Even before I met my husband, I knew that there were myths about Saudi Arabia. Princes, oil money, tents, camels, and terrorists, right? But since I’ve arrived here in Saudi Arabia, I admit that my world has been somewhat shaken by the revelation that the news media that I frequently consume is so riddled with myths and misconceptions about this country. I mean, these are huge, supposedly reputable sources that I’d trusted wholeheartedly before, and I’d previously Facebook shared and tweeted their reporting without a second thought. Nowadays…I think twice before I share, because my experience has now taught me that the news doesn’t always get it right. And especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia, they don’t really care when they get it wrong.
It’s mind-blowing. It’s kind of like being one of those kids who are traumatized when they find out there is no Santa Claus and then never trust their parents ever again–at least I’m going to assume it is, as I believed and then stopped believing in Santa Claus with much less trauma to my worldview than learning that major news media are sometimes totally, unabashedly, unrepentantly wrong.
Now I’ll share things from these sources that I can verify, or things that I find cool or interesting but don’t really matter if it turns out they’re not quite accurate. Oh, Mary Ingalls didn’t go blind from scarlet fever, but viral meningoencephalitis? Interesting! Share! Richard III’s bones were found under a parking lot in England? Super interesting! Share! But something about Saudi Arabia? Well, I hardly ever share things about Saudi Arabia, or anything else involving world news.
Before I launch into an explanation of five of the big myths that I’ve noticed, I want to make clear that this is not a “Saudi Arabia is the greatest place in the whole world, a fairyland of joy and wonder!” post. Nor is it a “Saudi Arabia is an incurable hellhole, a haven for the most sick and evil of souls!” post. If either of those things is what you’re looking for, Sheikh Google can easily help you get there. And I’m not going to argue that the realities are vastly better than the myths.
But they are myths, nonetheless, and all this post is is an attempt to set some facts straight. I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about Saudi Arabia (or anything else, for that matter), obviously–I learn every day, and I still have such a long way to go it’s ridiculous; I mean, I’ve only been here for eight months. Part of that means that I still consume my news media in English, from Western (mostly American) sources…which means that it’s really easy to see the most glaring inaccuracies.
So, without further ado–five things that get repeated a lot about Saudi Arabia but, well…aren’t true.
Myth 1. Women have to wear a “burka” everywhere they go.
The burqa is from Afghanistan, not Saudi Arabia (note that it is not a “burka,” as it is often spelled in the West–I know that the difference between the “q” and the “k” when spelling Arabic words is, to native English speakers, pretty insignificant–”Qur’an” is often incorrectly spelled “Koran” in English for this same reason. But when spelling Arabic words in the English alphabet, “q” and “k” do represent two different sounds–the “q” sound is similar to the “k” sound, but it is made more toward the back of the mouth, near the throat, and native Arabic speakers can tell the difference easily. So, as a language nerd, I find it important to make the distinction. But that’s just me).
Check out the graphic below, which I found on a website called Hope in the World:
This pretty well sums up the different types of coverings you may see a Muslim woman wearing in different parts of the world (emphasis on may–not all Muslim women wear some sort of headcovering). There is a big difference between the burqas you might see in Afghanistan and the abaya/niqab combinations you might see in Saudi Arabia. I know that to people who don’t care to learn about these things and have never chosen/been required to wear any of these items of clothing, it might not seem like there is a big enough difference to make a distinction. But there is.
An abaya is a thin black cloak that goes over one’s street clothes (and yeah, okay, sometimes over one’s pajamas if one is feeling particularly lazy that day). It is not heavy or bulky (that is, unless you buy a thicker one made for winter wear), especially if you have one tailor-made for you so that it fits correctly. Some are pullovers, and others have snaps up the front. There are some abayas designed to cover a woman’s head, as well, but most abayas do not cover the head. Instead, they come with a matching black scarf–in Arabic, a tarha–made of the same fabric as the abaya, that a woman can use to cover her head with. Sometimes women will also use the tarha to function as a niqab, and wrap it around the face in order to cover the face from the nose down (or sometimes, the mouth down). The niqab usually comes separate from the abaya, and it usually covers the woman’s head along with her face from the nose down, leaving the wearer’s eyes visible. The face covering of the niqab can also be flipped up so that the woman can eat, drink, etc.
