Girls Only / Life in Jeddah

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Women in Saudi Arabia Enjoy a ‘Privileged Status’

 As salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh. Several sisters wanted to know how women are treated here in the Kingdom. Spoiled rotten! In Shaa Allaah I will share some of my experiences with you. Some things I just shook my head at. “Privilege” is one thing, plain old ridiculous is another. Enjoy this article in the meantime.

19 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Women in Saudi Arabia Enjoy a ‘Privileged Status’

  1. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Women in Saudi Arabia Enjoy ‘Privileged Status’

    Arab News Staff, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

    JEDDAH—One very real problem about moving to Saudi Arabia is overcoming what has been heard or read about the Kingdom from irresponsible sources in other countries. The best advice to anyone planning to move here is to come with an open mind, ignore just about everything you have read or heard, and be prepared to adjust to your own individual circumstances. Saudi Arabia represents many things to many people and it is impossible to judge life here until you, as an individual, actually experience it.

    Some people find it is a harrowing experience to complete a move across town in their own country; therefore, it is impossible to predict how anyone will react to a new country in a totally different part of the world.

    A large part of whether people love or hate Saudi Arabia depends upon their outlook on life in general. There are a certain number of people in the world who can NEVER be satisfied wherever they live, even in a very familiar and unchanging environment; while the opposite type relishes every experience, no matter how revolting, as an exciting adventure—in moving to Saudi Arabia the best advice is to consider everything you hear, both before and after your arrival, with a grain of salt.

    One discouraging fact of life seems to be that the person who complains a lot is heard widely, even if he is only 1 percent of the silent and satisfied majority. Detrimental stories, therefore, are often passed on and on by people who encountered only bad aspects of life in Saudi Arabia (as they would anywhere new they went), by someone who came here for only a short period of time and was unable to cope with a new lifestyle, of, if kept in the Kingdom due to obligations, continually sends home gruesome accounts of life here to family, friends and anyone who will listen.

    One common horror envisioned by women who are driving in other countries, is how horrible it will be to live in Saudi Arabia, where they will not have this privilege. They envision all types of problems due to this ‘loss.’ After living in Saudi Arabia for a while they adjust and many find that not only is it not a problem, there are a number of privileges that come with it which they would not want to give up for the opportunity to drive.

    In Saudi Arabia, not being able to drive often brings women a privileged status which they do not enjoy in most other countries. In the United States, for instance, very few women have private drivers who are at their beck and call. This status is one not enjoyed by many expatriate men who for a variety of reasons cannot drive. True, they could obtain a license to drive if they went through a number of steps to do so, but most soon decide that the procedures are not worth the effort.

    Women, in the meantime, have special sections of buses reserved for them, which are rarely crowded. Families that live on compounds or work for large companies have private bus services to take them on sightseeing trips and shopping, and other families hire drivers who are on call to take the wife and family wherever they want to go.

    Such privileges are not available to women in other parts of the world, and in fact, in Saudi Arabia, it is often the husband who is discomforted when he finishes work and finds it necessary to wait for his ride home, or take a taxi, because his wife and children have the car and forgot the time. Somehow, wives find that having a driver encourages them to shop more often because they can hop out of the car downtown and let the driver fight traffic and search for a parking place.

    The same thing is true about many other aspects of a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia. Many wives are shocked to move to the Kingdom and discover that services which exist in Saudi Arabia are went out of existence in other more liberalized parts of the world years ago.

    Here, for instance, even the owner of a small corner store, when asked for an item he does not stock, will be glad to drive to another store where he knows he can get it, and bring it back for the customer. If a woman is alone and buys enough items that she can not easily carry, it is common for the store owner to send an employee with the groceries or deliver them himself to the customers’ door. Many stores even offer shopping and delivery services in which a woman can call the store, give the owner a list of items she needs and have them delivered to her door within a half hour or so. This sort of service disappeared in most U.S. and British communities long ago.

    In addition, many compounds, down to the smallest apartment block, usually have a resident houseboy who will do a wide variety of shopping chores and even cleaning, cooking, laundry and all for a pittance.

    Other families find they cannot do without a full time, live-in maid to do routine chores and usually find that such workers are readily available here, again at a fee of around $100 a month, which would be considered impossible in the U.S. or Britain.

