In an interview with the LA Times, Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the first Saudi film, “Wadjda”) made a very simple comment about being a woman in Saudi Arabia that rang very true for me. Al-Mansour said, “for me it’s the everyday life (in Saudi Arabia), how it’s hard…things like that can build up and break a woman.”  Despite what many in the international community may believe, there are no women being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, those outside the country   are absolutely right to criticize the state of women’s rights in the Kingdom though they may not realize how subtle the oppression can be.

Yes, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, subjected to an oppressive male-guardianship system and living on the unfortunate side of gender segregation. While these are major obstacles for women’s progress in the country, such an innately oppressive system naturally trickles down into smaller aspects of everyday life. These little indignities can indeed break a woman, and I confess I am a woman extremely close to being broken.

I never thought much about my gender identity until I moved back to Saudi Arabia as a young adult. Small instances of gender discrimination would take place regularly, but at some point in time those experiences built up to leave me feeling something I had never felt before: that being female is an absolutely exhausting burden to bear.

What exactly were these small everyday events that pushed me over the edge?

Perhaps it was the time I was lost in Riyadh and asked a man who passed me on the street for help with directions, and he looked at me in disgust, replied with a “tisk tisk” and an “astughfurallah” (a phrase often muttered when someone finds something sinful), and continued walking. He did not want to speak to a woman.

Or perhaps it was one of the many instances while flying domestically with Saudi Arabian Airlines, when the stewardess would come to me in my assigned seat during boarding and tell me to move because there was a man in the assigned seat next to me who did not want to sit next to a woman.

Perhaps it was the muttawa (“religious” man) who was screaming at me from across the room in an airport to cover my face and fear the end of the world that pushed me over the edge. Or maybe it was the man who witnessed this indignity and followed me when I went to complain to airport authorities in order to tell me to “calm down and not make a big deal out of it.”

Perhaps it was the countless men who assumed that since I was out in public on my own I clearly was asking to be sexually harassed. Or the young men who shamelessly threw their phone numbers at me, or followed me in their cars for long-periods of time despite my obvious lack of interest.  Or maybe it was the numerous times when these sexual-harassment car-chases became reckless and almost ended in accidents.

Perhaps it was during the two-hour argument I had with the sheikh who was performing my marriage ceremony. My husband and I had already agreed to put conditions in the marriage contract so that he could not take any other wives besides me. Right before my eyes, the sheikh tried his best to convince my husband this was not a good idea, and he should leave himself the option of entering into other marriages.  Or perhaps it was after acquiescing and including the condition in our marriage contract, that instead of giving us his best wishes, the sheikh expressed doubt about the future success of our marriage.

Maybe it was the man who was showing my husband and I a house for sale in Riyadh, who thought it was funny to make a joke right in front of me about my husband getting another wife. Or maybe it was that while showing us the kitchen he told my husband “how nice I would look cooking” there.

Perhaps it was the man who was smoking a cigarette in Jeddah, who came over to me as I lit up my own cigarette, took it from my hands, and threw it on the ground, telling me that women’s bodies could not handle smoking the way men’s bodies could.

Maybe it is the fact I am prohibited from driving a car because of my gender, despite having a valid license for over 11 years without an accident or even a ticket with experience driving in the rain, in the snow, in the desert, in extreme fog, and in multiple countries – even here in Saudi.

Perhaps it is the hours of my life that have been casually wasted away while waiting for a man to give me a ride somewhere.

It could also be the fact I have gotten more unwanted attention in Saudi while covering my head and entire body with an abaya, than I ever received while wearing a bikini in many Western countries.

Maybe it was the work meetings I was left out of about my future career at the university in Al-Khobar while the male administrators (who had never met or worked with me) were left to make decisions about my job without giving me a chance to speak to them or present my case.

These are just a few of the things that have happened nearly every time I step out of my house and into the streets of Saudi Arabia. The days I return home without being disrespected because of my gender are beautiful but extremely rare. Over time, these experiences have made it more and more difficult for me to step out of the comfort of my own home, even though as my true self, I cannot bear staying inside.

For a while, I had the courage to push back against all this, but for now, I must shamefully admit, I have been defeated.

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  • Nishanth M Rao

    Brilliant article!!You are a gutsy woman to write this!

  • Mohamed

    May Allah Guide You in the right path…….

  • Raihan Jamil

    Why have you not left SA? It is obvious you were elsewhere before!