Here are a couple of examples of women in abayas and niqabs, which I took last year on National Day. These women’s clothing is a common sight in Riyadh, which is the most conservative part of the Kingdom. On either of the coasts, you’ll still see niqabis, but they’re less common.
She’s wearing a basic abaya and niqab…her eyes are clearly visible. (Photography critique rant: I actually hate this picture because every time I see it I fixate on the fact that I was in a rush to take it and misfocused on the background behind the woman, not her. Ugh.)
Niqabis get silly, too! This photo is a little bit darker, but both of these women have their eyes visible. And you can clearly tell that the woman on the left is actually smiling!
Again, the burqa is not something you will see in Saudi Arabia. With an abaya, if a woman wants to cover her entire face, including her eyes, she will either wear a special abaya that goes over her head or a niqab that has a special sort of flaps that come down over the eyes, or she will wrap her tarha in such a way that she can toss the end of it completely over her face (yes, this obstructs her view somewhat, but she can still see–a single layer of a tarha is somewhat transparent. They’re only opaque once they’ve been wrapped a few times). When a woman covers completely like this, I’ve heard some Saudis refer to this flippantly as a “burqa,” and that term is also sometimes used to refer to the coverings worn by the (relatively small number of) Bedouin women here who never uncover their faces, even in their homes–even their children and their husbands never see their faces (I think everyone here has heard the story of the Bedouin woman who woke up to find her husband peeping under her face veil–and she promptly divorced him). But as for the idea that Saudi women wear those grill-faced burqas? Not true.
Oh, and an abaya does not have to be all black, nor, technically, does it even have to be black (okay, you probably can’t get away with wearing a pink abaya here, at least not in Riyadh…maybe in Jeddah. But my husband’s great aunt, one of my favorite people, often wears a dark blue abaya here in Riyadh). My first abaya, which was a gift from my now mother-in-law, was mostly black, but had sleeves that ended in five inches of hot pink satin, and each swath of satin was topped by a row of pink crystals; the matching tarha had the same thing on its ends. I have another abaya that has big pink and white flowers with green leaves embroidered all along the sleeves and the ends of the tarha, with yellow crystals in each of the flowers’ centers. Yet another of my abayas has wide swaths of light pink satin layered with black lace at the ends of the sleeves and tarha. I have two all-black abayas, but they’re full of ruffles, bows, and lace. You can find very simple, very plain black abayas, as well, and some women prefer them…but I’m not one of them. In other words, only to the most untrained eye (or mind) are all abayas created equal. Saudi women definitely get creative with their abaya choices.
Furthermore, the abaya itself is the only required piece clothing. A woman can cover her head however she wants, whether it’s with the abaya’s matching tarha (which is what I always do here), a niqab, different, more colorful scarf (I’ve seen many non-Saudi Muslim expats choose this option), or not at all (which is what most non-Muslim expats choose–and my mom didn’t cover her head when she was here, either). In fact, contrary to common belief, it is actually not required by law for any woman to wear a headcovering in Saudi Arabia. I found this out from my in-laws, and I was shocked to hear it–until that point, I was under the impression that non-Saudi women were permitted to not cover their heads if they chose, but that Saudi women were required to. But legally, a Saudi woman does not have to cover her head–however, if she doesn’t, she’s probably going to be bothered to do so by relatives, friends, and yes, possibly the muttawa (religious police). (The muttawa may bother non-Saudi women about this, as well, but with lesser frequency.) It would be major cultural breach if she didn’t. It’s like one of my favorite Saudi women (who shall remain nameless) told me once: “I love nail polish, and I don’t really think it’s haram. But I know if I wore it a lot everyone would be telling me how haram it is all the time. So I don’t because it’s not worth the bother.”
It’s the same idea with headcoverings. Some Saudi women wear a tarha tightly over their head, leaving their faces exposed but covering their hair. Some use the tarha to cover their faces entirely. Some wear a niqab. Some toss the tarha over their heads just enough to say their heads are covered, but most of their hair is showing at the front. Covering the head in some way, shape, or form is something that most Saudi women do when in the Kingdom, because society is such that that’s just what you have to do…although there are various ways that they choose to do it.