    Every aspect of a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia is very different than in their home country. Some families, for instance, who have lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, and returned to the United States, have found that they were living much better in the Kingdom than they ever could at home.

    Some expatriate women who return home on leave, have real problems, just in attempting to cross the street. Here in Jeddah (in the 1980s) when a woman steps down from the curb into the street, all traffic comes to an instant halt, even buses and taxis. In other parts of the world, even those renowned for their driving courtesy, women who have returned from Saudi Arabia have just about been hit because they forgot that they were back where the traffic would not yield to them.

    Of course another aspect of family life in Saudi Arabia is the fact that crime is so low, compared to life just about anywhere else it could be called non-existent. Take any town in just about any Western community and there are places where even a couple would not dare to walk down the street alone without fearing for their possessions, virtue and perhaps even their life.

    Life in Saudi Arabia, in comparison, is comfortable. While no one should be lax and encourage theft or crime, when the opportunity for crime occurs, due to the strong moral sense existing here, the chance that it will occur is minimal.

    As a case in point, one expatriate who had been in Saudi Arabia for only a few weeks, was draught to discover that while preparing to take out the SR1 (24 cent) bus fare, that his wallet, containing both money and important papers, had been caught in the door and fallen to the ground outside the closed door.

    While the expatriate watched, the wallet was scooped up and disappeared into a crowd waiting for the next bus. Within seconds, the wallet was passed from hand-to-hand between 10 or 15 people, it was passed through the window of the bus and again from person to person until it was returned to its rightful owner. Imagine the chances of having a similar experience in downtown Paris, London or New York.

  2. assalamu alikum..
    this article actually brought tears to my eyes..i have lived in UAE almost all my life and almost everythin u hve written is true in UAE too..excpt women not able to drive there.
    u r right women are spoilt rotten ..i have shifted to india (cos my husbnad got transferred) and i really miss UAE..from the way we are treated at supermarkets..having special lanes for women,gettin things delvered home.
    i went to a supermarket here with my kids adn i was at the chk out..carryin an infant who was asleep..the man at the check out didnt evn bother to help me out..i had to remove everythin frm the cart and place it on the counter with one hand as i was carryin my child in the other..they dont even help u put stuf in the car adn whn i asked if they home deliver(my house just 500m away frm the supermarket) they just laughed…oh i felt like crying..i MISS UAE

  3. Side note for those who disagree with the article above: I want to point out the fact that I did not author it. It came from the Arab News web site. The author of the article wrote from his/her own perspective. I thought that article was interesting and I especially enjoyed reading about the passenger who dropped his wallet while boarding the bus.

    Yes, you’ll find people helping others in Western countries…no one is disputing that fact at all. Please keep in mind that Desert Diaries is a Hijrah blog…(my main focus on the Middle East). If anyone wants to keep up with good acts in Western countries fine, there are tons of on-line newspapers for that.

    And besides, the author said: “Be prepared to adjust to your own individual circumstances. Saudi Arabia represents many things to many people and it is impossible to judge life here until you, as an individual, actually experience it.”

    It could be that the author never experienced what you’ve experienced. Allaahu Aa’lam. Also, let’s consider the fact that the article was written with Saudi women in mind. Baarakallaahu feekum.

  4. I agree with the jumhoor when it comes to chauffeurs, but anyway here’s an example of the privileges:

    Arab News
    RIYADH, 22 March 2008

    Newcomers to Saudi Arabia get used to the fact that women are prohibited by police-backed social restrictions (rather than overtly stated law) from driving cars, but they often fail to realize that women in fact play an instrumental role in car purchases. In the Kingdom’s larger cities it is common for women to peruse car showrooms, and women are often the ones who select the vehicles in which they will be chauffeured.

    According to Abdullah Bo-Hulaigah, a marketing director at the Aljomaih Company, 15 percent of Saudi women are the buyers. And as the value of the car increases, the women play a more active role. According to industry watchers, women buy one in five luxury sedans. “About 480,000 new cars entered the Saudi market last year, 25,000 of which were sold to women,” he said adding that this number would quickly jump to 25 percent in the first year that Saudi Arabia were to lift the driving ban.

    Bo-Hulaigah said that if the number of Saudi women car buyers increased, his company would have to consider the front-seat features. Right now, many car dealers pay close attention to the features available in the back seat because so many cars are chauffeur driven.

