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At first, some women may find the thought of moving to Saudi Arabia daunting. Questions about personal freedoms immediately come to mind, such as whether women may drive, whether they have to 'cover up' and whether it's safe for them.
These are valid concerns, and in many instances restrictions can be frustrating and cause feelings of helplessness and homesickness. With some time, patience and practice, though, life as a woman in Saudi Arabia can start to feel less strange, and in some cases, expat women may not have to follow all the regulations that a local Muslim woman would be bound to.
Restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabian women were only granted the right to vote in 2015, and the right to obtain a driver's licence in 2018. This has allowed some freedom of movement, though other regulations maintain male control over female life.
Broadly speaking, life for Saudi women remains largely restrictive in terms of what they can wear and how they should behave. With laws gradually becoming more permissive, restrictions are not always based in the legal system, but rather are enshrined in cultural and social norms, especially for expats.
Restrictions on expat women
Public decency laws state that clothing must cover knees and shoulders, but there is no legal requirement for non-Muslim women to wear a headscarf or an abaya (a loose-fitting black or dark robe covering the clothes) in public. However, doing so can make it easier to blend in and avoid unwanted attention, especially in more conservative cities such as Riyadh.
This is less of a concern in more liberal cities such as Jeddah. At times, expats may be asked by strangers to cover their hair. Again, while not required by law, it is a sign of respect to oblige.
Restrictions on Saudi women
Saudi Arabian law dictates that Saudi females are always under the guardianship of a male relative. Under this system, women are required to obtain the permission of their male guardian, usually a father, husband or brother, to perform certain activities, such as studying, working and getting medical treatment. Although the male guardianship system is deeply rooted in Saudi Arabian society and culture, this system has been criticised for curtailing women's human rights and limiting their autonomy and freedom.
The Saudi Arabian government has made some reforms in recent years, such as allowing women to drive and participate in sports and entertainment events. Women over the age of 18 may marry and, from the age of 21 and up, women can apply for passports and travel abroad without a male guardian's permission. Though these are good signs of progress, women's rights still have a long way to go before Saudi Arabia reaches gender equality.
Trailing spouses in Saudi Arabia
Trailing spouses who worked before arriving in Saudi Arabia may find their days suddenly filled with long hours of boredom. In patriarchal Saudi society, it's generally the women who stay at home.
Sometimes, there’s a lack of understanding from the working partner. Settling in is often easier for the working spouse as they’re preoccupied with the workplace and continually meeting new people. At the same time, they may assume their partner has an because they get to stay home, despite the isolation and boredom oftinvolved.
These elements of culture shock can be unsettling, but many women enjoy living in Saudi Arabia despite the difficulties. Locals are generally friendly and hospitable, and for the most part, Saudi Arabia is a safe country. Getting involved in the community – whether through volunteering, joining an expat club or participating in group events – is a sure way to ease the transition and often provides a much-needed break from the home.
Overcoming culture shock as a woman in Saudi Arabia
Living in large company-sponsored compounds can make life much easier and more enjoyable for expat women than staying in an individual apartment or villa. It’s generally easier to meet people in compounds, and it doesn't take expat wives long before they find themselves making new friends and acquaintances.
Compounds have everything on site including, for example, restaurants, bowling alleys, dry cleaners, grocery stores, golf courses, salons, soccer fields and gyms. There are various activities to choose from that closely mirror what’s available in the Western world and, for the most part, people wear what they like.
Living outside the compounds among the locals, women may find themselves feeling isolated and void of all sources of entertainment. Saudis are quite private, and tend to spend their time with family and close friends rather than inviting new people into their circles. It isn't impossible to make local friends, but it's often difficult.
Regardless of their housing situation, though, it’s important for expat women to get out and meet new friends with common interests. Leave the compound, walk among the locals, and start living life. Women who join expat social groups and expand on existing hobbies will be one step ahead in getting through the adjustment phase. Not to mention, once they're settled in and over the initial shock, women often find that they have a different kind of freedom here with plenty of time to pursue almost anything they'd like.
►See Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia for more about adapting to local life in the Kingdom
"Don’t believe everything that you may have heard or read about this place. Being here is a totally different reality than what you may have learned about Saudi Arabia on the news. I do not feel oppressed at all as a woman. Quite the contrary, I feel highly respected."
Read more of American expat Susie's interview.
Are you an expat living in Saudi Arabia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Saudi Arabia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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