Lost in Riyadh-Blog riyadh saudi arabia Travel

Riyadh Q & A: Transitioning Between Cultures

Last week my Lost in Riyadh Facebook page has reached 1000 likes! Since then I have been thinking about ways to celebrate the occasion beyond the usual thank you post. Looking through my old entries that once composed my Lost in Riyadh blog right before GDPR came along in the EU, I found a comment by a reader from back in 2014.

Tonight, to celebrate my blog’s wide outreach, I would like to spend some time with the following questions:

How did you find the transition between conservative countries and western civilization? Especially with all the pro-feminists there are today? Do you think that being a woman there was any more or less empowering in context? 

Although I felt like I had prepared for the culture shocks that would await me in Riyadh, I must admit that the first stage of my transition was, in fact, a state of paranoia. As much as I was determined not to believe everything said about Saudi-Arabia on the internet, I arrived expecting the worst. I did not know which parts were true and which weren’t as no one does. In the beginning, finding out for myself sounded like a scary option, though it was still somewhere on my list.

During my first few weeks, if not during the first two months, I caught myself thinking about every single thing I was about to do to the point of obsession. If I wanted to watch a political satire show on YouTube as I would at home, I caught myself thinking about what would happen if something politically incorrect would be said or a joke about religion be made? Would that be monitored? Would someone come after me?

Then followed the interactions with people, men in particular. One evening at a Tamimi supermarket, I ran into the husband of a friend I met on the plane while on my way from Frankfurt to Riyadh. We were both German so forgetting where we were for the moment, we started casually talking to each other while waiting in line for our fruits and vegetables to be weighted. Only when I left the store and watched out the bus’ window on our way home to the compound did it hit me that, in theory, chatting up a person of the opposite sex who was not a relative was behavior not welcomed. Would there have been consequences had anyone seen it? Was I just lucky that I got away this time?

With time, paranoia transformed into general caution and observation of my own behavior. Once I began to adapt more to my environment, the lines between Western civilization and the conservative nature of my host country began to blur. Though how can we say for sure that Western civilization is not conservative in its own ways to certain groups of people?

Political freedoms and rights fell equally into this category of transition. I knew very well that should anything ever happen to me in any legal aspect, things would be treated differently in Riyadh than they would be back home. In response, I decided to avoid critical situations altogether.

So the most important part of the transition process consisted in acknowledging the differences and respecting them and if not respecting them, then at least finding my way around them without anyone noticing. Transitioning meant, being more aware of the situations I found myself in and my reactions to them, even if those reactions would heavily differ from my usual behavior back home. Transitioning from one cultural environment to the other meant living in the present at all times.

It seemed, and it still appears so as this blog remains online, that the pro-feminist attitude made it rather difficult to justify my attempt at assimilation to the outside world. From the feminist point of view, I had no business covering my hair in public as to not stand out but would attempts at proving a point by ignoring local customs and sticking to what Western civilization considers right have changed anything in Saudi society? Was it really my battle to fight?

At the beginning of my stay, many conversations with fellow Saudi students were about women, about how the dress code was anti-feminist by Western standards and how admirable it was that someone’s Saudi mother was, in fact, a cancer researcher rather than a stay-at-home- mom or that a blog reader was working full- time in ingeneering. Some may have agreed on the fact that things could be better but at the same time, I was foolish to expect them to agree with me on the spot, for this was their home and political issues were one aspect of life among so many other things that I would not have a chance to get to know. So who was I to scold them on not being more liberal? Were politics the only thing worth focusing on? Were the fights and tensions between me and the people I cared about worth it just to point out how different Saudi culture was from mine and how different was bad by Western standards?

I can say now that it was not.

When talking about empowerment, the context was indeed everything. The notion that men and women are not treated equally has long been established and fought against. But thinking back of the different social classes not only between Saudis and expats but between the different types of expats themselves, I asked myself whether in such demographic contexts women are also equal among each other?

It was not just being a woman in Riyadh that influenced my prospects of empowerment. It was the fact that I was a woman who came to Riyadh in the company of her parents and their views on the world from a wealthy country in Europe, having privileges and opportunities our maid Ari, for instance, did not possess. I surely could have enjoyed the empowerment I wanted had I asked for it as I was surrounded by the right people with the mindsets suitable to provide it in its restricted scope.

The context was maybe not so much given by the country and its institutions but by the people I surrounded myself with and by the people who had the final say over my plans and wishes. At the end of the day, I believe that there will be as many different, highly different accounts of female empowerment in Saudi as there are women who have their own stories and experiences to share. There will always be women who have reached their goal of empowerment and those who were denied it by unsupportive family members, institutions and society as a whole and maybe even men in particular. Whether this suits the Western ideal of female empowerment remains a story for another day.

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