Saudi Arabia: Perspectives from a Reader


A new follower of American Bedu was kind to share her experience of a recent trip to Saudi Arabia.  She came to the Kingdom to perform Umrah and was also able to spend a brief amount of time in Riyadh.  I appreciate that she took the initiative to write to me about her experience and also gave her permission to share her experience with other American Bedu readers:

to American bedu


I haven’t actually been following your blogs for long in fact I stumbled upon them today but any how I would like to share my experience in visiting the Saudi kingdom with you.

As a British born citizen, I had never been to a Islamic country and with the negative media, I had quite strong stereotypical views about Muslims and the country. I thought that it was oppressive, and that women didn’t have much rights, and I couldn’t stand the black Abaya or the head scarf that that they wore. But on arriving in Saudi Arabia and spending the month there I was quite shocked  at what I had experienced as it was completely different to what I expected.

Women weren’t oppressed at all in fact they had a lot of freedom they weren’t controlled and pushed around by men they were respected and every stall I visited in the markets I was offered a stool to sit on . I wore the abaya that I thought was stupid to wear in a hot country as it was black an absorbed heat, but what I found out was that the abaya was a lot easier and practical to wear and that it looked elegant and feminine as well as keeping you cool in the heat. I was also quite jealous of Saudi women in the end, as they didn’t have that pressure to look good every time they went or to wear something in fashion, as the abaya gives equality to all women.

Furthermore when I visited the mosque,  I was quite shocked the way women and children gathered in the  grounds waiting for the evening prayers, the mums would sit chatting away while the kids were playing. There was a real sense of belonging, peace and happiness there. Something I have never felt in the UK

Overall  my experience was a positive one as everyone was so welcoming and respecting, I felt safe and I had a sense of belonging although I get why Saudi Arabia and Islam is misunderstood by lots of people in the western world and I would love it if they got to see the positive side of it instead of the negative points always portrayed by the media.

40 Responses

  1. I am glad she had a positive experience in Saudi. Thank you Carol for sharing this piece!

  2. @Carol

    A nice positive story about a visitor coming to Saudi Arabia.

    So much for anyone accusing you of this blog only for Saudi bashing. 🙂

  3. She had a nice pleasant one month experience. Great. But for her to say women there arent oppressed while they live under the mahrem system is pure bullshit. Maybe she needs to experience that part of Saudi life as a woman before claiming such a thing.

    Nobody said women never have reasons to smile, never have reasons to idley sit and chat while their children play, women never have reasons to stroll through the market or pray in the mosques…but I would be willing to bet while these women were doing all of those things…they had at least one eye open for the morality police.

  4. I’m sure life is not as black and white there as the media wants to portray. Although it shouldn’t depend so much on luck for a woman if she’s happy there or not, I think some women are genuinely happy there.

  5. Oh, please… Many woman are controlled and abused all over the world on a regular basis. What about moral police -I would rather see woman in abayas, than all of their imperfections totally uncovered… Better for my 9 year old son’s developing taste too. In Europe and US the uglier and more imperfect they are – less clothes they wear… Beautifull, eh…

  6. @Lada
    it is not whether someone wears an abaya, it is being FORCED to wear one…or cover their face. Wearing an abaya can be quite liberating since you don’t have to worry about what you have on, etc. BUT, having someone tell you to wear an abaya and ostracize you or arrest you if you do not is not a “walk in the park” for those of us who are not controlled in that manner in our own countries. Moral police are ridiculous. Sorry, they just are…Self control would be better, in my view. Your son is not developing more respect for women because he cannot see there bodies or faces. I would say, after living here many years, that men, in general, in this part of the world have LESS respect for women than in other places – and far, far more control.

  7. In other parts of the world ilamic women wear abayas and cover their faces too, although they are not forced to do that. i think, it is more up to them. I talked to women in Australia, who was born and grew up there, why they cover and who forces them to do that. The answer was – our faith…
    What about respect to women here – i have not met a man here yet, who would not show respect to me, in the store, on the market or in the restaurant – door is open before me, chair is offered and many other signs of “disrespect” are shown, unlike in Europe or US. In California no one will ever offer a place to elderly or pregnant woman in public transport, never will open a door before woman to enter first… Equality, in the worst…

  8. AK and others like him are perfectly right.
    Proof is here:

    How many neutral voice supports the rights of the these women apart from spreading false info based on hearsay?

