Saudi Arabia: Clans and Tribal Traditions

I had the opportunity to visit recently with my eldest sister.  She’s 12 years older than me and we spent an enjoyable time reminiscing about our family life and the times during which we grew up.  Naturally with the age difference between us we have different memories.  During one of our conversations we talked about the changes in American cultures and traditions.  These topics spanned from the segregation between America’s blacks and whites which she remembered, to the strong views and feelings between Catholics and Protestants.  I did not know that during my sister’s early youth a prospective beau was forbidden by his parents to have contact with my sister because she was Catholic and he was Protestant!

As I pondered over these distinctions and the great changes that have since taken place in the United States, it made me realize that Saudi Arabia has its own set of similar and distinct cultures and traditions.  Saudi Arabia is a country where clans and tribal traditions remain in place and of importance.  In some circumstances, color can still matter in Saudi Arabia.  Skin lightening products have a hearty and profitable market in Saudi Arabia.  In regards to religion, the majority of Saudi’s muslims are Sunni whereas a minority are Shia’a muslims.  Even today there are few marriages in Saudi Arabia between Sunni and Shia’a.  Of course many marriages in Saudi Arabia remain tribal or “clan” based where the marriages are arranged between families known to one another.

The United States continues to change and grow in varied directions.  It became common for marriages to take place between individuals of all faiths and colors.  Segregation was abolished between black and white.  Do you believe Saudi Arabia will undergo similar changes?  Do you think such changes are already subtly in process?

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52 Responses

  1. Every time I think of how odd Saudi Arabia is, I remember how much the US has changed in 50 years. When I was a child, African Americans were still being lynched, at least in the South. That was a rare occurance but it did happen.

  2. Clan and tribal norms remain as they are as long as society remains secluded from other influencing external ideas. Now with the exposure directly by traveling and studying or indirectly via the media and internet, some change is beginning. It is not all over the peninsula but can be seen in certain cities now as Jedda. Deep rooted ideas never really change, but may be expressed in a different form.

  3. I would like to add too that many other nationalities live in Saudi Arabia with their own traditions, this also is an important factor to consider. They go back influenced by Saudi traditions to their own countries but at the same time they also influence.

  4. For what I have seen, at least the Gulf, things are changing. I think ‘arranged’ marriages are still common but, at the same time, it is not as ‘taboo’ to marry outside your clan or even religion/nationality than it was, perhaps, even 20 years ago.

    As for the States concerned, there are still societal pressures and to marry outside your cultural is questioned. When my parents married back in the late 60’s my father’s side did not give a warm reception to my European protestant mother. Sadly, today, our immediate family is not very close with relatives on my mothers side, except, the younger generation.

  5. The connection between old racist america and modern saudi is that a large part of the population is held in slavery.
    And women are not hung on trees and burnt, but they do dissappear or suddenly die of strange diseases.

    I think saudi is slipping deeper into darkness. Two generations ago women had far more freedom.
    the eastern province and hijaz had cultures and were open to people from different cultures. there were marriages between shia and sunni.
    Then the people from riyad came and forced their rules on everybody that all changed for the worse. Because the religious fanatics have the eductaionsystem too young people don’t even know anymore the culture which has been stolen from them.

    color matter a great deal in saudi, for men too. A man with lighter skin is always consider handsomer . Even if he is really ugly.

  6. It is a process. Saudi will change, whether the people involved like it or not.

    As Jacey mention, it still happens here. I get some pretty interesting looks and responses when they find out I am a white American married to a Saudi lady.

  7. And before anybody comes in and tell me I am racist again, it’s Saudi friends who told me all this.
    And sorry for the typos, am AWOL from work!

  8. Actually i did not understand the comment that women “die from disease and disappear!! Please expand on this point as i am a surgeon here working in saudi arabia and have numerous colleagues who have been working here for decades, and i am sorry but i fail to understand what that statement means, especially that Saudi women are treated in a very special care compared to the men.

  9. Why is whiter skin favored? Here in the US, white women frequently tan (and risk skin cancer) in order to appear darker. People are strange. 🙂

    Dr. Nassef, maybe she means honor killings??

