The lives of women in Saudi Arabia have always been the subject of much fascination and outrage in the West. Just this summer, a young Saudi woman was arrested after a video went viral of her wearing a mini skirt and crop top in public. The incident (and the reaction it provoked) was a reminder of the intense restrictions that govern women’s lives there. Despite recent steps towards equality, Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the “least-free” countries in the world, especially for women: it is illegal for them to travel or get married without the signature of a male guardian, they’re forbidden from interacting with men outside their immediate families, and–until recently–were imprisoned for driving*. But while we often hear about the Kingdom’s strict regulations — and the consequences for breaking them — we rarely hear from the women themselves.
We spoke with more than a dozen Saudi women in their early 20s: They told us about their romantic lives and their complicated feelings about the guardianship system, what they love about their country and what they wish would change. They come from different regions, financial circumstances and home lives, and have varying opinions about the system. Here’s what several of them had to say.
On daily life:
“I have a routine: the weekdays are only for studying, and the weekend is for going out, meeting friends, and partying — yes, partying. In Saudi Arabia most things are prohibited, but we have ‘the life underground’ where we can do all the crazy, mostly illegal things without anyone knowing. Sometimes we go to our guy friends’ houses since we can’t invite guys over (otherwise our parents will destroy us), or a place like a private compound where non-Saudi people live, but we can enter as visitors.” —Aisha, 21
“I always wake up focused on fulfilling the requests of my son and husband. I take care of the cleanliness of the home and my family. For fun, my family and I visit the gardens or go shopping. I also recently started studying again — I had stopped going to school for two years after high school because of my marriage.” —Nadia, 21
On the guardianship system:
“I’m very lucky compared to other women in Saudi Arabia: my family is open-minded compared to more traditional Saudi families. I will choose my own husband, and although my father is my guardian he usually agrees when I ask him for permission to do things.” —Malak, 20
“Because of the guardianship system, my father can turn my life into hell, preventing me from doing anything, forcing me to do whatever he wants. But he doesn’t. Why? Because I told him if he beats me or abuses me in any way I will call the police. Even if the police can’t do much, my family is too scared of the scandal it would create to test me. But I am ‘careful’ about not giving my father a reason to punish me or take away my job, which to me is the only thing worth living for.” —Salma, 21
“I cannot go out by myself because my father, who is my guardian, won’t let me. He’s the decision maker in my life and decides everything for me. I love him, but I don’t like him ruling my life. I will not allow my family to choose my future life partner, the person who will sleep next to me every night. It’s enough for them to determine my fate, my clothes, my studies; they have controlled years of my teen life without anything nice to remember. Without the Internet, I would’ve committed suicide.” —Noura, 21
On the first time they realized their lives were drastically different from men in Saudi Arabia:
“I remember first realizing that men and women in Saudi Arabia couldn’t do the same things when I was in high school and my brother was allowed to go off to the states to study and live alone. I knew that was pretty impossible for me. My university offers a lot of trips to exciting countries, but the excuse my parents always give is: who are you going to go with? That really sucks.” —Joury, 21
“A lot of women talk about not being able to do the same things men can here, but I feel it’s the other way around: men my age can’t do what I do. They can’t have the carefree, stress-free life that I enjoy because they’re too busy having careers and feeding their families.” —Mariam, 25
“Once when I was 16, I had papers I needed to print but all my brothers refused to go to the library with me, so I had to go out and print them myself. On the way there I accidentally ran into my father. When I got to the library, I was surprised to see my big brother screaming at me to go home, so I did. At home we had a big fight and my brother beat me. I knew before then that women were treated differently in Saudi Arabia, but not like this.” —Salma, 21
“I remember when I was in my last year of high school my friends used to go to coffee shops and the beach with each other, but for me, I couldn’t do that because my dad is afraid. At the same time I was seeing boys travel with their friends, and it made me feel sad to realize that I couldn’t do the same things men could do.” —Laila, 21
On love and relationships:
“It’s very difficult to date here, and it can be very boring because you aren’t allowed to do most things. Sometimes you’ll talk to each other on the phone for like a month without seeing each other. You need to be very careful. You need to make a plan, and you have to have good lies and sneak out. Personally, I prefer not to date anyone because it’s too much. It’s not worth it!
