Saudi Arabia: A Saudi Mother Speaks Out
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to conduct bi-monthly interviews on American Bedu. This interview is with a Saudi woman who is a mother of three active children. She lives in Saudi Arabia although spent time outside of the Kingdom for a period of time. She has kindly agreed to answer some questions about her life, views and perspectives.
To begin with Saudi Mom, Welcome! Please share a little bit about yourself such as where you are originally from in Saudi Arabia…
I was born and raised in Riyadh as part of a big family, lots of siblings. We have some family who live in Jeddah so we spend a lot of vacations there.
I have accepted Carol’s very kind request to have this interview but was a little bit reluctant in doing so. The reason being I do not feel that I have any great wisdom or knowledge to share. I am not a scholar nor do I work in any particular field that will enhance the readers knowledge in any way after this interview. But I figured there is not much out there about Saudi mum and I guess some non Saudi’s would be interested to hear from me simply because we are a closed society and not much good seeps out from here unfortunately because good news is no news.
I want to emphasize I do not claim to be speaking for anyone but myself, and my opinions and views are from my experiences and do not necessarily reflect those of other Saudi women. (I sound like those disclaimers that go before interviews on TV to protect the network except this time it’s to protect the interviewee).
Everyone always enjoys hearing how couples met. How did you and your husband meet and get to know one another? Are you related? Did you have an arranged marriage?
My husband and I are distant cousins. Our marriage was not arranged but was semi traditional. We had seen each other in family gatherings and spoken a few times and I guess we were both interested in each other.
His sister called me to see if I am interested in getting married and to check if I was available. This is sometimes done before the mothers contact each other in some families just to be on the safe side and not to cause any embarrassment. I said “Yes! I’m interested” and was later told I was meant to say “I will have to think about it and get back to you”. But anyways. His mother then called my mother a few days later. My mother asked me what I thought and I told her that I had seen him around and spoken to him and that I am interested. She asked me to give it some thought and do Salat Istikhara (A prayer that is done when a person needs help making decisions). A few days later my mother called his saying I am interested and that “they should speak and get to know each other before they get married” all agreed.
My husband and his father and brothers then went to my father to officially ask for my hand in marriage (I am told that that involved drinking tea and coffee and not actually talking about the actual marriage except for saying a few prayers before they left). After that, our engagement was official and we stayed engaged for about 2 years.
I was studying in the UK then so we would speak on the phone daily and see each other at my parents house when I was back home and I also saw him when he was in the UK. That is probably where families in Riyadh differ from each other. Some would not let the couple see each other till after the Milka (meaning they would get married on paper in order to spend some times together but each would still live in their family house and not have the actual wedding till after). Some would be ok with the couple seeing each other once and then get to know each other by phone conversations. And some won’t let the couple talk to each other at all and only see each other once. I guess we are considered the more liberal when it comes to getting to know one another before marriage because our parents believe that you cannot make a decision like marriage without being 100% sure you are compatible with the person you are marrying.
The marriage procedures and wedding parties are generally much different than those of a Western country. Can you describe your marriage and what your wedding party was like? What did you wear? How many guests? Were there separate banquet areas for the male and female guests? When did your wedding party begin? What time did it end? What kind of food was served? Did you have a wedding cake and if so, what kind?
We had a very simple wedding in my grandmother’s house. It was small for Saudi standards and we had only close family there. I wanted something traditional for my dress but a little different. So, with the creativity of my mother, we decided on a very modern style dress with very traditional beading on it. The kind of beading that was used is called “saadiyat” which is done using metal beads to make geometrical shapes. The image above is an example of such beading.
In many countries there are parties (showers) for a bride prior to her marriage. Family and friends gather, play some games and all present gifts to the bride. Is there anything similar in Saudi Arabia?
In the western province more so than Riyadh they have a “henna” night about a week before the wedding. The idea is that close relatives and friends have a gathering for the bride to help get her prepared for her wedding by applying henna to her hands and feet. The bride would sit in the middle of the room and the family would sing and dance around her taking turns carrying a tray with a pot of henna in the middle and candles around it. It would be passed from one person to another while they dance for the bride. Unfortunately not many people I know do it here in Riyadh. (please if there is anyone who knows more accurate details about the Henna do share, I did not do it justice!)
When does a Saudi couple generally receive wedding gifts? What are typical types of gifts a Saudi couple may receive?
Well, as far as I know the bride gets all the gifts! My husband’s family bought him a gift before he got married (a ring) but I think men don’t usually get anything. The bride on the other hand gets an engagement present from the groom (“Shabka” it’s derived from the Arabic work for net!) This is not a Saudi tradition but one that came from Egypt but has spread all over Saudi. This is sometimes a ring or a set of earrings and necklace. Then, there is another gift from the husband called a “Sbaaha” (derived from the word morning) that is given to the bride the morning after the wedding, also jewelry. And the grooms parents usually get her a gift (again, jewelry) on the wedding day or just before.