  9. @Lada,

    “In California no one will ever offer a place to elderly or pregnant woman in public transport, never will open a door before woman to enter first… Equality, in the worst…”

    It is ok to voice your opinion that women should be offered the freedom to wear Hijab, which we do offer in the US and the west. It is not OK for you to pass lies like the above. It is very common for people to help each other everywhere in the world. I personally take every opportunity to hold doors for women and offer my seat for any elderly whether a man or a woman. This goes for the majority of men in the US.

    @Ali Shah,

    Muslim women have more rights in the West than in any Islamic country. They can wear Hijab anywhere. It is Niqab that is an issue. Concealment of identity should not be allowed. Using the excuse of religion is asking for preferential treatment. It seems you are the one who is passing false information. Showing a small number of women who think Hijab is freedom for women, does not represent all women. What you have is not proof, it is a small sample. I hope you know the difference.

  10. @ Lada…The women in Australia or Europe who wear abayas do so BY CHOICE or are told to do so by their family members. They are not forced to wear one by their community or by law. Sorry, there IS a difference. Choice is fine…no choice is not. I have seen the same mannerly behavior in Europe and the USA – it is not a Muslim thing…Men here in Arabia go from one extreme to the other: ignore women completely because they fear repercussions or don’t think you are worth talking to (talk to you without looking at your face, for example – very strange) or harrass women because they are either hungry for interaction or think they can get away with it. There is no way you can tell me that women have equal rights in this part of the world. There is abuse against women around the world, but, thankfully, there are laws in many places that will help women find justice. Not so here or in most Muslim countries. I happen to love Muslim people, but I don’t like their laws or cultural attitudes towards women.

  11. Of course the most severely oppressed women you would not see because they are not allowed out of the home. Legally, women are totally oppressed in Saudi. Practically, there are decent men who allow their women to live relatively free lives.

    I am a native Californian and spend my summers there. Sorry, people offer seats and open doors for each other all the time. I have found in Saudi that when I hold the door open for people I am often treated as a badly treated maid, ladies will sweep through without a “thank-you” as though holding the door is my job, rather than my manners.

    To be fair, there is another segment of society where the ladies make a point of eye contact and a very sincere “thank-you”, as I imagine they also hold doors for people.

  12. Regarding opening the doors and offering a seat – I am talking after living in California for 15 years and while being pregnant… Yes, there are men, who will hold the door for a woman… One of them is my husband, that I know for sure. Another one…(happened once) hmm, I guess it is Mr. MoQ…
    But jokes aside- it is not common… It is just not in the nature of the society, I guess… For those who shows respect – your parents can be very proud of you. I, myself have this instinct to get up when elderly person enters the room, even though there are free seats, you do not even think about should I do it or not.
    And by the way, I was not talking about women having equal rughts to men in Saudi Arabia. Just said, that probably no one forces them to cover. I have many saudi friends, their wives are covered and happy. Of course, there are some unhappy women , as everywhere in the world. Women are hard to please creatures… Know from my own experience…

  13. Showing a small number of women who think Hijab is freedom for women, does not represent all women. What you have is not proof, it is a small sample. I hope you know the difference.

    Dear MoQ,

    Its easy to watch and judge from outside? There is no restriction/law in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Bangladesh, pakistan, India. Do say that maximum women do not wear hijab here? Just go out in a street in there countries and count roughly and then decide. If Muslim women do not like veil let them protest not men and non-Muslims. Just like we see women protesting to give right to wear hijab, we should see similar protest agasint them if they do not like. By they way what measurement do u use to say that minority women like to wear Hijab and majority do not like?

  14. Why no one is saying that nuns are brainwashed creatures and exploited group becoz they wear hijab?

  15. @Lada,

    “I, myself have this instinct to get up when elderly person enters the room, even though there are free seats, you do not even think about should I do it or not.”

    That is up to you if you do or not. The idea that you have to get up for an elderly person does not have material impact. It is a nicety. Some societies have different ways to present polite treatment.

    What is impact-full is helping others when they need it. As an example, I am a capable person, who does not need help from others usually. No need for someone to open doors for me or stand up in my presence. However, if I am carrying a large box and my hands are full. I may need the help. Every time I was in such situation in the US (and I lived in California for over 10 years, by the way), I found someone to lend a hand.

