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The ‘Women May Not Walk on the Street Alone’ Myth

I have noticed that a lot of the people who are new to Riyadh, including me at the very beginning, are convinced that women are not allowed to leave the house alone, meaning that it is also not allowed for them to walk down the street without male company.

That is a very widely spread –I am tempted to say cliché on the internet when it comes to doing research on this country’s social regulations.

Yes, there are certain rules in this country that appear strange to the western world. Yes, some of the regulations here are strict and YES, it does take some effort to adapt to the local customs but that does not mean that there is some sort of… TOTAL control going on.

When I first told my Saudi friends about the whole “I may not leave the house on my own” thing, they were probably laughing at me in their heads, saying that this rule is just a myth.

In fact, I do go to malls on my own. So today I thought why not just go for a walk in the street and see what the whole drama is about? What’s the difference between a mall and a street after all?

So this afternoon I put on my abaya and my headscarf and went outside. I am actually not obligated to cover my hair, unless the religious police sees me and tells me to do so. But quite frankly, I have nothing against hijabs and if I am outside in the street on my own, it is probably for my own good not to attract anyone’s attention and Saudi Arabia is really a place where you don’t want someone’s attention in the street.  So the least I can do is prbably just look like any other woman here.

Well, guess what! I went outside for a walk and nothing terrible happened to me, Alhamdulillah! It is okay to be on the street as a woman. Be it with or without the male guardian. I have seen women walk down the street alone all the time. Who knows, maybe I was just lucky today but I mean I passed by so many people, if it really were forbidden for women to walk alone, someone would have notified the police for sure and I would have been in trouble, probably not writing this right now.

The problem with being a pedestrian here is not whether you are allowed to be one or not but whether you can find any pavement to walk on. Riyadh reminds me a lot of Prishtina sometimes. With all the cars parking wherever there is a spot, making it almost impossible to walk on the street and all the small shops with apartments above them.

As for my neighborhood, there is lots of construction debris and cars on the streets. As well as many small shops, like a Sugar Sprinkles store and even two shops selling thobes that I did no dare to go into because there were only men inside. Then, there were also a lot of shop spaces just standing there empty, before I got to a row of residential homes that look a little bit like some houses in Spain, except that the ones here are fancier decorated and have the color of sand.

I even found a shop that sells Arabic sweets and various plates of different chocolates and cakes and ice cream, you get the idea, right?

DSC03235 So I obviously went inside and bought this delicious box of sweets. Since I showed up with my hair covered, I have been addressed by the salesperson in Arabic and he had a relatively surprised expression on his face, when I asked him to please repeat in English.

By the time the prayer calls sounded from two or three mosques at the same time, I reached the end of the street, that led to a traffic light on a street filled with driving cars. Since it would get dark soon, I turned around and walked back to the compound. And here another interesting observation:

As I approached the end of the street and was ready to cross the road, a  car that was approaching stopped as the Saudi driver saw me coming closer, letting me cross the street. I was astonished. Based on my prejudices towards Arab men’s views on women, I would not have been surprised if he would have driven faster, making things difficult for me.

Ladies, if you really want to go outside and buy something in that store down the road, there seems to be nothing wrong with doing that. Your main concern will be actually finding a road to walk on without having to watch out for cars.

However, I should also note that it is very important to have an ID with you. Actually your iqama is best. You don’t want to appear too lost when being outside alone. It may happen that a mutawa or police officer approaches you if you look like you got lost and asks to identiy yourself.

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  • Reply
    Anne Lomer
    March 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I think your blog is wonderful. I, too, felt the need to be out/walk by myself to a destination to see about local custom. Like you, I also was astonished that the biggest hurdle in doing this is finding a “safe” or even a real sidewalk to walk on. Saudi’s I think are used to getting into a vehicle and then driving to a destination and the coming back home. Public walking as a form of exercise I do not think has been discovered yet. Thanks for sharing your point of view, I agree. 🙂

    • Reply
      March 24, 2014 at 4:16 pm

      I am so happy to see that you like my blog. Thanks so much! 🙂 How long have you been in Saudi Arabiaß Did you have any trouble with being outside?

