N and I met not long after I moved to Riyadh again in 2011. I’d never had a Saudi female friend before, and frankly she blew my preconceived notions about Saudi women out of the water within minutes of meeting her. She was vibrant, beautiful, and opinionated, and proved to me that Saudi women have so much to offer this world, even when society prevents them from doing so.
N’s case is at times a sad one. She’s incredibly talented, driven, and hopeful, so to see her feel let down and short-changed by her own culture and country is difficult for me as her friend. She’s full of love and life and energy that I envy at times. Even on her most defeated days, she’s someone who has always encouraged me to see the good in the bad and has always ensured me that things will work out in the end…for both of us.
I admit that it’s hard to imagine myself in her shoes as a woman approaching 30, still being held back by what my parents decide I can or cannot do, having very little say over how I can live my life and who I choose to be in it. But my friendship with N has given me a better understanding of a group of women that most of the world knows nothing about, and for that I am thankful.
The following post is a conversation between N and I, which she gave me permission to record and use for this post. I thank N for being brave enough to share part of her story with me and my readers in hopes that others might get a better look at what life is like for one particular Saudi woman and many more like her.
This is by no means an indication of how all Saudi women are living, and neither N or I wish to present her story as a generalization.
M: Can you tell me a little about your life and what it’s like to be a Saudi woman?
N: Long story short, we were three daughters, and when we started growing up my dad became more and more protective. We lived in the States for a year when I was in second grade, but then we came back here. Everything was fine until we became teenagers and then my dad got overprotective. It was hard because we were not allowed to go to our friends. They were allowed to come to us in our house, but we couldn’t go to them because my dad likes to know what’s going on. My dad was also in the military, which made him even more worried. He would hear many bad stories and he would get worried.
When we were older and entered college, I didn’t get to enter the major that I wanted. He said the university was too big, that it didn’t have a good name, and that there were bad people inside, like lesbians. He was also afraid since it is behind closed doors and he cannot see it. I wanted to major in English, but to him it’s an accessory, not a need. I was strong in English at the time and wanted to major in it because I loved it. I knew what I wanted since I was a teenager. I also loved anything to do with art or fashion.
After I graduated from college, I told my dad I wanted to study fashion. This was in 2008, now it is 2014, so imagine all these years I’ve been fighting and fighting until he eventually told me I cannot do anything with fashion or art because it’s waste of time and not that important. We had the hugest fight ever and I told him he’s not seeing what I want, only wanting me to see what he wants.
He doesn’t like how I think. Still, my parents have a hard time because I’m more open minded and more outgoing. When we travel to the US or Europe my dad is a completely different person. He doesn’t care what I do. But here, he thinks that because everyone in society is looking at you and everything is closed or hidden, it’s not like the US or Europe. But I don’t see that. I see it as the same. It depends on the person. I don’t think society is the issue here, but parents make society the issue. It’s not, it’s the way you choose to do things, right? Do things and don’t care about others. If it’s right, you shouldn’t care about what others think. Unfortunately, we don’t have that mentality yet here. Here you’re always concerned with others, making sure no one talks to or about the girls in the family. Boys–they get free passes every time. But girls don’t. It doesn’t make any sense.
In my fourth year of college my parents had some issues in their marriage. They had a huge fight and my dad was acting crazy. Things happened that won’t ever be fixed no matter what he says or does…it’s broken. We have this saying in Arabic: A girl is like glass. You can’t totally fix her once she’s broken. You can repair her, but she will never be the same. He damaged everyone.
At that time my eldest sister had gotten married and moved out, and my mom wasn’t living in the house. I was the eldest, so I was in charge. I would cry every morning. I get it sometimes why my parents are scared. I was wise and mature before my age. I wasn’t a teenager. I didn’t go through that phase.
Now we’re still fighting about jobs. I wanted to do my Master’s but he said if it’s art or fashion, I can forget it. He said I can do MBA, but I still didn’t do it, because I don’t like it. I already did my college for him, because that’s what he wanted and I was always the good kid.
He thinks it’s all about money. Why are my sisters and I going out to work if he already has money. But we don’t choose to work because of money. We are going out to work because we want to evolve, we want to be better human beings, we want to know how to handle people. You cannot sit at home and learn everything.