Myth 2. Women are not allowed to leave the house without a male relative escorting them.
This one is so pervasive in Western culture that I used to believe it. I’m not sure why, or where I picked it up. But before I moved to Saudi Arabia, even after I’d had discussion after discussion with my husband about what life in Saudi Arabia was like, I never thought to ask him about being escorted by a mahram (male relative) when I left the house because I was so convinced it was true. I didn’t worry about it because I figured that since he would have to drive me everywhere I needed to go, I had my male relative escort built in and thus it wouldn’t be a problem. And of course, since he didn’t know I thought it was true, he didn’t correct me. But yeah, I thought this. And then I moved to Saudi Arabia.
When finally got around to asking Saleh about this misconception, he told me that when he was a kid, lots of restaurants wouldn’t allow women into the family section without being accompanied by a mahram…but it has never been true that women were not permitted out of the house without a mahram. “I think some restaurants still have that sign up, actually,” he said, “but of course, nobody cares now.” Other than that, I don’t know where this one comes from, unless it’s from the driving thing.
It’s true that women have to have a male drive them wherever they go…but that driver doesn’t necessarily have to be a male relative. Women often take taxis. And many families hire drivers to shuttle the women of the family around–although right now I’m not really going to delve into the racism and other ridiculousness of this system as deeply as I could. (The powers that be who defend the ban on women driving use the reasoning that it’s to “protect” women from men by making sure that men and women can’t be alone–and then they set up a system where families can hire drivers from mostly South Asian countries–drivers are never Saudi men–to drive women around alone! Makes perfect sense, right? But I guess non-Saudi men aren’t really men at all?)
And if a family can’t afford to have a driver or take a taxi, then…well, women still have to get places. So sometimes you’ll see a kid who can barely see over the steering wheel shuttling around his mom and sisters. (When I’m riding with Saleh and I see this, this is where I say, “So, even though I’m a grown woman who’s had a driver’s license for well over a decade, he is more qualified to drive here than me?”) I’m sure that cases like this this have something to do with the origin of the whole “women in Saudi Arabia can’t leave the house without a male relative escort” myth, and I get that. But still, it’s inaccurate.
Our family has a driver. He takes my sister-in-law to work every day, and picks her up every day–no male relative anywhere. If I go somewhere with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law, the driver takes us and picks us up. There have been times when we’ve gotten home from weddings no earlier than three in the morning…with the driver. (In fact, when we got home, all the male relatives were sleeping.)
Sometimes you’ll see cars crammed with girls going somewhere, whether it’s a family car with a driver or a taxi (seriously, I’ve seen a compact car taxi jammed with no fewer than eight girls…three in the backseat, three on those girls’ laps, one in the front seat, one on that girl’s lap). And sometimes when you see one of these cars crammed with girls, if it’s on the street, it can cause a traffic jam because cars full of boys are all trying to get next to the girls’ car in order to give the girls their numbers. It’s entertaining to watch…at least, it’s entertaining if you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere.
And when one of these girl-packed cars stops to let out its passengers…well, sometimes you seriously think you’re looking at a clown car at the circus, because so many girls/women spill out of it. You really have to stop and wonder how they all managed to fit.
But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Saudi women do what they have to do to get where they need to go. And when you go to malls, you’ll see groups of women shopping together…without a male relative. When you go to the family section in restaurants (remember that the singles section is for men only…despite the misleading name, it’s not just for single men, but for men unaccompanied by women), you’ll see tables full of women, having a night out with their girlfriends. No male relative anywhere.
So yes, while it’s true that women are not permitted to drive here, it’s false that women are not permitted to leave the house without a male relative escorting them.
Myth 3. The muttawa are waiting around every corner to berate you about your naked face or your nail polish.
This one has been getting a lot of traction lately because of YouTube videos and such gone viral, such as this one, in which a Saudi woman stands up to members of the muttawa who tried to scold her because of her makeup and nail polish. To judge by the coverage this got in the West, you’d really think that a woman can’t go out anywhere without being harassed by the muttawa, especially if she chooses not to cover her face, wears any noticeable makeup, or keeps her nails polished.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman is totally badass and I applaud her. Little braveries like this are what will make Saudi Arabia a more open, more accepting place to live. And I’m not saying that the muttawa don’t have the potential to be a nuisance, or that they don’t overstep their bounds occasionally. They do, on both counts, and with sometimes tragic consequences.