  • Reply
    Lauren (English Wife, Indian Life)
    March 27, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Forwarded to my mum who has recently become an Expat in Kuwait. She is abit nervous to go outside.

    I hope you are well! Lauren x

    • Reply
      March 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm

      Dear Lauren,

      I am very happy to see that you find my articles helpful. I don’t know much about Kuwait but I hope it will end up being useful anyway.

      Best wishes! 🙂

  • Reply
    Paula Batista
    October 8, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m just about to take off to the Kingdom and your words were really helpful! 🙂

    • Reply
      November 2, 2014 at 11:56 am

      Thank you very much! I am glad I was able to help.

  • Reply
    Things That You Thought Are Banned in Saudi Arabia- But Actuallly Aren’t | Maps and Solitude
    September 2, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    […] 4. Women moving around freely: It is true that a woman needs a man’s permission to travel on her own, but as of actually moving from A to B within town, that is not legally forbidden for single women. Surely that depends on your husband’s or any other guardian’s character and whether he personally trusts you or not. However, don’t think that as a woman, and especially as an expat, you are not allowed to go to town on your own. If you want to and your guardian doesn’t mind or maybe even doesn’t care, you may do so. Feel free to read more about that here.   […]

  • Reply
    December 17, 2016 at 3:47 am

    thanks for this blog also, I traveled saudi for 3 times a stayed for 2 weeks to a month just to visit my husband. in my first 2 visits i was really afraid to go out alone to buy some foods. but in my third time I am really craving for something and my husband is on duty so i left in the hotel alone. Because of my craving, i really went out side and buy foods. a walking distance of about 2 KMS from the hotel. and its totally ok. I noticed also that i am not the only woman walking. I saw 1 american woman. It is totally ok to go outside alone just BRING WITH YOU YOUR IQAMA. 🙂 ENJOY KSA

  • Reply
    Huda Abuahmad
    February 4, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    I am so glad to read your article!!! I am here USA for study and many of them believe Saudi is horrible especially women. They were surprise and puzzle after I told them, I will definitely go back after graduate, really can’t wait stressless life! I almost never struggle life in Saudi, but understand I do travel a lot , helps me😀.

    I will have Saudi culture event in 2 weeks at Gallaudet University DC (only University for Deaf in the world)and wish you participant what you see in Saudi. I read that you travel to Saudi for 8 hours🤔🤔🤔, mean you are in Europe.
    Ho wat, I learned from your perspective , great!!

    Thank you,
    Mother of 6 children

  • Reply
    April 11, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    Can we keep a dog in our home in riyadh?

    • Reply
      May 6, 2017 at 10:54 am

      I think so. I have met people in Riyadh who keep dogs. If you are bringing a pet from abroad though it must pass all medical checks first.

  • Reply
    August 13, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    I had the same thoughts about walking..since i am new to the kingdom i feel nervous to take a cab because of the language i am indoors till my husband comes to take me out..
    Well ,the other day i asked my husband to take me for a walk as there were many grocery stores and clothes shops which i wanted to check out
    I walked outside in proper attire and realized that there was not a single woman on the streets walking.. and i felt that i was looked at in a wierd way that i returned back home 😒 ! Seriously why dont women walk here?

    • Reply
      August 13, 2017 at 4:37 pm

      Dear Fatima, thank you so much for your comment. I understand your confusion. I think that it really depends on where in the city you choose to go for a walk. I do remember seeing women in the streets around Olaya or Tahlia, so generally the well frequented areas like parks, malls or bazaars. But even then most women go shopping or eating in groups. Maybe people in Riyadh are too used to taking taxis or being driven around by their drivers that walking alone is unusual. I must also say that me going outside was something between a statement and an experiment. Most of the time the weather is too hot for a casual stroll and people may wonder why someone would do something so uncomfortable.

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