Saudi Arabia: Can She Have a Special Relationship with her Father-in-Law?


She is a Westerner and married to a Saudi.  She and her husband are living in Saudi Arabia.  She is trying to adapt and be a good wife to her husband and a part of her new Saudi husband.  However she has problems with communications.  None of the women in her husband’s family speak English.  They don’t treat her unkindly but most of the time they spend smiling at each other until eventually the Saudi women will just talk among themselves.  On the other hand, the men in her husband’s family do speak English.  She always perks up when she sees one of them for she has a chance to talk with someone who understands her and in her own language.


She and her husband live in the stately large villa of his parents.  Her husband has taken over the family business allowing his father to reach his dream of retirement before age 60.  The father is pleased to be retired but still working on settling in to a new routine for himself.  She likes having her father-in-law at the villa during the day.  No one in the family wants her to take a job for there is no reason for her to work but at the same time she gets lonely and bored being at the villa all day.  With her father-in-law now home she has begun to serve him tea and pastries daily in the mid-afternoon and sit and chat with him for a few hours.  Eventually this becomes a highlight of her day that she eagerly looks forward to.  Because she is so happy to have someone to talk to she has not noticed the looks of disapproval on the faces of her mother and sister-in-laws.


Finally one evening after dinner her husband requests to speak with her privately in their room.  He takes her in his arms telling her how much he loves her but tells her he needs to instruct her some more in their family ways.  He tells her he realizes how much she has enjoyed speaking with his father but that her actions are ultimately isolating her away from the family.  His father would never tell her she is unwelcome or that he does not want to speak with her.  He likely enjoys chatting with her and hearing her views.  However unless she wants to be ostracized from the extended family, it is most important for her to build a warm, loving and communicative relationship with the women in the family.  Besides, Saudi women can be very possessive of their men, even among family members.  Given that she is a foreigner who married in to their family there could also be a fear that father may enjoy the presence of a foreign woman too much and may desire one himself as another wife.  There is also the matter of appearance and perception, too, which is important among tribal families.


There is no harm in having a good relationship with a father-in-law but a foreign woman must be careful on how her actions or relationship could be perceived.


24 Responses

  1. My goodness…I could completely understand this woman’s situation because in some ways I have experienced it myself. When I married my husband the females in the family didn’t speak English…not a single one…still don’t. The majority of the men did and so naturally I gravitated toward those who could speak with me, understand me and answer my many questions about the culture. It was purely innocent on my part and I was quite lucky that the “menfolk” very eagerly answered my questions and in fact explained this whole new Indian world to me, often without me even having to ask.

    I was luckier than this lady because at least in my new family there was no jealousy or sniping from the ladies…they were happy that someone could explain things to me. Also, there was no worry about a man taking or thinking of taking a foreign wife…only one wife allowed as they are not muslims so that whole scenario was not a concern or even thought of.

    I can understand being in a world where you are the equivalent of being linguistically deaf as I describe it. The family would talk and laugh and though I would smile (probably too much) I didn’t understand a word that was said and often I would find myself floating away on clouds of daydreams because my focus and concentration were so intense to try to understand it gave me a headache sometimes.

    I felt sad that the ladies didn’t speak English nor I Hindi because the men were unable to answer the many questions about my wedding as that is the woman’s domain and they just show up for the party and food…ok a bit of an exaggeration for humor but not by much! I was incredibly fortunate that one of my husband’s uncles was fairly fluent in English and sat close to us during the wedding to explain why things happen and what was expected of me step by step as the wedding unfolded. (My husband was clueless about what to do…even his part…so uncleji’s explanation helped him as well.) I came off looking knowledgeable but it was only because Uncle sat behind us giving us quiet directions. While that might sound a bit farfetched Indian weddings/festivities can last for days (mine was three days) and everyone sits on the floor at the marriage ceremony, everyone crowded around the bride and groom so he could talk to us with little difficulty. I am so grateful for his help as I would have had no idea what was going on otherwise.

    Without someone to speak with one starts to crave connection and sometimes those around them that do speak the language and take understanding for granted have no clue what an isolated world the woman lices in even when she is surrounded by many people.

  2. Oby, I enjoyed hearing about your experience and am glad there was a helpful uncle to talk you through things!

    Interesting post. I guess I’m not surprised about this seeing how segregated Saudi society is.

  3. I know this is going to sound harsh, but if you are living in Saudi Arabia (and especially so if you are married to a Saudi), it is your responsibility to learn Arabic. Yes, the family should try to help you feel comfortable, but it’s not like they all came to the U.S.