  10. to Susanne430, what comes to mind is : ” it is always greener on the other side of the fence”. I remember my nephews one year apart in age, one had smooth hair and blue eyes, the other dark eyes and curly hair, each was envious of the other asking why wasn’t his hair and eyes like his brother :)! However that was when they were young kids… so yes, people can be strange.

    Honor killing means that the situation has become public, where honor then becomes the issue, but if it is not, then families favour discretion.

  11. Dr. Nassef, that’s cute about your nephews. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that!

  12. @susanne430.. you are most welcome. Both are med students now, eldest is about to graduate.

  13. I can also attest that once a woman gets where she can receive medical care in KSA she does receive special treatment. However it is also critical that a woman not only speak up when she requires care and not attempt to hide a problem AND that she also has an understanding mahrem who will ensure she gets to a doctor.

  14. I can add to your attestation, from the short time i have been working here in KSA, that women actually speak out their minds strongly. The idea that they be dominated by men is apparently far from true.

  15. Dr. Nassef. They may speak their mind but they are legally dominated by men. By law. Every woman has a Mahrem, and even if a woman speaks up- it is her male owner’s word that is law.

  16. Dr. Nassef, I do agree with Sandy that women speak their mind but the decisions which can concern and impact on her are dependent on her mahrem.

  17. I agree, that legally they are obligated by their mehrem in many aspects of life as travel, opening a bank account etc… However, if that portrays a picture of helplessness and meekness, then it is a very unreal picture from what i see. The idea that they are owned is amusing when you see them up close. You need to remember that tribal and family traditions can keep an unruly husband very much in line, not to mention the strength of character of most of the women i came in contact with as a doctor.

  18. @ American Bedu… Yes you are right also , but does the husband “mehrem’ take the decision regardless of his wife’s or family’s choices and preferences? without discussion? what is your experience in that?

  19. Dr. Nassef,

    I have also worked in the health care sector in Saudi Arabia as well as being part of a large extended Saudi family. I have seen both cases where the woman is totally dominated by the husband as well as the opposite extreme where the woman is truly independent and makes all her own decisions without impact or influence from her own family.

    A lot depends on where the family is located. For example, a woman from a small area which is conservative will have decisions either made by her husband or perhaps influenced by family pressure. Yet at the same time, in some of the smaller areas and conservative areas, families may not necessarily believe in the strength of modern medicine and choose Hijama or Quranic healing over going to a doctor.

    I’m not sure which facility you are working at but at KFSH&RC and NGHA medical staff will see disease and inflections of the most extreme and rare in most other parts of the world mostly due to consanguinity and reticence to come for care until just beyond hope.

  20. I first came to Saudi more than 20 years ago and am part of a Saudi family so I am going on what I have seen. I have seen women completely helpless in their lives in the face of decisions made by their mehram. Of course those with good kind owners live a life different than those without. And they probably don’t air their dirty laundry to the Dr. at the hospital.

    Carol any “truly independant” woman is that way courtesy of her Mehram. Sometimes with a change in Mehram we see how truly dependant she actually was when the new owner cracks down on her.

  21. A few years ago, i attended a conference where a Saudi ( apparently very westernized doing her postgraduate in the USA) woman doctor was speaking about genetically induced abnormalities due to consanguinity, and yes she mentioned how rare it is to see those in other communities..

  22. Up till now i have not seen any unusual diseases but i work in a privately owned hospital in a small town ” Yanbu” . I am still rather taken aback by the use of the word ‘owner’ in reference to the husband..@ Sandy… was it really so?? that much ? of course you know that a saudi man has no claim what so ever on his wife’s wealth by law as well as by religion.

  23. Yes. But women don’t inherit much and he can stop her from acquiring more wealth and can largely control how she spends what she has. Also, sadly, some men do take their wives salaries- but yes, in theory that is illegal.

    What good does a woman’s wealth do if she must stay home, cannot go out, can not do anything but what her husband says? I use the word “owner” to remind people of reality. It’s not that it “was” that way. It still is. Everyone focuses on the women that have good men letting them live a free life. But that is not a given here. And it can be taken away in the blink of an eye. The man controls everything. This is a patriarchal tribal society- not a religious one.