    Norah Hajji, a sales representative from Alamthal car-finance company, said women are less interested in handling, speed and performance, and make purchasing decisions based on spaciousness, safety and overall appearance. “Working, middle-income women expect a car to last a long time,” she added.

    The purchasing power of Saudi women is perhaps one reason why the car showroom is an open venue for men and women. While most commercial establishments allow men and women to shop together, the vehicle showroom is usually a less crowded place. Similar commercial spaces require male and female sections, such as banks or literary events; not so in a vehicle showroom. Nevertheless, in 2006 a number of companies began women only showrooms, because, despite the stereotypes that portray gender segregation as an imposition by men, many Saudi women actually prefer and feel more at ease to shop or sit in cafes without the presence of large groups of single men. Showroom sales representatives say that women are often the ones making the choice for vehicle options and colors. Omar Al-Anzi, a Cadillac sales representative, said ladies could be picky when it comes to appearance and they are more likely to be finicky and select options that add to the price tag.

    “Pearl, gold and black are colors that fascinate ladies a lot,” said Al-Anzi. “Ladies tend to prefer tinted windows, too.”

    Shareef Najy, sales manger of BMW, Mini Cooper and Rolls Royce, said the numbers regarding women car owners is misleading because many women choose to put their cars in the names of their male relatives.

    “This makes it easier for them to transfer ownership or traveling abroad by car,” he said.

  5. Example of spoiled rotten (and this is true – no joke): When you live across the street from school – literally across the street, and the bus driver drives you to your front door!

    Just in case you’re wondering – no it was not a busy street, and no it was not a highway…just a regular, plain old residential street.

    Was it a child? No.

    Spoiled rotten? Yes..smiles.

    How do I know? I was a passenger on the same bus for several weeks and my mouth dropped when it first happened.

  6. Privileges:

    The neighborhood corner stores and (some) pharmacies have free delivery. It doesn’t matter what you want – cookies, gum, or a loaf of bread. All you have to do is call, place your order and the store attendant will bring it to your house. Alhamdulillaah, this is a ni’mah. If you are in need and your husband is working or something like this, the workers are always at your service. Some stores will allow you to take the groceries and pay later.

    There is a corner store literally around the block from where I live. I can walk there in less than 5 minutes. I personally prefer to walk instead of having things delivered just for the exercise and it makes lil Su’aad happy to pick out her own snacks. However, it’s good to know that they are there if I need them. The women (generally) are protected, Tabaarakallaah and this – in more ways than one – keeps fitnah down.

    If your neighborhood grocery store doesn’t have free delivery, more than likely your apt. building/compound, etc. will have a worker who more or less doesn’t mind going to the store for you. You may have to pay a small fee, or at least give him a reasonable monetary gift.

    I was in Hayy Jaami’ah once getting some things from a pharmacy. As I walked around the store, I noticed that a worker was following me, yet keeping his distance. Honestly, at first I was annoyed. My husband told me that they do this because they want to be near you just in case you need them for something, such as reaching items from a high shelf. After I picked up my third item, I was given a basket (didn’t have to ask or go looking for one). I noticed this in other stores as well. If you pick up more than 2 or 3 items, a worker will rush right over and give you a basket or cart.

    Even for men – the workers will do most anything for you, such as taking out the garbage, help you carry in the groceries, wash your car for a monthly stipend (usually about $27 USD per month), help you fix appliances, or even go and find electricians and bring them to you.

    Tabaarakallaah, was salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh.


  7. As salaamu wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh. I don’t know about every single mall here in Jeddah, but I do know that ‘Azeez Mall (Hayy as Safaa) will not allow men inside on the weekend unless they are with their families. This is done to protect the girls/women from being harassed. Some may disagree, but I for one like the idea.

    Whether you’re eating in the food court, or on a bench at the mall, workers will come over and clean up after you. One night, less than a minute after I finished my fruit smoothie and put my cup down, a worker zipped right over and started taking the trash. I am not used to someone cleaning up after me at THE MALL so unconsciously and by force of habit, when I saw the man coming with this trash can I reached to get my cup to throw it away. Well, as I was reaching for it so was he. So I leaned back…so did he. I went for it again and so did he. (Embarrassed and not quite used to being pampered at the mall), I finally allowed him to throw my cup away.

