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You have more in common with Saudi women than you think

Updated August 03, 2017

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This article was originally published on August 3, 2017.


A few weeks ago, a video of a girl taking a stroll in the desert went viral. The reason the video is such big news is because the girl wore a particular outfit in a particular country: a skirt and a cropped top, in Saudi Arabia.

It is well-known that women in Saudi Arabia are required to cover up their bodies with an abaya. As a woman born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I am very familiar with this law.

Despite the strict laws, I think it’s important to remember that people are just people, no matter where they are or what cultural environment they live in.

Many think that the years of my life that I spent in Saudi Arabia must have been very strange, and from the questions I get asked, it’s clear that there are many misconceptions.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I attended both an American international school for expatriates and later an all-girls Saudi school. Although the two schools had different policies, I found that my Saudi classmates had the same interests as I did.

I remember my first week as a new student, wondering if everything would be completely strange and unfamiliar to me. Up until that point, I had attended an international school to which Saudis were not allowed to go to, and considering I lived in their country, I hadn’t spent very much time with Saudis.

I was used to loud American accents discussing boy bands and pizza and shopping and a very relaxed dress code. Now, I had to wear a uniform and line up first thing in the morning to sing the Saudi national anthem.

The main language class available was Arabic and instead of electives like art or music, I had Islamic education on my syllabus.

Goodbye baggy jeans and t-shirts, hello tan uniform with a voluminous skirt covering everything to the ground. I even had to wear an abaya and a head scarf on the school bus, and the security guard wouldn’t let me out of the school if I didn’t put them back on over my uniform on my way out.


Even though what outfit I was allowed to wear had changed, I found that the girls had not. Saudi girls talked about the same things as all the other girls I knew talked about in those days – watching movies, listening to Mariah Carey and, of course, boys.

I’m not saying it was a 100 percent the same, as there were definitely no boys at my new school, but the teenagers themselves were the same as teenagers I’d known anywhere else and I quickly made friends.

I spent the next few years hanging out on weekends with my new friends watching Brad Pitt movies, baking cookies, gossiping on the phone for hours, reading Harry Potter, and probably eating way too many shawarmas.

After high school, I moved away from Saudi Arabia, but I returned as an adult to work at a hospital research centre. Although on returning there from North America, I realised how different the two places were, it wasn’t the people who were different.

There was no metro or subway and I had to be driven to work every morning by a male relative, but my Saudi colleagues were the same as colleagues I had known anywhere else.

At work, it was normal to see a Saudi woman in jeans and a lab coat without any head scarf, although some might be covered from head to foot.

Underneath the outfit, they were regular people. I worked side by side with a girl who wore niqab. You could only see my colleague’s eyes, but you could always tell when she was smiling because they crinkled at the sides.

With time, we ended up sharing our hopes and dreams over many cups of mint tea during breaks. Like most girls I knew, she had the same worries such as being successful in her career, finding a good husband, and possibly pursuing her studies further.

Together we brainstormed how to get promoted, how to get married, and how to get that scholarship; and with much laughter over lunch we would solve all our problems.

She and many of the other Saudis I met and worked with during my time there, were friendly, funny, kind, and in short, normal people like those I’d known anywhere.

What my colleagues wore didn’t stop them from having interests and passions, wanting to travel, learn and make a difference in the world, or even just wanting to dress up.

We certainly wasted many happy breaks discussing what dress from Zara we planned to wear to the next weekend get-together. Saudi women are only covered up in public; otherwise they wear whatever they want, which can be anything including shiny cocktail dresses at parties or just hanging out in jeans.

Even the men I worked with had the same concerns as men in Canada and the US – they just wanted to work hard to fulfill their ambitions and take care of their families. Single men hoped to find a wife, married men worried about their wife and children.

On slow days, my male colleague would blast old Arabic music in the office and I would catch him singing along off-key sometimes. He looked quite young and would tell me that he had to keep proof of his marriage on him at all times because sometimes the religious police would stop him and his wife when they were driving to check that they were married and thus allowed to be in the car together.

He was a foodie who loved photography and travel and would show me pictures on his phone of the amazing sushi he’d had on the weekend or the holiday in Spain he’d taken with his family that year. His life revolved around his family and work, and he did his best to enjoy every minute of it.

Going back as an adult, I can see that Saudi society is changing very slowly. When I was growing up there, it was a strict society and there weren’t many options for things to do outside of malls, restaurants, or other people’s homes.

I recall once we drove for hours into the desert just to see the comedian Maz Jobrani because entertainment was that hard to find.

There was a huge dust storm that evening which slowed traffic down and I even remember a dubious rumor that the prince who sponsored the show owned lions who may or may not be nearby.

Even in those awful weather conditions and the hopefully imaginary threat of being eaten by lions, everyone still made it there with smiles, causing Maz to comment that since we didn’t turn back, we must be extremely desperate for entertainment.

He was right but maybe with the government’s new initiative the future will be different. Now the Kingdom has, as part of the Vision 2030 reforms, announced plans to invest money into entertainment to attract domestic tourists.

No matter what country you live in and no matter what customs you live by, there will always be a younger generation challenging the status quo.

The General Authority for Entertainment was created last year and the Kingdom has seen its first Comic Con (which had separate doors for men and women but not separate convention rooms).

Just opening the door to entertainment is a big step. For example, I remember what a big deal it was to attend a book fair for the first time.

Of course, the book fair was patrolled by the religious police, who were checking for any breaches in morality or else making sure we weren’t having too much fun. One came up to me and my friend to tell us to do a better job of covering our hair, as our head scarves were quite loose and mine was generally to be found falling off.

We did what many girls did in those days when presented with that situation – we pretended we didn’t speak his language. With a “Parlez-vous français?”, he let us off the hook as it was too much trouble, and went off to find someone else to bother while we happily perused the books.

When I was a teenager in Saudi Arabia, the law did not allow women to work in shops, and this made for some really awkward moments. Trying to buy underwear became an ordeal of trying to avoid creepy male employees who invariably showed up holding up what they described as ‘lingerie’.

I have heard from some of my Saudi friends that women are now allowed to work in the malls, and not just the malls that are women-only. I offer up a small prayer of gratitude that teenage girls no longer have to flee from a leering man holding up a bra and asking if this is their size.

Recently I have felt the country is opening doors to new possibilities and I see a chance now for gradual change driven by the younger generation. The youth that I have met there want a more open and liberal society and maybe one day they will get there. The young adults who live there now are more globalised that the generations before them and are eager for things to change.


Girls there love Snapchat and selfies as much as they do anywhere else, and they want to be the generation that is legally allowed to drive and have more freedom.

No matter what country you live in and no matter what customs you live by, there will always be a younger generation challenging the status quo.

Over the years I have gotten to meet many young Saudis who are intelligent, driven and hardworking, and knowing that there are people in Saudi Arabia like those I have met, I hope to see further advances for the country in the future.


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