    You’re in a new place- adapt and learn. If you’re not trying to learn their language and are staying set in your ways, then why should you expect them to change? It should be one of those things where everyone meets halfway. The best way to learn a foreign language is to be immersed in it. If the person mentioned is bored during the day, then why not look for someone to tutor her in Arabic? She should have her husband go shopping with her to find books to help her learn the language. If she has any questions about pronunciation, she can ask the female members of the family how to pronounce a word by pointing to it. If nothing else, she could teach some of them English in exchange for the help learning Arabic. This is an opportunity for the women to learn from each other.

    In that situation, that’s what I’d do. I understand culture shock can be a tough thing to deal with, but she is the one who decided to marry a Saudi and live there. Now she’s gotta learn to deal with all the responsibilities of making such a decision- like learning Arabic. As for missing home, she can maybe see about meeting up with other expats.

  4. It is odd that the women of the household don’t sit with her and her father-in-law when they have their discussions. If she is able to communicate with him then obviously he speaks English and can help the women communicate together. Seems like a simple solution.

  5. Cynthia that is a very good point. Someone has to act as a go between/ice breaker and if the father in law and other ladies get together and the FIL helps bridge the gap and helps each side learn about the other (as happened in my situation) then later, once the good energy and feelings are formed and a bond has been made the FIL can bow out of the situation gently and the woman will not feel so disconnected. But yes I agree with Strangeone…if she is living in KSA she needs to make an effort to learn arabic if for no other reason then to get some brownie points with the family.

  6. WOW….that IS quite a contrast from life in the Western World. I guess these are the things a woman needs to be aware of PRIOR to becoming involved with a Saudi man. I wonder if there are similar circumstances that would apply if a western man were to marry into a Saudi family??

  7. Bob…that would likely never happen. Arab men have this huge hangup about letting their women marry non arab men…it’s very rarely done..and if the arab woman bucks tradition and creates scandal by marrying a western man (possibly while abroad or something)…most likely he will not be accepted and she may very well be shunned..if not out right prosecuted if the male members of her family are intent of doing it. Not too mention…he must be Muslim to even have her marriage accepted at all if she ever hopes to bring him home to Saudi..even for a visit.

  8. StrangeOne is right! She is being viewed as a threat, so she should be the one to alleviate these feelings by showing her attempt to meet them in their own language. I think any attempt to learn Arabic in this situation would be to her advantage. Total immersion is THE BEST way to learn any language and this is how I learned Arabic.

  9. I agree with coolred 100%, we had such a case and the western man didn’t set foor in KSA, never did never will . so no lang issues there 🙂
    wow OBy you have had quite an experience. I wonder why those women didn’t speak english, didn’t know or didn’t want to? usually most people in india except in remote places know or atleats uderstand a smattering of english. Oh well as for the wedding rituals , it’s a bit too much even if you are born and raised there.

    I never ever spoke to my FIL – EVER !!! it sounds so bizarre, but he didn’t approve of us so he never came to our place and when we visited he would never look at me , v sad . and if you are moving to saudi trying to learn arabic would be a great plan. 2 of the women and my MIl didn’t speak english but F’s sister and SIl did so it was no big deal, although they would break into arabic every few seconds . luckily i didn’t stay with the large family r else it would have been hard.

    If you plan to go to saudi, learn arabic — that’s all i can say..

  10. @Carol, Yes, the relationship with our in-laws can be trying at times. When we joke around, some FIL’s may take what we say seriously when we are not being serious….whether speaking in English or Arabic They are from ‘another time’ here in the Kingdom and not all of them are keen on foreigners being with their sons as their life-long partners. Some do their best to ‘break’ the American down so she will go running home. But those Americans who have support here from other Americans also married to Saudis will be better able to survive their time here happily.

    @Coolred38 There are more and more Saudi women marrying Western men … especially those that have been divorced. I could be wrong, but I really think that the next generation will be so different from the current one in acceptance of these types of marriages. The new generation is younger and more open to change than their fathers and grandfathers. TV, internet, cell phones, malls and restaurants and travel have changed their view of women dramatically in many cases.

    No matter if the family is ‘Western’ or not, the family members are all different. Any Americans married to Saudis in this part of the world would be wise to find other Westerners that are also married to Saudis living here. We have a unique understanding of what is ‘normal’ and what is not and we can advise each other when asked to give our opinion of different situations….especially when it comes to traditions. The women that have been here just an additional 10 years have helped my understanding of unique situations in so many ways. We are always learning from each other, but the ‘old-timers’ are the true survivors of this culture over the years.

  11. What a shame that these things were not explained to her begore she married and moved into a culture that is so different than the West. Why not ask her husband to speak to his mother and sisters-in-law to see if they would like to learn English while she learns Arabic. If his father is under sixty he is not that old, maybe he could start an hour of lessons between the women. That way they could all تعلم learn from each other.