    I find your story about being pregnant and not having someone offer you a seat as a gross exaggeration (especially the part about being pregnant for 15 years J/K).

    Regarding women liking the Hijab. No one argued against the concept that certain women like it or feel they need to wear it based on religious reasons. The argument is that women are forced to wear it in Muslim countries, either through government enforcement such as the case in Saudi or social pressures like in the case of Egypt.

    Women are not free if they are forced. It is a simple argument, please try to understand it.

  16. @Ali Shah,

    “Its easy to watch and judge from outside? There is no restriction/law in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Bangladesh, pakistan, India. Do say that maximum women do not wear hijab here?”

    What I said is you showed a small sample of women and said that women think Hijab is Freedom. You proclaimed that to be the truth.

    You did not argue against my point. You just made a Strawman argument and went ahead and attacked it. I know you are smarter than that (or at least I hope you are).

    “Why no one is saying that nuns are brainwashed creatures and exploited group becoz they wear hijab?”

    Very simple, because no one is forcing women to be Nuns.

    When men force women to wear Hijab, Abayya or Niqab, then they are exploiting them.

  17. ‘As a British born citizen, I had never been to a Islamic country and with the negative media, I had quite strong stereotypical views about Muslims and the country’

    I’m sorry but something about that statement just seems a little odd coming from a Muslim.

    And this?
    ‘I was also quite jealous of Saudi women in the end, as they didn’t have that pressure to look good every time they went or to wear something in fashion, as the abaya gives equality to all women’


    CLEARLY doesn’t have a clue.

    Anyone that feels that klind of pressure needs a psychiatrist NOT an abaya! I can honestly say that in my 47 years I have NEVER felt pressured to wear ‘fashionable’ or ‘designer’ clothing. EVER!
    I wear what I want to wear, what I am comfortable wearing and what I can afford to wear.

    Forgive me if I am wrong but this story sounds a bit too contrived and typical of a certain group of people’s tactics to be taken seriously.

  18. I don’t know about otehr countries, but in india when i was growing up , many muslims did not cover, i’d sya it was 50 – 50 .. i had plenty of friends who did not cover neither did their mom’s.
    i assume there’s free choice there.

    As for politeness, i found saudi men – v polite in saudi, saudi woman – some polite, some not so much…some quite rude.
    in the US – some are polite some just go about their business, but every single time i have entered the mall and someone is ahead of me or leaving, they have always – always kept the door open, always if i made eye contact had a smile and int he local trains the students have 90% of the timeoffered me their seat ( maybe i look old to them 🙂 )

    I leave India out of this since it comes with it’s whole host of issues 🙂
    but between saudi and US , i have more often been treated like a lowly being in Saudi than in the US. there is no way and no reasonto compare the 2 countries. there are bad people in both places, pious women inboth place, good partners in both places. however the laws are against women insaudi an dthat is the problem. people are people anywhere , women are free and not free everywhere but no where else is the law so anti-woman …that’s the only diff i find.

  19. come back and stay 12 months, or 24 with no vacation home….surely you will be a little pissy after that visit.
    i’m an american and we are polite people. you were a foreigner in a foreign country and you let people know it i’m sure. saudi men treat western woman different than locals.we have a charming way with men, us americans. for sure you will be treated different than the saudi bag lady begging for money on the side of the road.

  20. Lynn…I also felt this story was a bit contrived…but I figured it was just my cynical eye reading it.

  21. I have to say that during the last 11 years in Washington, D.C. I have enjoyed all kinds of niceness – doors held routinely, seats given up sometimes, help carrying things, in fact, a random family once saw me struggle with a mirror I bought that didn’t fit into my car, and they offered to drive it home for me – a 20-mile detour for them! FYI, that sort of thing NEVER happened to me in my home country. Maybe it’s a West Coast vs. East Coast thing? Or maybe it’s my stunning good looks?

    It also needs to be said that “no one holds the door for the ladies in the US” is one of the more enduring stereotypes in Eastern Europe…my sister visited me for the first time last summer and was shocked to find out it was not true, doors are held, ladies wear skirts and heels, etc.

    I have to laugh at “abaya alleviates the pressure to look good” bit. It’s like saying that a tongue amputation relieves the pressure to sound smart. Millions of women all over the world leave their house looking like crap, which I think proves convincingly that they have found a way to cope with the “pressure to look good.”

