Racism and "Real Men" in Saudi Arabia

Segregation of men and women in KSA in restaurants, schools, universities, work areas (even if not required by the government) is explained on religious grounds- that men and women who are not “mahram” for each other should not be alone with each other (different countries and societies deal with the issue of “khulwa” differently- the topic of a different post!).

A mahram is someone in front of whom a woman does not need to cover and can touch/hug e.g. father, father-in-law, bro, son, uncles, nephews, other women etc. For men the equivalent are: mother, mother-in-law, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, other men etc. Other than the husband/wife relationship, the people within the circle of mahram are people that one cannot marry.

So the question comes to mind that if the concept of mahram is so important that all public spaces are segregated, why is it ok for women to be driven by male drivers?

The answer I have received from several locals is mind boggling and has nothing to do with religion. Apparently the drivers in KSA are not considered “real men” as they are almost all from India, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. “Real men” can only be Arab. The hierarchy is as follows:

  • Tribal Arabs (Saudi or from other GCC countries)- real men
  • Syrians and Iraqis- real men
  • Other Arabs (like Egyptians)- NOT real men
  • Asian- not real men

The racism does not end here. People assume that Saudi women cannot possibly be attracted to non-Arab men. They also assume that all these foreign workers would not DARE approach a Saudi woman. Thus it is “safe” to be alone with them. Non-Arab foreign workers  are thus the preferred nationality for personal chauffeurs, limo drivers and taxicab drivers.

of gold and glitter- 2

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

by J.R.R. Tolkien

The most common complaints that one hears from expats are the following:

  • Nothing to do but shopping
  • Nothing to do but socializing
  • Inability to drive
  • Censorship of materials
  • Being forced to wear abayas
  • Shops closing at prayer times

These are intriguing because they are complaints about the lack of choice rather than the actual issue itself. In many many many other countries of the world, expats and/or suburban wives do the same by choice:

  • Shopping
  • Socializing
  • Having chauffeur driven cars (in many emerging economies, expats will rarely drive- actually, middle class and up everyone has drivers)
  • The official position on restricting media and the actuality are very different here. EVERYTHING is available, and quite openly- from music, DVDs, software to books. In fact it is rather odd but the english bookstores around here don’t do any censoring. In some stores you will see faces of women blacked on magazine covers and in other stores there are romance novels that include explicit sex. It is a strange and confused world 🙂
  • This one is quite interesting as it has two major aspects that need to be examined. We can all agree that forcing any particular clothing is just as wrong as forbidding any type of clothing (raises issues about places like France but that is for another post) so let’s leave that aside. One the one side covering up is actually safer for women around here. In many other countries expats dress to fit in anyway but they are not forced to do so (at least not legally, socially it would be VERY unsafe to step out on the streets). We can like it or dislike it but it definitely helps on the safety side. The second aspect is of respecting the culture and not deliberately being offensive. The problem is, many expats are willing (actually consider it their right) to do as they please without respecting the culture that is hosting them. The arrogance/attitude that a different culture must be “less” than theirs is at the crux of this matter. There always a few who want to make a statement and prove their point. This is where the problems emerge. It would be better to help the locals make their own statements rather than trying to prove something. This might sound like being accepting and compromising however the bigger picture has to be looked at. How does one actually bring about change in a system? The most effective way is organically, and bottom up (albeit not the not expedient). External intrusions are just that, intrusions. They do not stick unless coming from within. The alternative is breaking the system- this one can be done from outside the system, however it tends to be messy and more importantly, the consequences are suffered by the people inside the system. It is easy to create trouble and then just walk away, however it’s very irresponsible. Social change is necessary and should be done- but seriously, not as a frivolous hobby to keep boredom at bay. For those who want to help women and their rights, help the Saudi women and activists who are fighting the battle at the front-lines.
  • This is once again an example of creating hard and fast rules that would be better served by having flexible guidelines. While being inconvenient when in a hurry, it is actually rather nice this “lifestyle choice” (of praying!) is not something that one has to hide or do surreptitiously.

I once attended a lecture at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. There was a remarkable reverend who stated (paraphrased very loosely) that what we need is respect, not tolerance. With tolerance we still think the other is wrong and we are the better ones for “putting up” with them. Respect is different because it is an acknowledgement that the other can also be right. You are not any better because you accept the differences of the other.