  12. Radha…

    You know, that is a great question about the English…they were not remote…all from Delhi or at least had moved there. In fact, my FIL who spoke English was from a little village without electricity and my MIL was from Gurgaon next to Delhi) and HER dad was a lawyer and she was also educated with a degree (forgot what it is now). So she came from a well educated background even more so than my FIL. Her sister was a school teacher, her brother is a lawyer married into a wealthy family that educated the girls. Why none of the females weren’t fluent or even conversationally adept I don’t know. I feel sure that they weren’t “holding back” on me. They might understand a sentence or get the gist of what I was saying but certainly could not communicate well. My SIL is the one female (adult) that speaks as well as I do…but at the time she was nonexistent as my BIL was not married yet. Hubby is the eldest and you know how the eldest has to get married off first.

    As for someone who was raised there finding it a bit much I had to laugh! I remember thinking, “whoa! This is way bigger than me!” As you know, the marriage industry is an industry unto itself and I found it amazing and absolutely terrifying at the same time, not to mention exhausting…1000 strangers/brightly colored tents (mine was a tent…my BIL was a hall…monsoon season)/loud music/tons of food/incense/colors so vibrant it would knock out your eyes…you have experienced it I am sure! If you aren’t familiar with it…sort of an out of body experience at first. LOL!

  13. A young woman might might not have the wisdom to do the wise thing. I certainly understand her wanting to sit and speak English. When I travel I also enjoy the opportunity to speak English and it is often the men who do speak very good English and not the women. It was always important to me to have my husband or some female relative close by when I was having a major conversation with another male in-law for family friend in KSA and even in Sudan. I think it made everyone more comfortable.
    I also think that when women are not out working and practicing English they might understand English and even speak it a little but are shy to use it for fear of making an error.

    For all those who have learned Arabic … congratulations! I struggle with the language and realize that the best way to learn it is to be immersed in it and especially with other women. Hopefully this girl will figure that out.

  14. […] Saudi Arabia: Can She Have a Special Relationship with her Father-in-Law? « American Bedu Tags: family business, living in saudi arabia, retirement, saudi women, westerner  |  Trackback « How to Avoid a Relationship Breakdown […]

  15. That’s not always the case. My Saudi father loves my Canadian girlfriend, and mom isn’t the least bit jealous.

  16. Looking at this one would think Saudi families are the most dysfunctional in the world!

  17. LOL Mezba! Well, it sure seems that the society is pretty darn dysfunctional. Well, wait a minute, if dysfunction is the norm is it still dysfunctional? LOL

  18. It is interesting that Strangone would say that she should learn the language which is correct, but lately in America people tend to stay within their own communities and never learn English. It is a problem but many who come to America don’t see it that way.

  19. @Dolores,
    The way I see it, if we expect foreigners to speak English when they come to the US, then we should expect ourselves to do the same when in other countries. I don’t care so much what other people do as what I expect of myself. Besides, the ones who end up making good money in the U.S. learn (or already know) English, typically.

  20. That is the point I was making. If you move to a new country you have to at least try to learn the language. It is unfortunate that in the USA that is not what is happening. I had asked my Grandfather to teach me Italian he said he could not because when he came to American his father said English was what was spoken here and at that time they did not think to be bi-lingual.

  21. Presumably the husband is well aware that his family doesn’t speak English and his wife doesn’t speak Arabic, so the obvious way of handling the problem (before it got to this point) would have been for him to arrange Arabic classes for her, and English classes for them, if they wanted to learn. I can’t fault his family for choosing not to learn English – why should they? – but she shouldn’t have agreed to move to a foreign country if she wasn’t willing to learn the language if necessary.

    Actually, the obvious way of solving the problem would have for the husband to fulfill his wife’s rights according to Islam and not force her to live with his parents… but that seems to be too much to ask of many Saudis. Barring that, he should encourage her to get out more and visit other English-speaking friends, or invite them to their house. There’s no need to cause tension by repeating everything his female relatives have complained about – the ‘problem’ is a response to an unnatural situation that will solve itself when the situation (near total linguistic isolation) is corrected.

  22. It’s good if the spouse can learn the language. My dad never did and it would have made mom very happy if he had. He could have participated better in some family events. And my grandmother knows absolutely NO English. He passed away this year and he requested to be buried in her homeland because that’s where she wants to be. In the end though…love finds a way.

  23. I just had another thought about this post: the MIL’s worry about her husband wanting another wife makes no sense. If he does, and she doesn’t want that, she should sort that out with him, and it has nothing to do with her DIL.

    If, however, she’s fine with him taking another wife as long as it’s not one of those evil foreign women… well, my response to hearing “I’m fine with having a co-wife, as long as she’s not to one of ‘your kind'” would be impolite, to put it mildly. Husband should grow a spine and remind Mommy Dearest that racism is haram.

  24. Her father in law is also her maharam in Islam so i don’t see the problem. Anyways, i’m muslim but not saudi so…

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