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  • Oh Really

    I totally empathize with you. After living in Riyadh for seven years, my friends have told me that I am not the same person. I, too, was beaten down. You must be the stronger one. Stay firm. Be a role model and leader for all those women who feel the same way you do but do not have the strength to enable change.

  • Misanthropia

    I’m a Muslim myself and I totally sympathise with you. This is not true Islam at all.

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  • tecton47

    The hypocrisy of the men who say they are trying to “protect” Saudi women is amazing. The abaya is to keep men from staring at a woman’s body, but as we saw in the article one man didn’t even want to sit next to a woman as if she had a disease; that doesn’t strike me as a very protective attitude.

    Women around the world are intelligent and resilient so I suspect that women will change the Saudi society sooner than later.

  • tecton47

    I admire your courage for speaking your mind and as to whether or not to leave your country, that is something I don’t have a lot of experience with. However, I did move to Isla Mujeres, Mexico for 6 months and it was a mild culture shock but a lot of fun too. I was living there when 9/11 happened and returned to America in early-October not knowing whether or not I needed to do to take up arms to protect myself and my fellow countrymen. That move was purely recreational whereas your potential move has a lot more to do with your lifestyle and being respected.

    America is far from perfect and most citizens will readily tell you that but we do enjoy–no, it’s deeper than that…we EMBRACE the rights that we have and it saddens us when we see others in the world who don’t have the same freedoms. If we think someone is out to take those freedoms from us, then they will have hell to pay! More than a few of our presidents have gotten far too heavy-handed when it comes to exploring democracy.

    A friend of mine is a dental hygienist and her office has quite a few Saudi patients who have come to America to attend school and they are always shocked to find that the majority of people in America don’t hate them simply because they came from the Middle East, women aren’t raped every time they leave their house and we aren’t all Satan worshipers. Obviously the attitudes towards foreigners differ widely based on their geographic location in the United States but in 90% of our country you would be welcomed with open arms and offered any assistance you need it towards your citizenship.

    As for being a KISS fan, that’s great! Right now I’m waiting for Destroyer to arrive in the mail! Like you I prefer their older work but did find a few songs on Unmasked and Dynasty that I’d forgotten how much I liked. I wish you all the best in your future adventures!

  • Virologist001

    My sister! what a calamity?! At least you are still treated like a second class-citizen! Your own people in the South the Shia and other Saudi minorities are treated like slaves! Oppression against women, minorities is the way of life in Saudi. Promoted by the vitriolic hatred spewed like gospel truth in the madrasas and by your “religious” bigots.

    But are you going to stand for the oppressed? You’re lamenting about not being able to drive your Mercedes, which is really sad and I can totally empathize with you, but let us turn to seeing how your Saudi men are treating the Shia and other minorities? At least your corrupt government gives you a loyalty stipend so you can afford your overseas trips, where you can freely wear your bikinis as you wish:)! The rest of the minorities don’t even get that! They are treated like animals, down trodden with the only mistake? They were born in that God-forsaken land where a minority is as good as dead.

    So, while I sympathize with the rich lamenting about their plight, I’d like to see the humanity be awakened in the dark souls of Saudi Arabia men, so that my brothers and sisters who are dying in the hands of your husbands/fathers/sons can get 1/10th the “freedom” you get!

    May Allah show you lost souls in Sud-Arabia Siraat-E-Mustaqim!

  • Virologist001

    You’re right! Why pretend to be any other way? Saudi women, like the minorities, are treated like dirt. But the Saudi Sunni women at least get the stipends. The Shia and other minorities? In a land filled with money and corruption, go to the minority ghetto and see how we treat our fellow brothers and sisters? The Holy Prophet SAW said, what is religion but Love? Without love religion will not exist!

    Saudi Arabian men are devoid of all that is human. Their penchant for being cruel would put Vlad the Impaler into kindergarten. These men are what fuels Daesh, and other cancers of humanity-all funded, aided, and abetted by Saudi Arabia!

  • Human

    I wanna visit Saudi Arabia, can you tell me about Arabia in detail? I’m a girl and I wanna get used to the laws….do men have to follow any law or is it only and only women?

  • binda Wins (Binda33)

    As an Australian woman, I’m both saddened and horrified of learning how day to day life is for a Saudi Arabian woman. I’d also love to know how those rude men would take it if you told them to go screw themselves when they belittle you to your face.