  24. Dr Nassef, if you are medical doctor, and if you do live in KSA. This is just an internet forum, and anybody can pretend to be anybody.
    It seems incomprehensible to me that a person can live in Saudi Arabia, know the rules, and yet can dare to proclaim that women in Saudi are not dominated by men?

    Sandy is correct in describing the mahram as the ”owner”. How else can you accurately describe it when one human being has total legal control over another human being?How do you describe a human being who has no legal entity, who is debarred of making even the most basic decision for herself and for whom all decisions are made by another? Decisions which can go at any time against the wishes of the individual? That a human being can be sold for money to another owner against their will?
    That is a slave/master relationship, nothing else.

    And we are to believe you are a medical doctor and yet you do not know that genetic disorders and congenital abnormalities common in the Arab world and especially in Saudi Arabia?

    http://www.emro.who.int/publications/emhj/0301/18.htm

  25. Saudi women are of the opinion that they are suppressed.

  26. Well that is certainly unexpected!! Am i under attack now for airing my opinion and what i have observed?? Also now my medical credential are brought into question?? is that how a discussion is to be dealt with?? by innuendo and personal attack instead of just a simple focus on the topic?
    Well, what can i say? i am sorry you cant take accept another view.
    You are of course free to believe what you like.
    Up till now i have seen NO genetic abnormality in my practice… and All i have seen are very ordinary maladies seen elsewhere. This is really upsetting..
    Thank you anyway

  27. @ Sandy
    Inheritance is regulated by islamic law which is upheld (supposedly) by all. Numerous women are of extreme wealth, islamic law prohibits the interference of the husband over the wife’s wealth. If someone robs her of it ( a husband) then that is criminal. A husband, as mentioned here, has no claim over the contents of the wife’s bank account.

  28. I wanted to post this one:
    We have seen it, but it seems not enough people have seen it.

  29. @ Sandy, as you say, ” it was not so”, i have to agree with you on the restrictions imposed here, it is quite different from other places. However as pointed out before, it depends on the place, for instance Jedda is quite different from say Ryad. In Yanbu here, contrary to what i used to hear before, many christian Philippine ladies are not obliged to cover their heads, whether at work or in the mall.
    To return to the original point about ‘slavery’, what i saw and @Affke art YES i DARE say the truth : the relations i saw between the wife and husband was rarely one of master and slave, and in few instances it was the woman that was dominating.

  30. @ Sandy this comment of yours is important: a patriarchal tribal society- not a religious one…

  31. Fathers also are criminal if they sell under age girls to old men for sex against the girls will. Yet that happens again and again.

    We have had other people here claiming credentials they didn’t have. It happens on the internet. And if somebody new comes around and starts off with remarks which we know are incorrect. Any doubts this invites are by your own making.

  32. Filipina ladies not covering their heads isn’t the issue. Women. Saudi women can be completely confined to their home is the mahrem wants. No medical treatment, no education. It happens.

    I do believe you live here. You seem like many people when they first come- they see women doctors, or women on a seeming equal footing with their husbands and they conclude that Saudi women don’t have it that bad. Many Saudi women DO lead good lives. That’s because their Mehram decides to let that happen. It is not something in their control. Most visitors will not see the dark side of the Mahrem system. How would you? But just keep reading the local papers- and you’ll get a sense of it.

    Aafke, I’m not sure we have an “under age” yet. That is part of the problem.

  33. There is no reason a Christian lady should have to cover her hair. For that matter no woman at all should have to cover her hair. Muslims think women in the west should have a choice on whether to cover. Well that goes both ways. I only cover for bad hair days.

  34. @ Sandy ( American Bedu? right). Actually, i am talking about the patients. Most of them are women, some do come on their own, but most come chaperoned with a family member (brother, or husband) sometimes with another woman.
    I can only talk about what i see, i did expect it to be worse, so was pleasantly surprised to see most women treated coureously by their spouses whether in the clinic or in the malls. Saw the men doing the shopping with their wives in the malls, so it appeared quite natural to me ( if you omit that women cover their faces) though the black-white uniform like clothes is also astonishing like a color code for gender or something.
    Culture and religion have dictated dress in societies. I am a muslim and i dont have any thoughts about what women should or shouldnt do in the west. Why should i put that into my thoughts? or for that matter why should any other muslim bother about what someone far away wears or doesnt?