The Golden Triad: Power, Money, Religion

Q: Where does power come from in today’s world?

A: Depend on where you are.

In the US we have a nominal separation of church and state. What does that really mean? As is, religious values are deeply embedded within the judicial system and now are creeping up all over. Prop 8 is a great example. The Margaret and Helen blog stated the dilemma very succinctly : “If marriage is an institution supported by this country then it must be made available to all of its citizens according to the law.  If however, it is strictly a religious institution then a constitutional amendment determining who can and cannot have access to it is sort of missing the point.  Religious freedom except for people who are not religious is a mutually exclusive concept.” For those that did not follow the issue, the Mormon Church was HUGELY influential regarding the passage of prop 8.

Before I digress too much…the separation of church and state really means that the church (religious institutions as a whole) do not have an automatic claim on power. The have to resort to the same tactics as every other special interest group: MONEY. Basically, power can be bought by the highest bidder and it’s an equal opportunity auction. The bottom line: everyone wants/needs money (money and power have a closed loop that is reinforcing)

Europe is slightly different in the way it separates secular and religious, with immigration from northern Africa and Turkey forcing lines to be drawn. Basically, religion is officially not supposed to exist in the public arena. It clearly does not have any power based on itself, and it cannot use money in the same way as in North America. The bottom line: power needs money, and religion needs power  (note that the circle is not complete and all 3 institutions are getting weaker).

Saudi Arabia is a different animal altogether. If you look at the history of the Saud empire, and how the country was actually formed (pre discovery of oil), religion legitimized power through an alliance. Today, power has acquired money yet it still needs the nod from religion. This creates a unique dynamic where power cannot just do what it wants and continues to need to negotiate with religion. Religion on the other hand does not need money and already has power through proxy. The bottom line: religion and power feed off each other.


A few months ago we passed by a small crowd around a dead body lying on the median on main Olaya street, the feet sticking out from under a blue sheet- a traffic casualty.

Saudi Arabia has AWESOME roads and an extremely high traffic accidents and fatality rate. It subsequently also has one of the highest spinal cord injury cases in world . Crossroads blog recently referenced the Saudi Gazette regarding the cause of Saudi road problems to be a “clash of driving cultures“.

It is odd to blame the clash of culture because it ignores the simple fact that there are traffic laws. Traffic laws (in every country) are the equalizer for all cultures. If they are enforced, EVERYONE follows them, regardless of where they come from, and what they are used to doing.

The majority of chauffeurs here are from Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh etc). One can claim that these people are used to crazy traffic from their home countries however they are also the majority of cab drivers in places like NYC and DC where they follow the traffic laws. The worst offenders that I have seen are actually Saudi youth. Saudi men driving their families tend to be slightly better.

The fact of the matter is, traffic laws are not enforced in KSA. If they were, some of these commonly seen phenomenon would be controlled and traffic accidents could be reduced.

  • Aggressive driving between lanes rather than within the clearly marked lanes
  • Underage driving (one can see kids so young that they can barely see above the steering wheel)
  • Making left turns from the right-most lanes at intersections
  • Lane changes without indication (at high speeds)
  • ATVs being driven in and out of traffic, and also on sidewalks by youth in the weekends
  • Doing all these crazy things at high speeds!
  • Not using seatbelts
  • Driving with children sitting in laps

There is no shortage of traffic police around here and there are  many impromptu checkpoints that hold up traffic, however there is still not enough enforcement for the actual laws (but it’s possible as we evidenced once, or alternatively as can be seen by the no cellphone/mobile law that was recently passed- several people got ticketed, including expats and one sees fewer offenders now).

People who violate the laws should be ticketed, with no exemptions based on “wasta”. Repeat offenders should have their licenses revoked. Kids caught driving should be fined and their parents should be forced to attend driving safety classes. One of the things we will see is drivers being docked by their owners for traffic fines. Yes, it will be hard for them to pay it considering how low their wages are anyway, however it will result in drivers becoming more cautious. It will take a few cases before all drivers will start to be careful.

An example of a country where some new safety laws were recently introduced is Pakistan (infamous for its insane driving). Some years ago a new seatbelt law was enforced in Islamabad. At first people resisted but after many people started getting ticketed, it is now becoming the norm. At first there were education campaign and warnings. Eventually the grace period was over and the law was in effect. Now, the majority of cars in Islamabad use seat belts. If Pakistan can start to improve, surely it’s possible in KSA!