But to be honest, since last June, I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen the muttawa here–and I’ve never had a run-in with them, although I never wear niqab, I like nail polish regardless of what time of the month it is, and occasionally my tarha slips back on my head, exposing some of my hair. (I spent my whole life in the States being the very good girl, the one who watched everyone else get drunk at parties and then held their hair back as they puked. I had to move to Saudi Arabia to feel like the bad girl.) I don’t live in fear of them, like I did before I got here.
Sometimes the muttawa are strolling around malls looking for what they perceive as transgressions (as in the video above). Sometimes they drive their cars around during prayer times, especially on Tahlia Street, and yell at people through the megaphones on their cars to go pray. Sometimes they drive around “mobile mosque” trucks at prayer times and set up prayer spaces at public gatherings, like I saw them doing at a celebration on National Day last year.
Once, when I was out shopping with my mother-in-law, I saw one in a mall, waving his walking stick at women and demanding that they cover their faces. The women mostly ignored him and walked past him and out of the mall, even as he ambled after them, yelling and waving that stick the whole time. My mother-in-law got angry when she saw this guy, and hustled me out of the mall because she didn’t want him to start bothering us (neither of us wears niqab). In the car, as we went to a different mall (with the driver at the wheel), she ranted, “This is Islam? No, this is not Islam!”
I love my mother-in-law. Have I mentioned that yet?
But according to recent royal decree, the muttawa are technically not allowed to chase you. They are allowed to advise you, but they can’t harass you. One of their jobs is to bust up parties with alcohol and gender mixing (among unmarried people) and such, and they can arrest people then, but they can’t arrest you for wearing nail polish in the mall.
Oh, and when they do strike, they bother men, too. A few weeks ago, Saleh and I were getting a quick dinner in a mall food court. After we had placed our order, we discovered that the restaurant only accepted cash…and of course, we had none. Saleh asked where the nearest ATM was; the cashier indicated that there was one a few stores down. Saleh had me wait at the counter while he ran down to the ATM.
When he got back, he was pissed. Apparently, he had gotten in line to use the ATM, but the line was all women. A muttawa approached him and told him to get out of the line, because it was full of ladies–apparently, the muttawa thought that Saleh was a free-wheelin’ single guy trying to mix it up with the ladies in the ATM line. Saleh yelled at him, “So I’m supposed to go somewhere else and just leave my pregnant wife standing in the food court waiting for me to come back and pay for our food??”
“Oh, you’re married?” the muttawa asked. Then he let Saleh use the ATM and go back to his hungry wife.
Myth 4. Saudis are rude.
I actually don’t see this one in Western media (or from commenters on Western media) very much; they’re usually much more focused on the others in this list, too busy to worry about this one (not to mention that I would venture a guess that most of those commenters have never actually talked to a Saudi in order to form an opinion about whether they’re rude or not). But I know it exists, because “Why are Saudis so rude?” is one of the more common Google search queries that bring people to my blog.
A few years ago, my mom and I went to France. As much as I was looking forward to seeing Paris, I was not really that excited to go. I’d heard awful stories from other American travelers about how rude French people were. I even heard a story from one American traveler about how she’d been spit on in France!
But when I got to France, I found that it was absolutely delightful. The French people I encountered were very friendly and helpful with my mom and me. But I did observe them being not-so-friendly to other American travelers, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Maybe I’m just old, but in the line to go up in the Eiffel Tower, I wanted to smack the drunk American college students shrieking and stumbling around obnoxiously, as though Paris were a giant frat party, mockingly hollering pleasantries in butchered French at the top of their lungs at anyone who was unfortunate enough to make eye contact with them.
I’m not even French, and I was tempted to spit on them.