  35. @ Sandy: The main issue we began on : is KSA changing? I have had women relatives working as teaching professors in universities in Ryad.. and they had to wear the full head-body cover when they went out. It is not the same now apparantly ( example about the filippinos).
    As regards christian women and the head cover… that is another matter, but you can consider a question then, why do the nuns traditionally have had their dress as they do.

  36. No. Carol is American Bedu!

    Many Muslms are upset about laws going into affect in some counties making Niqab illegal. So they talk alot about how women should be free to choose, while not offering the same freedom themselves.

    There are a lot of good Saudi men. It is the system that is my problem. Because those stuck with a bad husband father or son- are stuck indeed.

  37. It is getting better- just incrediblly slow. Too slow. Nuns wear their traditional choice because they CHOOSE to. Actually those Filipenas could get in trouble if the Muttawa see them.

  38. I would like to make a note here please. When i first joined this blog i was searching for any information regarding Yanbu as i was offered a job here, maybe the owner of this blog can recall that, though that was many months ago. We have different upbringings and different experiences. I enjoy the exchange of the differing views, however much one may not agree with. I hope we can agree on differing and discussing why we have our views. Accept the differences, and try to understand more how the “other” thinks, however easy it appears to first condemn, or put personal doubts on character, instead of addressing the topic in question. Abuse can be responded to, but why spoil such a wonderful blog with such disrespectful acts?

  39. @ Sandy. Thanks for the clarification. Actually that was my point.. the “motawe” is now restricted so it seems. It is no secret how they wear, it is done in public as i said at work or in the malls. EVERYONE there stands witness. This is my assumption i must admit, but it stands to reason.Nuns chose to be nuns, their uniform was not their choice. You will notice that Virgin Mary also wore a veil. Anyway that is another discussion.
    I agree with you about the system. However, if a woman is stuck with a bad husband, then she is in trouble where ever she lives. The system is slow in changing as you say. I think the west side of KSA is different from its eastern side. Can you comment on that?

  40. The Niqab. Actually it is a traditional dress more of it being a religious one. Implemented mostly by the turks during the Ottomen period all over the middle east. In prayer and even in Pilgrim, the woman has to have her face uncovered. Islamic tradition state that a woman (that reached puberty) has to wear clothes covering her body except for her hands and face. The saudi ways have affected muslims in other parts of the world e.g. India and Egypt, the covering of the face i mean. So, it is coming back to fashion again after being discarded of in the last hundred years.

  41. The Muttawa are not that restricted. It does seems to swing like a pendulum back and forth however. I didn’t see any for 10 years and then had 2 run-ins with them in 6 weeks. And yes, it was about covering hair.

    You are absolutely wrong about a woman with a bad husband being just as stuck anywhere else. Of course it is never good, but in a western country the woman has legal recourse. The law is the same for everyone. She does not lose custody automatically if she divorces an abusive spouse. She is allowed to get her own home, her own job. To see who she wants in the same way as a man. She can authorize her own medical procedures. There is no comparison at all.

    The Virgin Mary is depicted with a head covering- but she is not concealing her hair. The whole veil thing is from the Byzantium practice of high class women veiling which is why Muslim women wanted to adopt it and why Muslim slaves were NOT ALLOWED to wear it. It is all a foreign innovation.

  42. A question. Does a woman in KSA have no legal course when divorced? would her father or brother have no power to help? I am asking as i dont know.

    I’l get back to you about the head cover, and from the bible :). To my knowledge now, without references, the head cover was widely applied all over europe, middle east and even Asia (India). Many old traditions ended with WW1 and 2. I know that a woman must cover her hair when going into church as mentioned in the bible (dont have reference now).

    I’l remind you about two things: A battered wife, and the battered baby syndrome. Believe me.. a bad husband is bad anywhere.

  43. @ Sandy.. .just out of curiosity, have you learned arabic?

  44. No it isn’t as bad anywhere. In the west- if you press charges he goes to jail the woman gets custody of the kids . Unfortunately based on what I have seen- the father and brother can’t do much. Battered wife- they might be able to get her divorced. She’ll lose custody though.

