My experience travelling to Saudi Arabia as a woman
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, ever since I visited Saudi Arabia back in Spring 2015. I know it’s a slightly niche topic, as unless you’re a Muslim doing a pilgrimage (Hajj or Umrah), non-citizens can’t travel to the country without either going to visit relatives or travelling for business. Pretty much every time it comes up that I’ve travelled to Saudi Arabia, I get similar reactions from people (particularly women), which often include “I would never travel there” and/or a range of facial expressions varying from horror to disgust. There are, of course, some very sensitive issues surrounding women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, so I fully understand why the thought of travelling to the country would elicit such reactions. In this post I simply want to share my personal experience of travelling there: firstly, because when it was confirmed I would be travelling there for work I remember frantically googling everything I could about women travelling to Saudi Arabia (and found very little); and secondly because since I’ve travelled there, I’ve seen some common misconceptions bandied around in our media, which I find frustrating.
Not being able to go anywhere alone. Now, I have heard of female colleagues going out and about around Riyadh alone without any problems, but I remain unconvinced. Typically, when women in my profession are required to travel to Saudi Arabia, we would usually travel with a male colleague to give us some freedom to go out and about. To be honest, Riyadh isn’t exactly tourist-central so there are very few things to do and it certainly isn’t walkable, but nevertheless, having the option taken away from you is quite disorienting. Additionally, if your male colleague/chaperone doesn’t want to go out and do anything, you’re stuck. You might also find you can’t use the swimming pool or the gym in your hotel because these are male-only. This was by far the most frustrating part of my visit as I love to both explore new places alone and take a quick dip in the pool after a long day working.
Restaurants. Restaurants in Saudi Arabia, including the one in the Holiday Inn I stayed in, are mainly for men, but with a family area to the side. It actually reminded me a lot of the old days in the UK before the smoking ban, where you sometimes had really small non-smoking areas of restaurants that you were relegated to if you didn’t want to inhale cigarette fumes whilst eating. It also seemed like women weren’t allowed to go anywhere other than restaurants recreationally – in Saudi Arabia the equivalent of a drinking bar might be a shisha bar, but because I was a woman we had to go onto a Western compound in Riyadh just to visit one of these.
Without suggesting Saudi Arabia is super straightforward to travel to as a woman, and bearing in mind my business travel was very specific and controlled, there were some things that surprised me as it actually seemed as though visiting as a woman was bizarrely advantageous.
At the airport. So yes, although 40 minutes before landing, all six of us Western women on the plane dutifully got up and queued for the bathroom to robe up in black in preparation for our imminent arrival to Saudi Arabia, when we were queuing for immigration we were the third group of people to be ‘selected’ to go through (after Saudis and people who had previously visited), meaning we queue-jumped most of the men who were on the plane. On the way back, separate security checkpoints for men and women were advantageous again as I breezed through with virtually no waiting at all.
Buying food at the conference centre. Another advantage of being at a conference where there are significantly more men than women. Although the food options were, admittedly very limited, there were separate lines (and servers) for men and women, meaning I got extra breaks from work volunteering to do the coffee/lunch run for my colleagues.
Business dress (optional). As it was compulsory to wear my abaya the whole time, this actually meant I ironically had much more freedom to dress how I wanted than in a typical business setting. Long, loose sundresses were my main choice as well as comfy flat sandals. I was probably much more comfortable than my male colleagues in their suits. You also don’t need to worry about choosing your outfit or repeating one, as no-one will see it.
Covering your head. Now, over the past couple of years I’ve seen quite a few media outlets celebrating the fact that various high-profile female politicians have travelled to Saudi Arabia on diplomatic visits and have taken an incredibly bold stance against Saudi Arabian law by ‘refusing’ to cover their heads. I find this immensely frustrating, because it’s wrong. In Saudi Arabia, the law is that you must wear an abaya (the long black robe), but actually there is no law to say women must cover their heads. I personally chose to cover my head completely when I was out and about around Riyadh as I’m blonde and I wanted to keep a low profile, but technically you’re not breaking the law. You may be breaking away from the cultural norm, but that’s a different issue. Most of the time when working, myself and female colleagues had our heads uncovered and didn’t really encounter problems. When asked by the religious police to cover my head, I just draped my pashmina over my head for five minutes until they went away. From what I’ve heard from women who’ve travelled there more recently than me, the approach to Western women covering their heads is continuing to become more relaxed.
All women are forced to wear the burqa. I’m sure there are women who are forced to cover up against their will in Saudi Arabia as well as in other countries but I don’t personally believe this sweeping generalisation is particualarly helpful or accurate. From speaking to Saudi men and women as well as from personal observations, it seems to be more tradition than anything that dictates women’s dress in Saudi Arabia. Although all the Saudi women I met wore an abaya and the vast majority wore a headscarf, a lot but not all were wearing the full burqa. I also observed women taking off their traditional Islamic dress once they were on the plane to Europe, which to me reinforces the idea that they dress according to the traditions observed in Saudi Arabia. I firmly believe that all women should have the right to dress as they wish, whether that mean only wearing their burqa when in Saudi Arabia, or making the choice to continue to wear it wherever they are in the world.
Overall, I genuinely did enjoy my trip to Saudi Arabia. It was a travel opportunity that not everyone has and it was a great chance to experience some of a culture that is very different to the one in which I live.