A friend of mine had a bridal registry like in the west and she told me a few of her friends had them too. I am not sure how well that went though.
How long have you and your husband been married?
I understand that you studied in Europe for a period of time. Was this before or after your marriage? Did you have a mahrem with you at that time?
It was both before and after my marriage. I went to the UK to study right out of high school as my two elder sisters did. One of them had already graduated and the other was still there. We did not go with a Mahrem. Our parents were always back and forth between Saudi and UK. I got engaged while still at university and my mother always wanted us to wait till after we graduate before we got married because she thought that we wouldn’t finish our studies if we did. We did get married before I finished and unfortunately my mother’s predictions (so far) came true when I had my first child and it was just not feasible for me to do it then.
In all honesty it is not because it is impossible, many women I know have got their bachelor’s degrees while juggling kids and a job and then went on to get their masters. I am just saying it wasn’t possible for me. I do not multi task well! But I hope to remedy that soon! The second time I went was after I got married and had 2 children. We went to the UK so my husband can get his masters and I joined the university again for a short while but ended up leaving again in order to be with my children.
Would you share a little bit about your husband. Would you call him an open or conservative Saudi? What kind of interaction do you and your husband have with each other’s families?
I am not sure I would call him either because I am not sure what either means. Some people take the term “open” to mean not religious and my husband is definitely very devout. And some people take the term conservative to mean harsh and backwards thinking which he most definitely isn’t.
My husband is a very intelligent, rational, respectful man with a great sense of humor. I never really think about things like equality and my rights as a woman in this relationship because they do not come up. Meaning he has full respect and belief in my ability to make my own decisions and does not, for example, question my whereabouts or have any problem with me traveling on my own. He prays every prayer on time along with the “sunna” (extra prayers that the Prophet pbuh used to pray).He reads Quran all the time. He has such strong faith that I hope to one day have and has always had the ability to surprise me which I hope I also do!
We are both very close to each other’s families. My mother and siblings adore him and feel at home with him. His family is amazing and I truly feel at home with them.
How long were you married before having children? How much did you and your husband’s lifestyle change with the arrival of children?
I was married a total of 1 month before getting pregnant! So we never really had a chance to have a lifestyle together for it to change! But our respective lifestyles before getting married definitely changed dramatically. I moved from the UK back to Riyadh back to a new house, pregnant and with morning sickness, with a man in a house that I am in charge of! It was a huge shock and probably made the difficult first year of marriage that much more difficult. But the end result (our son) was definitely worth it.
Can you describe for American Bedu readers what your typical routine and life is like as a woman in Saudi Arabia? Does your family practice segregation? Do you have to abide by the rules of a male mahrem?
My routine is based around family. I am not working, although I do the occasional (very occasional) freelance work. Or help out some place or another I am definitely a stay at home mother. I take the morning time (while the 2 elder children are at school and my husband is in the office and my baby is crawling all over me pulling my hair) to read, watch some tv etc. When they get home it is a crazy time of homework, playing, crying (not always the kids) feeding, bathing and bed time. We have an early dinner (early for Saudi’s) at around 6 p.m. because I like the kids to be asleep by 8 p.m. After that I go see my mother and grandmother on most days.
The fear here in Saudi is falling into a “groundhog” day routine, the same thing over and over and over. So I decided last year to do as many things as possible that get me to interact with people I do not see every day. I have called up people I haven’t seen in ages and invited them to lunch, I have joined a book club, I have taken work out classes, always at different locations so that I change the scenery. I don’t necessarily take more than the one class unfortunately, but I try!
Weekends are for the kids to do what they want really and see their friends. On Friday, my eldest son goes to the mosque for Friday prayer with his father and the whole day is family day. We have lunch together and just spend time together. I try to get homework out of the way on Wednesday or Thursday so that Friday isn’t spent doing that.
Our family doesn’t practice segregation. We see our close male relatives at family gatherings. We spend most nights with our parents and my husband and brothers in law come by some nights and we all have dinner together.
Having a male mahrem has never really been part of what we do because our parents have faith and trust in us and in the way they raised us. And know we have good heads on our shoulders and are capable of taking care of ourselves. I have been traveling on my own since I was 18 and am really happy that I do not need a man to help me through the airport, to buy a ticket, to carry bags etc (although I deeply appreciate it and have no problems asking for it when I am traveling with 3 little children under the age of 10!). I think, and this is based on nothing more than the fact that it seems logical to me, that the mahrem originated to keep women safe in an unsafe environment.