    I, for the record, support pressure to look good and stay thin. Everyone should be under that type of pressure. Except the existence of that pressure is a myth. People only complain of “pressure to look good or stay thin” if they want to enjoy benefits of beauty and slimness without expending the necessary effort to actually BE beautiful and thin.

  22. Um….overall, Saudi women are generally WAY more fashionable than American women.

  23. to those who think that there is no pressure to dress fashionable in saudi havn’t been to a saudi wedding or party ..

    I attended one in a salwar ( one which i thought mistakenly was too glitzy for anything other than a close wedding party ) and was asked why the heck i didn’t get a good designer gown when my husband could afford it … err i would have except then i didn’t know how to identify one if it came and bit me on my butt…

    saudi women are the most beautiful and fasion conscious ladies i have met in my small world.yep they size each other up and flaunt as well as any american teen would. 🙂

  24. Though am glad the woman had a nice stay sadly there are women oppressed there and as others have said around the world women are oppressed in a variety of ways.

    With that said I am glad that men still open doors for me, that am complimented on by both men and women alike on how I look. Growing up mixed and made fun of for that it is an affirmation for me at least to receive compliments. There is good and bad in every society…it’s the nature of the beast.

  25. I’m glad she had a nice visit and was treated respectfully. I visited Syria and was treated well, however, I don’t know if I lived there and was one of the natives if I would feel exactly the same. Heck,I thought I was treated like a queen, but I know many of those same guys wouldn’t even talk to their fellow citizens (females of course) due to cultural considerations. So …

  26. @Lada…I didn’t read everything but the Cali thing is untrue, in fact in the summer it’s full of Saudi families just because people here are sooooooooo nice to them because Cali is so liberal and diverse. But I understand where movies can make it look different, or the media, much like it does to us about KSA, usually though, people are nice everywhere…NYC is a little tricky though, I have to admit that…LOL!
    @ the blog entry, I love how she enjoyed her time and it was so nice to read ❤

  27. Even if women are covering voluntarily, it is still foolishness. The idea that the human body is something to be hidden so completely is unnatural. I live in a cold climate, Minnesota, so I guarantee that in winter many of us, men and women, are nearly as covered as Arabs, but that is for a reason. Covering in a warm climate is crazy.

  28. I want one of those abayas that keep you cool in the heat! I’ve had all different kinds- but never one like that.

  29. American Bedu has the most eloquent and thoughtful writers! 😉 I agree with much of the commentary. Americans are well known for their friendliness and helpfulness. I am sorry, Lada, that you experienced the opposite. Very strange. @MD AZAD ALI SHAH: About wearing an abaya: women DO NOT have a choice in Bangladesh or Pakistan, and you know it. An uncovered woman would be treated terribly by family and the public. We ALL know this. Force is the issue – nothing wrong with wearing an abaya if that is your choice. I am all for choice, not pressure from community or government.

  30. @Sandy: “I want one of those abayas that keep you cool in the heat! I’ve had all different kinds- but never one like that.”

    Me, too! I can’t imagine what kind makes you feel cool…Perhaps someone can enlighten us?

  31. I’m glad that she enjoyed her trip. I live in Saudi and have been here for 8 years. I’m an American Muslim from California. I have to say that I have never kept an eye out for the morality police, in all the years I have lived here I have only seen them once walking through a mall telling the shops to close up. I don’t cover my face either.

    I’ve been in Jeddah, Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah and Taif and honestly besides the fact that I can’t drive it’s been fine living here. I know that some people have had been in difficult living situations here, but that doesn’t mean that everyone does.

    We live a happy, easy and fulfilling life here and I generally enjoy it. I probably visit my family every 2 years and I haven’t gone crazy yet. Since we don’t live in a compound our neighbors are all Saudi. They are good neighbors. In terms of friends we have Saudi friends from all levels of the society. You would be surprised at how open minded some of these people are. Yes there are also many negatives and I have heard really sad stories about them, but I have also heard really heart warming stories that renew my belief that not all of Saudi’s are bad people.

    I think it’s really unfair to blame a whole society for the actions of some, in terms of all of the strict laws these are not the laws that the people chose for themselves, most of them want to see drastic changes.

