I have noticed that a lot of the people who are new to Riyadh are convinced that women are not allowed to leave the house alone, including any attempts at walking down the street all by themselves.
Intimidated by the initial culture shock after my arrival, mindful of the harshness of cultural expectations following me every step of the way, I began asking around among my Saudi friends whether I should dare to leave the house by myself. Their reaction indicated that I may as well have asked if the sky is blue. “It’s just a myth among westerners”, they’d say smiling to themselves about my paranoia when they thought I wasn’t looking.
I do go to malls on my own. So why not just go for a walk in the street today, I think to myself, and see what the whole drama is about? What’s the difference between a mall and a street after all? Why can I be alone in one space but not in another?
So this afternoon I put on my abaya and my hijab and go outside. I keep reminding myself that I am not obligated to cover my hair unless the religious police see me and tell me to do so. But given my decision to become a solitary explorer of my surroundings, it is probably for my own good not to attract anyone’s attention in a place where attention from strangers is the last thing I want. So the least I can do is probably just look like any other woman here, making it easier to disappear in crowds if need be.
I go outside, leaving the safety of my compound behind the iron gates and brace myself for sheer outrage by the locals over my existence without a male guardian by my side. I cross the street and go around the corner of the first building. Nothing happens. I stop by the window of Sugar Sprinkles to look at the different colors of frosting on cupcakes. None of the customers on the inside or those leaving with their purchases pay any attention to me. No questions, no raised eyebrows, no angry looks, no attempts to call the police.
I have seen women walk down the street alone before. From behind the curtain of our school bus that may as well have come from the set of an American Hollywood movie about high school kids, I saw Saudi women carry groceries to their homes, walk their children to school or do window shopping with their flashy designer bags in hand. Who knows, maybe I am just lucky today. Maybe my privilege of being a clueless foreigner saves me from the worst possible outcome over and over again.
The narrow streets of my neighborhood don’t leave me any other option but to walk past dozens of male and female faces belonging to strangers in broad daylight. What are the chances that I would be sitting here writing this if leaving the house on my own to buy baklava from a store down the street would be the terrible thing most foreigners describe it to be?
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, crowding the sidewalk until the side of the road is my only option. Numerous people get in and out of taxis stopping at the side of the road today. It is a common scenery of daily life that makes the shiny red Ferrari parked among dusty construction debris and empty retail spaces look more out of place than my lonely self in search of pastries.
In nostalgic moments, I look at the neat rows of sand-colored homes housing tiny supermarkets, bakeries, clothing stores, and pet shops on their ground floors, and notice my mind wander back to the landscapes of the Balkan cities I used to know.
For some strange reason, I do not need to read Arabic to know that the shop ahead of me sells baklava. It seems as though the golden letters on a green background speak for themselves.
I like to believe that it is the awkwardly precise wrapping of my headscarf that leads the salesperson to address me in Arabic and make a surprised face when I ask to repeat in English. “You look Syrian, you could pass for one of them”, is how my friends explain the incident later on instead.
By the time the prayer calls echo from two or three mosques at the same time, I reach the end of the street leading to a traffic light. I see a school on the other side but decide against continuing my walk. Traffic gets more chaotic by the minute. With time, a third lane appears provisionally on a street meant for only two car lanes.
As I turn around and get ready to cross the road that leads to the entrance of the compound, the car approaching from the left slowly comes to a stop, waiting for me to continue my way. I catch myself being surprised about the situation. I notice that my prejudice about men’s attitude towards women in this particular culture leads me to expect him to drive faster instead, just to make 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 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. In fact, your iqama is best. You don’t want to appear lost when being outside alone. A member of the mutawa or a police officer can approach you if you look like you got lost and ask to identify yourself. Despite the fact that not all assumptions about restrictions must be true at all times for all women, we must still remain focused when going about life.
Last edited: 10.06.2020