My mom and I were always very aware that we were in France. We never started out a conversation with anyone in English–we always did our best to utilize our cursory French when talking to people (if nothing else, we always said, “Merci beaucoup!”) We did our best to not treat France like just a place that exists so Americans can visit and/or improve it…as, I’m sorry to say, a lot of Americans tend to do, whether in France or anywhere else in the world. We did our best to observe the French cultural protocols. And as far as I can tell, as a result, the French put up with us…kindly. They laughed good-naturedly at our terrible French and then did their best to help us when we were stuck. France was a wonderful experience, and I’m very glad that I didn’t let other travelers’ nasty stories deter me from going there. I dream about going back!
Saudi Arabia, while obviously very different from France, works in much the same way, as far as I can tell. In my experience, Saudis are no more rude than any other group of people in the world. When you spend some time with them, you will find that they are actually incredibly hospitable and generous.
But yes, of course, there are cultural protocols that must be observed here; if you’re a man and you walk up to a Saudi woman and start chatting her up, she’s probably going to snub you. If you are a woman and you don’t cover your head, expect to be stared at, the same way a woman who covers her head (let alone her face) gets stared at in the States. If you don’t bother to even try to use the most basic Arabic or show even the most basic respect for cultural norms, Saudis might not be very friendly with you. Saudis also tend to be more blunt about some things in ways that Westerners aren’t used to–for example, if you’re fat, expect to have that trait mentioned in a description of you, right along with your hair color. And in Saudi Arabia, lines, as in many parts of the world, are not really a cultural priority.
And, of course, sometimes Saudis have bad days, just like everyone else. Sometimes it gets really hot here, man.
Myth 5. Saudis jump in lockstep every time a nutty cleric makes a ridiculous fatwa.
Okay, so lately, the stupid fatwa that has been getting so much attention in the Western press is the one about babies wearing burqas. Let’s gloss over the fact that this particular little blurb that I just linked to immediately perpetuates the myth that “grown women in Saudi Arabia already wear the burka.” We cleared that one up already, remember?
But beyond that, I think we can all unanimously agree that this guy, “Sheikh” Abdullah Daoud, and his idea are both totally nuts, right? Right. Obviously, he’s off his rocker, and, it seems, possibly a pedophile. But I don’t understand why commenters seem to be so eager to bring down all Saudis along with him. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater (although I suppose in Sheikh Daoud’s mind, that might be necessary if said baby were actually naked in the bathwater). I’ve read Saudis being called a “sad people,” a “sick society,” etc., and those are the nice comments…all of which, whether nice or not, suggest sweeping (and erroneous) assumptions that everyone in Saudi Arabia must agree with this guy and are now toting around burqa-clad blobs in their Baby Bjorns. Why? I don’t get it. Furthermore, I don’t understand why this nutjob is getting so much attention for his statement.
Now, before you explode at that, first, let’s clarify exactly what a “cleric” in Saudi Arabia is, since this term gets thrown around in the Western media a lot. It sounds pretty official, right? Wrong.
Well, possibly wrong. Clerics in Saudi Arabia can be people of importance and power. See, since Saudi Arabia is run on its own interpretation of Islamic law, the government controls the practice of religion here, and religion (certain interpretations of it, anyway) controls the government. Some “clerics” are recognized as such by the Saudi government, because they are judges, imams, scholars, etc.
And when these clerics are nuts and they do have power, the consequences can be disastrous (see: the case of little Lama Al Ghamdi, which I wrote about a couple of posts ago, and which, contrary to reports in the Western media that her father/killer has paid the blood money and has been released, is still ongoing–despite the initial disgusting ruling by a cleric judge, the murderer is still in prison awaiting trial on an appeal. Meanwhile, her father/killer is also being identified as a “sheikh” or a “cleric,” when there is no proof of his status as anything other than a despicable human being, except for a few appearances on religious television shows.).
But not all of those identified in the Western media as “clerics”–or “sheikhs,” the definition of which is equally murky–have importance, power, or influence, nor are they necessarily even recognized as such by the Saudi government. Lots of them are just men who’ve had some Islamic higher education–the equivalent of a kid in the States who goes to Bible college. As I already mentioned, some of them have power and influence, but many don’t. And the ones that don’t still get called “clerics” in the Western media as though they’re someone important, even though they are, as my husband puts it, “only clerics of themselves.”