    Btw as a California girl chivalry still exists there, I am always treated well when I go home and doors are opened for me.

  32. About the abaya, in the heat that we find here it doesn’t matter what you wear you will be hot. I do find that abayas that are made from thin silk with wide sleeves are actually cooling. Stay away from polyester!

  33. Habeeba,
    I always try to distinguish between the people and the system. There are many wonderful people. But the system is absolutely oppressive to women in terms of all the patriarchal and tribal practices that have become law here. If you end up in a wrong situation, as a woman, especially a foreign woman you have no recourse. None. So I am also very careful to never say it’s fine here, even though my life is fine. Because it is not ok for those laws that oppress me, and it is just my good situation with a good Mahrem that saves me. And I would be selfish to ever deny the reality because so many women and children are in intolerably oppressive lives at all times.

    It is true you are hot whatever you wear. But no abaya makes you “cooler”. Especially in the humidity your skin really needs to breathe.

  34. Habeeba,.,,,nobody has said all Saudis are bad people. Not ever. Not once.

  35. As a visitor to KSA I was also treated with respect and women are indeed treated with respect when out and especially when shopping. Of course they should be because Saudi women are the ultimate consumers so anyone with their right business mind will be respectful. I don’t think it was ever said that women were treated like beasts of burden in KSA, just as mindless pets in many cases.

    Personally I never experienced a Saudi woman being treated badly but for me that will never over-ride the almost complete lack of personal freedom. I think it’s fine for a visit but not for a lifetime and especially if you’re not born to this way of life.

    Yes, the abaya can be great in as much as you can wear what you want under it but Saudi women generally go to great pains to look pretty and dress very well inside their home or in the company of other women. I think they take more pride in their looks than some North American women who look like slobs from morning till night. 🙂
    I don’t know how a black abaya can be cooling. No matter what the fabric the heat is held by the black coat. It is HOT! Then we can go onto the vitamin D deficiency, etc. etc.

  36. @AK,

    I am very surprised by your mention that wearing the abaya is not a choice in Pakistan. What parts of Pakistan are you referring to? I’ve lived in Pakistan and have seen much of the country. I continue to have many friends (Pakistani) there. I know some women have chosen to wear an abaya but it is by no means mandatory unless you are referring to a small tribal village perhaps?

  37. This is a very interesting interview! I am glad she had a positive experience in Saudi Arabia.

    The color black, while it may absorb heat, actually protects against the sun’s UV rays, which I would imagine might have a cooling affect? I really don’t know. Of course, that’s probably also why many who wear it also have Vitamin D deficiencies- the color repels the sunlight. Also, wearing loose clothing helps to circulate the air around the body and cool it off, I would imagine. I don’t like to wear jeans outside once it gets much above about 90F. Tank tops and shorts are nice until you are outside for a while until you get sunburned! But I guess that’s what sunblock is for. 😛

    One think I really liked about my time in the UK where some women wore the abaya and niqab while others were dressed in very revealing tops and mini-skirts with tights along with almost every imaginable combination in between. No one really paid much attention to what the other person was wearing because these were all seen as normal things to wear. Although depending on what I wore, I got mistaken for being French a few times, which was kind of awkward! I’ve seen people wear a variety of things in the US, too, which I also think is cool.

    For me, I see fashion as being influenced by culture and society of a given place, so having to wear an abaya all the time would not bother me nearly as much as the lack of legal rights for women as compared with other countries. I believe that KSA is beginning to make changes in this area, however slow they may seem. I think that before people will push to have laws changed, they must feel it is necessary meaning that societal perceptions must change. I have also met open-minded Saudis- some that are even more open minded than people from “Western” cultures (i.e. European/North American). I think it depends a lot on the individual and their values, beliefs, etc.

    Having lived in different places in the US, I can say that people will open doors for you and help you when they notice you need help. It really depends on the individual and what they value more than anything else.

  38. *the color black absorbs the sunlight rather than let it pass through to the skin wheras the color white for whatever reason does not protect as well against the sun’s rays.

  39. Welcome back Strange One…you’ve got a lot of posts and comments to catch up on!

  40. Thanks AB! 🙂 I think it’s just over a month’s worth of posts and comments, so please forgive me if I don’t get to them all! 😀 I’ll try to catch up as I have time. 🙂

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