M: Do you think it’s fair that you’re almost 30 and that your father can still decide what you’re allowed to study or not? Do you think that should be changed?
N: Before I even say anything or talk to him about anything, I will put myself in his shoes and try to understand his point of view as a parent. But I don’t think it’s fair for him to decide my career, my job, my everything. It’s not fair. I get it if he mentions how he feels, but this is my education. Yes, he wants what is best for me, but he’s forgetting that he’s lived his life. He had his experiences. I will take his advice, but I shouldn’t have to do what he wants me to do. It’s funny when parents say “this is your plan, you’re going to this college,” and the baby is still in the womb.
M: Talk to me about your life now. What are some things you wish you could change?
N: I wish I could change my dad.
I wish I had a degree in interior design or fashion, or something like that. I’d like to be my own boss.
Sometimes I feel bad because I feel like my sister had better chances than I did. Before, my father would say that no daughter of his would ever be a doctor or dentist, or anything in a hospital environment. Even working on a computer in a hospital. But then my dad got sick, so when my younger sister decided to go to dental school, he said ok. My sister also went to private school when I had to go to government school.
I wish I could change my life. I wish I could just live in an apartment alone or with a roommate and see my parents every other day. I just don’t want to be in my life because my parents are too protective.
M: Do you want to talk about marriage or relationships?
N: My dad doesn’t force us. Other families sometimes force the girls to marry, maybe when she’s 16 or 17 they pressure her into marriage. When I was in school there was a girl who was 15 and her parents were planning a wedding. It’s a joke. You’re a parent and you’re married and you know how hard it is, so how can you let your daughter do it? When they get married their life completely changes.
M: What about you, personally. What do you want to do?
N: What, like, do I want to get married and stuff? Hell no.
M: (Laughter) Why not?
N: First of all, I don’t need another man besides my dad to tell me “don’t do this.” I don’t want him to talk about how I eat or dress or walk or the way I go out. I just don’t want anyone to tell me no or give me any restrictions. I’ve had enough of that with my dad. I don’t want to bring kids into the world when I didn’t live my life. They will grow up and have their own lives and I’ll be stuck living the same way because I didn’t get to do what I wanted.
M: Most people who don’t live here aren’t familiar with how things work. They don’t know what it’s like for an single adult woman who doesn’t to get married, but also doesn’t want to be alone. Let’s talk about the dating world.
N: It’s not out in the open. It will never be out in the open.
M: It’s common though, right? Do your single friends date?
N: Yeah, it’s common. My friends have already either had or lost the love of their lives, so they don’t want to do that all over again. But it’s more common I think in the younger girls. They’re more open minded. Boys and girls are also open to being just friends now. It’s more normal. But then, sometimes you fall in love with a friend.
You cannot have, for example, a boyfriend, and just be together for years. You won’t find that man who is committed without any commitment. They have to be engaged, or they won’t take anything seriously.
When it comes to marriage, many people are getting divorced. They don’t understand marriage and the responsibilities. They think marriage is something fun for traveling, but it’s hard when you live with someone you don’t know. You don’t know anything about each other and it leads to major fights, and since they’re not mature enough it leads to divorce.
M: Is there anything else you want to talk about or tell the world?
N: I’m thankful for my mom. If she wasn’t who she is I don’t know what I’d become. She makes everything seem better even when it’s not.
Also, the feelings I have are complicated. Sometimes when I seem ok, I’m really not. I bottle up my feelings because I don’t want to make her feel worse, because I know she feels the same way as me. But I pretend everything is ok.
My dad grows older and becomes softer, so hopefully in upcoming years my life will get better and better.
I don’t want to be married, ever. I’ve seen marriages fall apart. Our men are made of stone. They take it as a weakness to say something nice. They don’t get it.
N: I think this has been a long interview. It’s the longest interview you’ve done, ins’t it?
M: Yes, for sure, but it’s been fun!
N: It’s because I’ve blabbered on. Just don’t make it sound horrible when someone else reads it. When you ask Westerners about Saudi Arabia they will think about camels and the desert. They think we’re living in tents and don’t have cars…we have skyscrapers for God’s sake! Don’t let them think that we’re in Guantanamo or something.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed getting a look inside the mind of one of my dear Saudi friends. Please feel free to leave your polite and respectful thoughts in the comments section and I’ll be sure she reads them.