Are there many in your circle of family and friends who are living in polygamy? What are your own views on polygamy? Do you think a woman has a choice on whether or not she needs to “accept” polygamy?
I actually do not know anyone in my generation or my mother’s generation who are living in polygamy. There are some in our grandparents’ generation.
As for my views on polygamy it is part of Islam but people should remember it is the exception rather than the rule. Islam didn’t create the idea of polygamy; it was around way before it. Polygamy was practiced in ancient Hinduism, in ancient Judaism and some sects such as Sephardi and Mizrahi jews only outlawed it relatively recently after moving to countries that forbid it. Islam regulated the practice of polygamy under strict rules and circumstances one of them being that the husband has to treat all the wives equally in every possible way and the verse in the Quran clearly says that even that is not possible. But some have a lovely way of making things that are clearly not encouraged in Islam become common law and part of their “right” as Muslim men.
I mean if you just look at zawaj almisyar (a “marriage” where the husband really doesn’t have to take care of the wife, provide her a house or anything, he only “visits” her when he is free and she stays at her family house) or zawaj almut’a (a “marriage” that is reserved for vacations and long trips when the poor poor man needs someone to be with him so he marries a woman with intent to divorce her when he is done) both clearly go against one of the most important rules of a marriage being valid in Islam, and that is “Alshuhra” meaning announcing to all who are around that so and so is married to so and so and not hiding it.
I think polygamy is part of Islam, and it is not “haram” as long as it abides by the rules that are set for it. Therefore I do not get why some sheikhs have told men that it is not necessary to tell their first wife they plan to take another wife… if you’re not doing anything wrong then why won’t you tell people?
As for a woman having a choice on whether or not to “accept” it I do not see why she shouldn’t have. If the man is sure about his decision and does not feel he is doing anything wrong or against his religious beliefs he should announce the wedding and not keep it hidden and then give the woman a choice to stay or leave. If indeed there is a valid reason then she very well might stay. If not, then why would you want to keep someone in a relationship with you against their will? Isn’t that more like slavery than marriage?
A woman has a choice (regardless if the man gives her one or not) if she has what we call “thahar” literally translated to mean a back, meaning family to back her up and support her. She could make the choice and leave. Women who do not have any support should have access to the information they need to file for divorce and should be educated as to what their rights are and how to enforce them. There are many support groups popping up, some with government support, that are there for that particular reason. And women should educate themselves on their Islamic rights. There was once a booklet going around about women’s rights in Islam that was amazing. That should be given out at all girls schools and universities.
You’ve lived both within and outside of Saudi Arabia. Based on your personal experiences, do you feel that Saudi women inside of the Kingdom receive enough freedom?
I think a lot is changing for women in Saudi Arabia to work towards implementing rules and regulation to protect our freedoms. I do not in any way relate this to where I have lived because I do not hold myself up to the standards of the west as I feel that our fundamental priorities in life as Muslims and Arabs are so utterly different than those of the west that we cannot compare the levels of freedom or anything else.
I am trying to think and be honest with myself and see if there is anything I envy when I think of my foreign friends or the students I studied with when I was in the UK and the only thing that comes to mind is walking! I miss and envy the weather and how they can walk everywhere. I find that most arab women are blessed with really beautiful skin but are ridiculously unfit as opposed to middle aged western women who have better bodies then arab women in their 20’s and that is because we just don’t move! And we do not encourage our kids to move. Childhood obesity is on the rise as well as diabetes and it is a shame because we have the power to control this.
There are many things I, as a Saudi Muslim woman have that I am grateful for that many of the westerners I know do not seem to have. One of them being how alone they are sometimes. I mean being part of a big family is overwhelming but I couldn’t imagine a life without my sisters and brothers. When we’re happy, when there’s a family crisis, a death, I have no idea how people cope without the support of the family network. I mean my kids have so many people they call “mama” my sons teacher once asked me if I was in a polygamous marriage. God willing I won’t be that 70 year old lady with shopping bags all on my own walking home on a freezing day BUT God willing I will be fit enough to be able to walk home at 70 on a freezing day.
Do you think a Saudi woman who has not traveled outside of Saudi Arabia is fully aware of the definition of freedom? Why or why not?
Yes, because why would she define freedom by what she sees outside her own world. She should define it by how she feels in her own environment. A woman in India who has been burned by her husband because of dowry doesn’t need to have visited the west to know this is not ok.
Saudi women are strong willed and extremely intelligent and, as far as I have seen, the majority of them do not compare themselves or hold themselves up to the west’s standards. We hold ourselves up to our own Islamic standards and that is more than enough.
What do you think is the largest misconception outsiders have of Saudi women? How can this misconception be rectified?