    No need to get back on the head cover from the bible. It’s from one of Pauls letters and is controversial in its exact meaning to Christians. Only small sects of Christians cover their hair in church and they do not conceal it. Only wear a covering. Also, of course head coverings were wide spread. So are baseball caps now. Head protection is something many naturally do. It has nothing to do with “concealing” or hiding hair.

    I know some Arabic- not as much as I’d like.

  45. I was asking about west and east IN KSA. Western and Eastern regions.
    People are different depending, so i was wondering.

  46. Jeddah and the western region is the least conservative. East coast after that. The interior is the strictest. I’m in Jeddah, and since my husband allows me to move around freely, I do and generally don’t have any problems.

  47. Dr. Nassef-you are new to the Kingdom?
    I also work in the healthcare field, in a large hospital in Riyadh. When I first came I had no clue about genetical disorders and hereditary diseases. I wouldve said the same thing as you, that I havent seen any in my work.
    But when you start learning about them more and more you come to realize that perhaps 70% of your patients are in fact effected in some way by them. It won’t be written in their files as such usually. I have seen the weirdest things here.
    In our hospital we have a ward for children effected with metabolic disorders, they need bone marrow transplants. Many of these poor children don’t survive. We have adults waiting for new set of lungs or liver because they happened to inherit bad ones.

    I’ve written some posts on saudis hereditary diseases on my blog if your interested in knowing more.

  48. I have to comment on the female patients coming with their husbands. Sometimes if they must be seen by a male dr the husband will want to sit in the rm with her. This might sometimes cause the wife not to reveal what she has actually come in for because of fear of the husband knowing or feeling embarrassed because of intimate problems. I’ve found sometimes the female patient will approach the nurse with her issues and that is when the nurses role becomes very important in her treatment, she will have to act as an advocate for that patient.
    So for you Dr, Nassef to be aware of this in your practise that its a major problem in making the correct diagnosis sometimes 🙂

  49. @ Laylah. Yes, though you put a question mark you presented as a statement more than a question (quite astute of you), i have been in the kingdom for just less than a month now. The hospital i work in is most probably smaller than the one you work in in Ryad (100 beds now but growing). Well, since i am not a paediatrician, i would not have the insight you do. Yes i would be VERY interested in reading your posts, how do i get to them?
    I have to agree with you 100% on your second paragraph, i would probably add that even if the husband is not with them the embarrassment would still remain. Problem is that there is a language barrier between the nurse and the Saudi patient, as almost all the nurses are from the Philippines and their english is not that good also.
    I wonder if i can email you and discuss with you more.

  50. Just how proficient could medical care be when mere communicating between the patient and nurse/doctor could be a problem?

    Another instance in which it would make a whole lot more sense to employ Saudi women in the role of nurses for the kingdom.

  51. @ coolred38. it is a problem, many are also from Bangladesh who neither speak English or Arabic, i had to try to pick up some Urdu to be able to make some primary communication.
    There are saudi nurses being trained in the hospital, but i dont think that the replacement will be any time soon. Saudi Arabia is filled with other nationalities from almost every country in the world. This must affect some changes.
    Notice however that i am talking about a private hospital that is part of the insurance system. I am not sure about governmental hospital of the MOH.

  52. Dr Nassef-sorry for the late reply I haven’t been online for a while. You could check for example this post I wrote on saudis born with ambigious genitalia in other words having both sets of genitals.
    http://blueabaya.blogspot.com/2010/09/saudi-gender-transformations.html
    This results from high rates of cousing marriages caused by tribal attitudes..parents face the problem of deciding which gender the child is going to be raised as.
    You could find my email there as well 🙂

    Yes having nurses from all over the world causes all sorts of communication problems with patients, doctors and other nurses making it a very challenging environment to work in.
    The hospital I work in has 800+ beds so its quite big and we do see alot of hereditary diesases rare in other parts of the world.
    Its funny that majority of the Saudi medical students I see are females, but when it comes to the MDs they are mostly male. Seems like even the females are studying medicine only a fraction ends up working more than a few years. Its a shame because I find the female drs so much more dedicated and hard working than their male counterparts!

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