It’s hard to make an analogy in terms of the American system because the American government is not (directly) involved in the practice of religion. But let’s put it this way: in American terms, Pat Robertson is a cleric. Joel Osteen is a cleric. Fred Phelps is a cleric. A preacher running for his state legislature is a cleric. The priest of the local Episcopalian church is a cleric. The nutty guy who got ordained on the internet and just opened a five-member snake-handling church in your local strip mall is a cleric.
Secondly, let’s clarify exactly what a fatwa is, because this word also gets thrown around in the Western media a lot. Are you ready? Here it is.
A fatwa is a religious opinion.
That’s it. So every time one of these “clerics” opens their mouths, it’s a “fatwa.” Fatwas are not binding on the Saudi people–or any people–in any way, shape or form–that is, unless you’re a Saudi who’s facing a judge in the courtroom or something. But this guy is not a judge or anything else important, and this “burqas on babies” thing was some nonsense he spouted off months ago. It’s just now getting press and international outrage.
The Western media are so eager to seriously report on every word a Muslim nutcase says that sometimes they get duped. Remember the cucumber fatwa? Yeah, that was a hoax, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of ridiculous real fatwas to choose from. There are. But heck, those came from a whole bunch of different people. Pat Robertson, one Christian “cleric,” has his very own top ten!
A fatwa, essentially, means nothing except to the people who choose to take it seriously. It is not binding, it is not a law (or even necessarily a potential law), and it is not a reflection of the entire nationality, religion, etc. of the person who declared it. When an American Christian “cleric” makes a nutty “fatwa,” if it gets press, it’s in order to laugh at it or to mock him and the people who follow him, not shed light on the “sick society” that managed to produce him. I’m pretty sure most American Christians didn’t yank their children out of karate lessons when Pat Robertson declared that martial artists may inhale demons, and I’m pretty sure that Saudi tailors haven’t been overwhelmed with orders for baby burqas since Abdullah Daoud made his fatwa months ago.
But here’s the danger of giving nuts like that press: now they’ve got the attention and sense of importance and legitimacy that they crave, which is probably what led them to become a “sheikh” in the first place. With all these international media outlets reporting on his statement, I’m sure that now Mr. Daoud feels pretty legit, even though, as I’ve already said, we can all agree that he’s crazy. But now, essentially, the international media has granted the nutty guy who got ordained on the internet and just opened a five-member snake-handling church in your local strip mall the legitimacy of Joel Osteen. In the future, the rest of his crazy fatwas may get press. A few equally crazy people may come out of the woodwork and say, “Hey, this guy’s onto something”–I know there already exist a small number people who cover their babies, although I’ve never seen one. The international media is legitimizing the snake-handling church, when the people who lived and shopped next to it were content to ignore it and let the five nuts and their internet-ordained leader get snakebit if they wanted to, as long as they didn’t let the crazy escape.
So, to reiterate: Saudis don’t jump in lockstep to obey each and every nutjob fatwa that makes its way onto the internet.
So…there you have it. Five myths about Saudi Arabia that often get repeated by Westerners. I realize that to some people, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether they exist or not, since they’re not altogether implausible. It may seem like bothering to correct them is just a sad attempt to grasp at straws. But I don’t see it that way.
Saudi Arabia has a lot of growing up to do, that’s for sure. But it is not a hopeless place. Saudis have a lot of hope and faith in the future of their country; that’s why so many are advocates for change. In my view, by perpetuating these myths (or standing by idly while others perpetuate them and not bothering to correct them because there are bigger fish to fry), we do a disservice to those who are working toward change by not having enough faith in them to get our facts straight. Just as I wouldn’t knowingly let Saudis perpetuate myths about America in my presence, I can’t let Americans do the same about Saudi Arabia.
The thing about campaigning for change in a culture that is not your own is that there’s a fine line between legitimate concern for human rights in said culture and a cultural pissing contest in which one’s home culture always wins. Nowhere is this more true than in Saudi Arabia. So while I am a staunch supporter of efforts to improve the human rights situation here, I keep in mind where I come from, and as much as I love my home country, I think about the injustices that are perpetrated in (or by) my country in the name of faith and freedom, and I remember that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
I want Saudi Arabia to get better, for me, for my husband, for our growing family. Maybe I’m just naive, but I have faith that change will come–slowly but surely…just as I have faith that my home country, the United States, will one day grow into a better place, as well.