A View From The Kingdom
by Amena Ziard
I am constantly asked about my life in Saudi Arabia. There is no way to fully express the bitterness I have for some aspects of this society or the profound affinity I have for the land that is my birthplace but not my home. In this piece, I hope to answer this question as sincerely as I can; an intimate account of a young, foreign woman of color’s stay in the Kingdom, if you will. But before I begin:
AHLAN WA SAHLAN
Welcome to Saudi Arabia, the largest nation in the Middle Eastern region; home to over 22 million people and a host to many expatriate and contract workers.
Among them were my parents – a Sri Lankan business owner and a Filipino registered nurse – who have lived in the Kingdom for over twenty-five years, most of which were spent in Riyadh.
It is where my siblings and I were born, where we went to school, and where my twin and I graduated from High School. I do not hold a Saudi passport though I was born there; I am effectively Sri Lankan and Filipino by descent. This is the case for many children born to non-Saudi parents in KSA. It is both a blessing and a headache, particularly if you choose to be a long-term resident.
Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia, seeped in ultra-conservative traditions. It’s a city of tall towers and flashy cars; a city of decrepit flats and private villas, sand pits and swimming pools; where some dreams are demolished and other dreams are created. Built by a marginalized class of foreigners, but owned by local kings.
Racial identities are pronounced, backed by reinforced, unchecked stereotypes, unforgiving expectations and an institutionalized hierarchy of racialized class. Gender segregation, also infamously known as gender apartheid, is apparent. It is easy to be phenotypically characterized here, and to be different is to be in danger.
The diversity of demographics does little to dispel the racially sensitive subtext of what I call “phenotyping”. If this is not laid down by decree, then it is most definitely an unquestioned, normalized aspect of society, especially the expectations of different racial groups – such as how much they will be paid and what jobs they’re expected to have; who is acceptable to marry; where you are thought to shop at; how you veil yourself or whether you do so in the first place.
You may hold an American passport, but if you’re not Anglo-Saxon, then you’re not “originally” from there. Hence, you cannot be paid the “original” amount. If you’re a non-Arab, non-Caucasian, non-Western passport holding person, prepare to fight this ceiling. A non-Saudi girl may get away without covering her face, but for a Saudi girl, it’s not so easy. If you’re South Asian or South East Asian, don’t think your Saudi beau’s family will readily accept you.
When I was a schoolgirl, opportunities to mix and mingle with Saudis my age were minimal. Saudis and non-Saudis attend separate schools: the local schools, the community or “embassy” schools, and what is known as an international school. This type of school is not always subject to the rules imposed by the Ministry of Education. Local schools and embassy schools generally are. A non-Saudi student who wishes to study in a Saudi school requires special permission from the government and vice versa. The royal family are not immune to this either. It’s standard procedure.
Schooling in Saudi Arabia has been strange. I attended a Filipino school from Kindergarten to third grade. Almost everyone was Filipino, Roman Catholic, spoke Tagalog and even preserved a Filipino accent. There was little interest in learning more about the land they occupied and their education revolved strongly around their Filipino identity and little else. Ignorance and stereotypes of other people were readily accepted and unchallenged. Being partly Sri Lankan and Muslim was difficult in such a school. I distinctively remember being disallowed from learning Filipino culture and civics because of my background. Ignorance was so rife, my geography teacher used to say Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were the same country. A fellow student thought Sri Lanka was a place in Saudi Arabia. As the token Muslim student, I was expected to speak on behalf of my people. I was seven years old at the time.
I later went on to study at international schools, one under the wing of the Ministry and the other was granted more leniencies – an example of the diverse spectrum of how schools in the Kingdom were managed and regulated. Such schools could replicate education systems overseas. The school I graduated from followed a British education system, offering IGCSE and A levels from various boards including AQA, Edexcel and Cambridge. Indian schools offered CBSE. Some international schools offered students a choice between IB and A levels.
In spite of its conservative demeanour, remember Riyadh is a desert city marked by mirages: many Western expatriates and employees of large corporations reside in compounds. Barred and patrolled by security guards, compounds provide a means of escape, a break from the many restrictions of the Kingdom. Within their parameters, alcohol is permissibly consumed; genders mix freely; abayas are not mandatory and in some compounds, they are prohibited. There are cinemas, bowling alleys, restaurants and other entertainment spaces. Some compounds go as far as replicating life outside the Kingdom by services such as having newspapers delivered on your doorstep. Within the parameters, women can even drive.
Shopping is a popular pass time in the Kingdom and in the Middle East at large. Shopping malls in this region are not merely shopping malls; they exude a different ambience, an aura, while boasting hundreds of international and local brands. The more high-end and polished the shopping malls, the more exclusive and Western the brands are.
There is little need to know Arabic. At malls, supermarkets, or service centers, English is widely used with varying levels of fluency. A little knowledge of basic Arabic can help one get by, but beyond the basic, there is little need. This may have changed with Saudization and Arabic becoming a compulsory subject at schools.
Riyadh is a city pacing explosive modernity in a strong Salafi setting. It is known to be more conservative than other major cities, with the burgeoning presence of muta’ween, the moral police. In previous years, they were extremely feared and powerful. In Riyadh, they still are but their appearance is now sporadic, saturated in several areas but not everywhere. Dreaded, yes. Feared, not always. Local and foreign residents have been resisting and standing up to them. The winds of change have since been blowing.
More Saudi women go about without chaperones; more women are in the workplace, working in retail, hospitals, schools and offices. In several industries, men and women work side by side. Many women are entrepreneurs in their own right and women outnumber men in higher education. The Shoura Council now has a quota that must be filled by women. There are talks of establishing a minimum wage for Saudis. Men dare to walk in shorts and women may shed their scarves or uncover their faces. Abayas have become fashion statements and an intriguing industry on its own. Domestic violence awareness is increasing and Saudi Arabia has its first Oscar entry.
In spite of the progress made within the Kingdom, there is one issue that seems to routinely get worldwide attention: the ban on women driving. Being the only country where women are forbidden to drive, this is a symbolic drawback. Nevertheless, Saudi women have taken stands against this. Frankly, the lifting of the ban is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much to be done.
The strictly enforced gender segregation can make everyday life and simple activities here more challenging than it ought to be. Other times, it’s pretty convenient. Flirting, as you know it, is forbidden here, but with great restriction comes great creativity. Perhaps out of desperation, boredom, loneliness or a taste for thrill, many flirt with danger for the sake of ten digits.
By the time I neared the end of high school, many of my friends had their minds set to studying in the United States, the United Kingdom and several neighboring Middle Eastern countries. My twin and I were probably the first graduates of the British International School, Riyadh to fly off to Australia – and I’m glad that I did. While there is much more for me to share about my birthplace – there is only so much I can share here.
This article was first published at LotsWife.com.AU A View from the Kingdom and is reproduced here with the authors permission.
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Amena Ziard is Religious Affairs Editor at The Colony. She is Prose Editor at Peril, an Asian-Australian digital arts and culture magazine, co-host of Race Card, and former editor of Lot’s Wife, Monash University’s student publication. Tweet her @amenaziard