That we need saving by the west. That once we see all that “we are missing” we will shed our hijab and abaya and leap into the arms of “civilized society” and be thankful (not to a God because that is so passé) that we have been saved.
This can be rectified by actually talking to Saudi and Muslim women. The problem is we do not let people into our country easily. And we are very guarded, because we are so often attacked. But before deciding anything about anybody people must remember that the world is filled with many different people from many different cultures and there is no “melting pot” where everyone is essentially the same. We’re not, and guess what! we don’t have to be! We just have to respect each other and give advice only when asked for.
It is difficult for a person who is even slightly religious to have a normal conversation lately (in the UK at least, as I think the USA tends to be more religious) about God. I asked a woman recently if she went to church and she answered me as if I asked her if the world was flat. And I remember the questions and comments I would get for fasting or praying when I was studying in the UK. I never understood why it bothered them so much! I had two atheist professors who could not get through one class without attacking or making some snide comment about my religion. I figured this stemmed from some sort of insecurity they had. Something about my faith bothered them!
Having said that, I had amazing experiences and conversations with people of many different faiths that were enlightening. But honestly, I have never had a conversation with an atheist where they didn’t end up really worked up. I think it’s ironic they have so much faith in not having faith!
A lot of female expatriates in Saudi Arabia would welcome the opportunity to get to know Saudi women. If an expatriate woman is not working and lives on a Western compound, how can she meet Saudi woman?
It used to be more difficult before the internet. I think the best way is to try and keep updated on what is going on in the city, from exhibitions to fairs to courses being given and try and go to them. There are a few city guide sites you can find through google that list these events.
Visiting women’s philanthropic societies and getting on their guest lists is also a great way to meet people and get involved in the local culture and customs. There are annual dinners and bazaars held for different causes all the time.
Saudi is probably not the kind of place you would be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a book shop or at a restaurant. It’s not part of our culture. But once you attend an event then people are less guarded because they feel you are interested in our culture and country and will probably talk your ear off!
What are good subjects for an expatriate woman to discuss with a Saudi woman?
Any subject really… whatever you would generally talk about with anyone. As long as the person is not offensive or rude than any polite conversation is fine.
When you go outside of your home in Saudi, how do you cover? In addition to abaya, do you wear hijjab, niqqab and/or veil? Why or why not?
When I leave my house I always wear the abaya and hijab. I think everyone here should because it is what is done. I think it is disrespectful to visit a country where it is considered impolite to show your hair or your body and do the opposite. No one is forced to come here so the thing I abhor is someone coming and blatantly ignoring the rules that were VERY clearly spelled out to them before they arrived. Such as modest dress, head scarf, no drinking, no public displays of affection, etc.
I remember when a friend of mine went to the Maldives on the website for the hotel they had a little disclaimer that said something along the lines of “this is a predominantly Muslim country so we ask that women and men dress appropriately when in public areas such as restaurants or the lobby”.
What in your view are the best things going for Saudi women in Saudi Arabia? Additionally what are the biggest challenges faced by Saudi women in Saudi Arabia?
King Abdullah. An education system that is changing and getting better and is available to all. Intelligence, strength and an unwavering faith in God.
Saudi women have, religiously and socially, a support system that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. We are living in a country that is making many reforms. We are not comparable to some other countries yet when it comes to women’s rights but we are on our way.
As for the challenges that face Saudi women, in my opinion they are the same challenges women face worldwide. Balancing family life and work, striving for equal opportunity, we are faced with some social constraints. Legal restrains are being lifted and adjusted which makes it an exciting time to be a Saudi woman as we all work together to improve the situation. E.g. women are now able to take their cases to court with out the need of a “mahrem”.
However another huge challenge that is only relevant here is the lack of transportation. It is a big problem that hold many women back and can only be resolved with woman being able to drive and providing decent public transportation.
Are there any additional comments you’d like to add for American Bedu readers?
I would like to thank Carol for asking such thought provoking questions and I hope I wasn’t too long winded and gave sufficient answers. If I didn’t I apologize. I would also like to reiterate that the views I have expressed are my own and I do not claim to be speaking for Saudi women everywhere. I am sharing what I know and I know it is not everything and I do not presume to be speaking for all of you Saudi women out there. I only hope I spoke for some and maybe have people out there who share my points of view. Please visit me on my blog www.yamaamaa.wordpress.com.
Thank you very much Saudi Mom for responding to these questions. Your answers are sure to give American Bedu readers much to think about and discuss!
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American Bedu shares her experiences and perspectives as an American in Saudi, one who has made the transition between having typical expat experiences and traditional experiences of any Saudi, on a daily basis, thanks to her marriage to a Saudi man and "a beautiful and large extended Saudi family". American Bedua was a former American diplomat who was in the US Foreign Service for 20 years. She has been writing her blog since 2006.