Lost in Riyadh-Blog

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

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

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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 problem..so 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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