse my ignorance), or would you have to use Arab actors from other countries?

  26. American Bedu

    Thank you for your kind words. The Canadian sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie” addresses in a humorous way the challenges of a Muslim community living in a small Canadian prairie town, and some of those issues are addressed, though not so systematically. Some really funny post 911 comments (LMOTP – S01E01 – ) , as well as challenges of diversity including the most recent are available online on “google video” or youtube. The woman who created it is a South Asian muslim canadian who based it on her experwithin the Muslim community. The first two seasons are probably the best. All episodes ience after she moved from Toronto to a small town in the West. One main male character is married to a Canadian revert. The episode LMOTP 7 Mother in Law addresses her in-law relationship. A Saudi sitcom like the one you describe would be richer in specific cultural adventures, as well as universal enough to have wider appeal.

    I must say, in my case, all parents-in-law have been great (we’d all met long before marriage was contemplated). My own favorite cultural faux pas + inlaw story (two for one) occurred after I had stayed with my inlaws many times, but had not been there for a couple of years. I was in the kitchen with my MIL and sisters-in-law sitting on low stools preparing dinner when a man walked in, nodded hello in our direction, and went to the fridge to get a glass of water. I thought he was being rather rude since he hadn’t said hello properly, but decided since he was serving himself from the fridge he must be a close relative or family friend who had been staying there. Maybe he didn’t say hello properly because he had done it earlier in the day. Based on his looks I had decided he might be the son of a specific paternal uncle. Still, when he came towards me and bent down to kiss me hello I stuck my hand up to shake hands, and said “Bonjour” very formally but politely. He reciprocated then left the room with a funny look on his face. I was feeling all proud of myself, being so proper and modest and all in front of the inlaws, until I noticed a rather odd silence. Then one SIL said “You didn’t recognize him, did you?”. I was thinking, “of course not, I’ve never met him”, when she continued “That was my brother, he as lost alot of weight since you last saw him”. Oops! Fortunately he graciously accepted my apology.

    I will consult your posts on “mixity”. You have wonderful blog.


  27. BCIS – yes, indeed there are Saudi female actresses as well as Saudi newscasters too. I’m glad you like my idea. It’s something I’ve been toying with for a while…

    Chiara – I have heard about LMOTP but have never seen it. I don’t think it is available on any of the satellite channels we have at least.

    Have you thought about starting your own blog about bi-cultural marriages? It sounds like you also have a wealth of interesting experiences to share!

    Your experience reminded me of one aspect that I still have to contend with and remind myself about here in Saudi… I come from a very affectionate family in that it is natural to hug and kiss (on the cheeks) all family and friends, including male relatives. Yet I have to restrain myself here in Saudi for in a lot of cases, that is just not done, particularly when the woman is an “in-law” to the family. No problem with the females but usually a ‘no-no’ with the males even them being uncomfortable to shake hands.

  28. Carol. I know what you mean. I come from a lovey dovey family. We are all kissy huggy. My male cousins and I were more like siblings growing up. Fortunately, i moved away from Chicago shortly afte starting to practice Islam. It made things easier for me – even though the hijab kind of put them at a distance. i guess when I put on the hijab even without saying they knew not to touch me.

    Once I called for my aunt and one of my male cousins answered the phone and before passing it to my Aunt he said, “I love you” and I said , :love u 2″. My husband heard that and freaked out. I was like, where does it say in Islam that I can not convey my love in words to male family members? He had no proof so that was that.

  29. I feel sorry that once reaching puberty, male and female cousins in Saudi Arabia no longer have that close relationship (unless they eventually marry!). I also grew up viewing my cousins as extended siblings and have such special relationships with them….but as much as I love them, I sure could not imagine having ever been married to one of them!

  30. Thank you for the suggestion-I’ll keep it in mind!

    Sorry for the editing glitch in the previous post. It should read:
    The Canadian sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie” addresses in a humorous way the challenges of a Muslim community living in a small Canadian prairie town, and some of those issues are addressed, though not so systematically. Some really funny post 911 comments (LMOTP – S01E01 – ) , as well as challenges of diversity within the Muslim community. All episodes including the most recent are available online on “google video” or youtube. The woman who created it is a South Asian muslim canadian who based it on her experience after she moved from Toronto to a small town in the West. The first two seasons are probably the best. One main male character is married to a Canadian revert. The episode LMOTP 7 Mother in Law addresses her in-law relationship. A Saudi sitcom like the one you describe would be richer in specific cultural adventures, as well as universal enough to have wider appeal.
    Also the episode references are from the “google video” list but didn’t seem to link (or my linking talents need further refining).
    In Morocco customs are more fluid than what I understand about Saudi Arabia, though becoming more conservative in certain circles. The great “no touch” vs handshake vs kiss debate! I’ve got a few of those stories too but in the interest of brevity will save for a different opportunity.
    Sorry to be long winded


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