It is unrealistic to expect that traffic will suddenly be perfect but enforcement would certainly help.

where do women go?

Once again, the options for where women can go by themselves is very limited. Some places women cannot go even if they are accompanied by a male relative. Here are some favorite spots that I have observed:

  • SHOPPING- at the end of the day (also in the beginning and the middle) there is not much to do other than shopping. Women collect in hordes and are usually laden with bags.
  • Banks- these are one of the few employers for women. Several banks have women-only branches. Others have permission from the Ministry of Labor to allow women to work in regular buildings but with special provisions for segregation
  • Hospitals and medical facilities- these are the only truly mixed work environments in the Kingdom. The vast majority of the women employed here are expats (e.g. all the nurses, majority of the drs). There is a sprinkling of Saudi female doctors and a few Saudi women at reception desks at the Ob/Gyn counters- the rest are ALL expats.
  • Women-owned businesses- there is a growing number of women who own their own small-businesses. As they cannot be employed by anyone else, they have started their own organizations to overcome the social hurdles.
  • Charities and non-profits- several women have started their own charities or work at them.
  • Coffee mornings and social events
  • Women-only spas/shops- there is a very small percentage of these available and they hire women
  • Schools and other educational institutions- all classes are separated by gender (with the exception of some of the expat schools) and so are all teachers. A lot of expat women are teaching. There is a growing number of educated Saudi women in teaching and administrative positions at higher-education institutions.
  • Amusements parks, “toylands”- women are often seen here with lots of children.
  • Public parks- women are seen here but usually as families, accompanied by at least one male.

At the end of the day, women are sadly under-represented in the workforce and are almost non-existent in the service sector. Some show a lot of spirit and try to beat the odds. The vast majority do nothing.

how do women get around?

One of the responses I received on my Women’s driving post was the question of how women get around here. The simple answer is “they don’t” – hehhee, just kidding. Let me list the constraints and the options:

  • Women cannot drive themselves
  • There is no public transportation

So what do they actually do?

  • They have personal chauffeurs
  • Their fathers/husbands/brothers/sons/uncles act as chauffeurs
  • They use taxis (preferably driven by non-saudis)
  • They use limo services with scheduled drop-offs and pick-ups (preferably driven by non-saudis)
  • They use shuttle buses with designated routes, drop-offs and pick-ups if they live on compounds
  • Some educational institutions have their own bus services that pick up and drop-off students.
  • They carpool and travel in “packs”

As you might have realized, if a woman comes from a wealthy family, or is an expat wife, she has easy options through hired help. If from a middle-class family, she has to fight for limited resources with the rest of her family. As for the lower income households, they really do not have many options for getting around.

Of course the next question is, where could they do even if they could travel freely?

Women driving

women drive

It is the 18th anniversary of women protesting the ban on driving by driving through the streets of Riyadh. People keep telling me that lifting the ban will completely change things for women around here. I disagree.

I think the car sticker above explains a lot about social attitudes (I took this picture a few months ago). Look at her hair streaming behind her. A woman who drives is considered to be one who doesn’t cover- she’s free, loose, open. These are not flattering adjectives over here.

People think that lifting the ban will mean women will suddenly have access to transportation, they will be able to work etc. Well, not really. This is not a logistics issue at all. For women who need to work, they find a way. For those who want to work but are faced with “no transportation” as an excuse are dealing with exactly that, an excuse.

For one car families, the primary driver will continue to be the men. In households where the car is shared between several members of the household, the car will still rarely be available for women. For households where there is more than one car, there are also hired drivers to take women around. How many “respectable” households will allow women to drive?

What needs to change is the larger attitude about the role of women in society. The issue here is a cultural one. Once there is an acknowledgment, at a societal level, that women should VISIBLY be a contributing part of everyday life, things will change around here. If/when the ban is lifted, people should not have to worry about facing social castigation for “allowing” the women of their households to drive.

The ban on women’s driving is merely a symptom of a larger cultural issue. A band-aid solution for the symptom will not change the much bigger underlying perspectives.

previous post on traffic: https://ruhsa.wordpress.com/2008/04/27/roads/