    When we first moved here I was so appalled at how people just throw trash down on the ground, or leave heaps of garbage on the beautiful beaches and at the parks. Now I know why they do it. It’s because some guys with purple trash cans and matching purple outfits will come along and clean up behind them and they have workers at their beck and call. (Even the small children know this – it’s indicative by their speech and actions.) There aren’t any liter laws here and boy does it show.

  8. Assalaamu Alaikum

    Jazaaki Allahu Khairan ya Ukhtee for your info….I was in Saudi a while back and didnt see half of what you are talking about ..but then I was only there for a month..I was dying to feel the difference in how women are treated there vs the US….I didnt have enough time, but Insha’allah I plan to go back….

    plz let me know what the living expenses are like…I’m planing to get a job or study in one of the Uni (Umul Quraa) Insha’allah…hope to hear from you soon,


  9. Wa ‘alaikumus salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh. Bi idhnillaah you’ll be able to return and experience the good that I’ve experienced here.

    I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me and assume Saudi Arabia is problem-free. Some women (and men) have bad experiences. So, na’am, don’t simply make du’aa for hijrah, hijrah, hijrah. Be specific. Ask Allaah give you that which is best for your deen, ask for a pious and just employer, pious and helpful neighbors/companions, teachers upon the Sunnah, so on and so forth.

    I asked my husband to write about living expenses on his blog. He can do a better job at that In Shaa Allaah. I will post a link here whenever he gets around to it. He has a friend that seems to know where all the good deals are for furniture, cars, food, etc. His friend lived here his whole life, so he knows his stuff.

    Billaahit tawfeeq.

  10. Assalamu aleikum warahmatullah wabarkatuhu,

    Jazakallahu khairan ukhtii for all these wonderful information. I will agree with you, I was there for 2 months and I really enjoyed and saw how women were treated and I felt safe.
    I will mention only one negative thing , My family is biracial and whenever I will go to places with my kids , people stared and others would ask me if I am there nanny or babysitter. Allahu alim, otherwise I had a great time and inshaAllah making dua for Allah taala to aid us in making hijrah.

    umm summayah

  11. Wa ‘alaikumus salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh. Jazaakillaahu khairal jazaa.

    We’re in the same boat ukhtee. I can laugh at it now (Alhamdulillaah). Have sabr with the people. Most are simply not used to seeing interracial couples with biracial children.

    I pray that you are able to return for good. May Allaah make it so, aameen.


  12. Oh..the “related links” are by way of word press. Click on them at your own discretion. I think there’s a way to get rid of them, but I have yet to find out how to do it.

  13. Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh,

    May Allah ta’ala reward you for taking your time and giving us all these information .It is really infomative for us who are planning to make hijrah.Masha’Allah It must be wonderful to live in a muslim country where you hear the Adhan and as a women treated nicely and feel safe.

    Concerning the interracial marriage, well! I am in the same boat with you sisters, and I understand how it feels to be asked if your kids are yours,it does not only happen in Saudi, I experience it here in Toronto and whenever I travel to other parts of the world.
    May Allah ta’ala make it easier for us who are planning to make hijrah

    umm hafsah

  14. Waalaykum salam warahmatullah wabarkatuh,

    Ameen, My Allah subhanallah wa ta’ala make it easier for sisters and there famly to make hijrah.

  15. As salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh. Umm Hafsah, I lived in Toronto for 2 and 1/2 years and in London Ont. for 1 and 1/2 years. We did not encounter any problems due to being an interracial couple. After Su’aad came along, we’d go for walks and people would smile at us and her…different strokes for different folks I guess. May Allaah protect you and your family.

    Every now and then someone would say something rude about my clothing or call me Bin Laden, but other than that Toronto was (for the most part) a good experience.

    Jazaakillaahu khairaan for your du’aa ukht Zakiyya.


  16. this is the first time I have heard good things about women in Saudi Arabia. I’ve heard all my life that women there are not respected, but from reading these comments I see that what I’ve heard is wrong. It seems woman are respected very much=== even more sometimes than in my own country. I would like to learn more about women in this unique and interesting country. I am a typical middle class American woman looking for truth.

  17. Please forgive me for overlooking your comment. I’m very bad at blogging sometimes due to my busy schedule.

    This particular thread has caused many to become irate with me. I will talk about some things in depth another time – maybe within a few days. I will say that some women have awful experiences here, however, many do not.

    We’ll talk soon. Thank you.


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