I did used to have a boyfriend, though. He had girl friends and they would hang out together, but he told me that I wasn’t allowed to have guy friends or go out without wearing a burqa, and that I have to wear only black abayas. And I was like, why are you allowed to do these things and I’m not? Who are you to control me? And he said, it’s because I’m a man and I’m your boyfriend. There is a reason why they can act like that. They control almost every part of a woman’s life.” —Aisha, 21
“My family and I pity those who are set up for arranged marriages. The thought of being ‘paired’ randomly with anyone is horrifying! I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with a person I barely know anything about — it’s just absurd! For me, if there was someone that I was interested in and felt like I wanted to commit, then I would go to my parents and we would discuss the next steps.” —Joury, 21
“My marriage was arranged, but I fell in love with my husband the minute I saw him and you get that feeling when you know for sure that this is the man who is made just for you!” —Mariam, 25
“There is no dating here. Relationships are basically an arranged marriage between you and a close relative, like a cousin. That’s normal— they don’t consider it incest. In fact, it’s so common that we have a high level of genetic diseases because of it. My family believes in arranged marriages; they are totally against love and personal freedom in making a separate decision. But I will never enter an arranged marriage, no matter what.” —Salma, 21
“I’m in an arranged marriage that I’m fully satisfied with, and that my family supports.” —Nadia, 21
On dressing modestly:
“I like that I can feel comfortable wearing my hijab here. It’s been about five years [since I visited America], and the racism since then seems to have highly increased. It’s becoming even scarier to visit there; being that we are Muslim and black, that’s two very critical strikes on me and my family.” —Joury, 21
“I wasn’t into abaya much before I joined my masters program, but then I met a teacher who inspired me so much that I started wearing hijab even in front of my cousins. I remember my family used to ask me to remove it at least at home, but I wouldn’t. I feel very safe in it. I have never been stared at when I wear my veil on my face and I regularly go out with friends to malls and stuff and have an absolutely amazing time.” —Mariam, 25
On what they love about living in Saudi Arabia, and what they wish would change:
“One of the problems is that some women here don’t like to identify as feminists. They don’t care if they just stay home like the furniture. They don’t realize that you can care about your family and house and you can work at the same time. I feel that a lot of women look at life from one perspective and they don’t have an outlook for the future. That’s why I want to expand their minds.” —Malak, 20
“I dislike the fact that women aren’t their own guardian. There’s also a huge lack of entertainment for women here. I feel like most of the ‘fun’ things to do are targeted towards men. Simple things like riding a bike are frowned upon for women. For example: there’s no legal rule that states a woman cannot ride a bike here, but I guess out of ‘shame’ people encourage women not to. I love riding bikes and it’s gotten to the point where I’d ride one with my brothers and sisters in an area near our house and we really don’t care who stares.” —Joury, 21
“I love everything about living in Saudi Arabia: the way everyone is adorned in abaya, the way men respect us women, the fact that our holy place (Mecca) is just few hours away. I love the freedom we enjoy in malls with friends because only families are allowed there, and that makes us feel all the more secure. Some women would say they wished they could drive, but I’m quite lazy and I enjoy being driven around with trusted drivers just a call away!” —Mariam, 25
“I would like the Kingdom to at least end the slavery of women through the guardianship system, and pass a decent law that would make the murder of gay people illegal.” —Salma, 21
“I love where I live, it’s a beautiful city with rich heritage, but everything has changed since the advent of the religious awakening. I don’t like the contempt for women, and I want political representation. Women want the right of leadership and freedom. I want to be able to travel alone, go out and establish normal relationships with my friends. I want to feel like I’m a human being, not a breakable commodity that’s for sale. I’m human.” —Noura, 21
With translation help from Sarah Alhakami. Names have been changed. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Update, September 26th: Saudi Arabia has reversed its ban on women driving; Saudi women 18 and over will be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses starting in June 2018.