by Michelle Sagredo and Aisha Hassan
This story is intended for publication in Newsworthy
One woman relaxes at the beach with her family and friends. They enjoy a boat trip on a warm spring day, dine at a hotel, and laugh at their kids who found out the hard way that the mini fridge snacks were not complimentary.
This perfect day occurred in the city of Dammam, Saudi Arabia.
Three women who once lived ordinary lives in Saudi all seemed to agree. Life in Saudi is not what Australians have been made to think.
With the recent International Women’s Day and Four Corners’ (ABC) investigation, Escape from Saudi, there has been national discussion on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
The perception is oppressed young Saudi women desperately trying to escape their country.
The experience told by Ahlam Ibrahim, Menna Tarek and Rania Salama is that Saudi women live like queens.
Ahlam Ibrahim lived in Saudi Arabia from July 2015 until August 2017. She worked part-time as a lecturer of Islam.
“It didn’t feel like I didn’t have freedom there,” Ms Ibrahim said.
Although she did feel inconvenienced by the driving ban in place at the time of her residency, she clarified that many families in Saudi Arabia had private cars and drivers for the women.
“The whole system was working around that,” said Ms Salama, an Egyptian-born woman who lived in Saudi Arabia for seven years, and currently lives in Sydney.
She explained that there were shuttle bus services provided for women to go to and from university or work.
Ms Tarek, also an Egyptian-born woman who lived in Saudi for 18 years, discussed how there are reforms occurring in Saudi Arabia, such as the end of the driving ban.
“Now there is a dramatic change in everything,” she said.
“Women can drive in Saudi Arabia. Mohammad Bin Salman (Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia) …he’s changing everything. He’s changing how they treat women and he’s giving them more rights than ever.”
According to Escape from Saudi’s Manal al-Sharif, one of Saudi Arabia’s renowned female rights activists, the lift on the driving ban was mere propaganda.
What followed were mass arrests of the Saudi women who had campaigned for the right to drive. Apparently, Saudi women activists were tortured, sexually harassed and abused in jail.
“I don’t think the West represents anything correctly in their media, to be honest. They don’t represent Saudi Arabia correctly…They exaggerate,” said Ms Tarek.
For example, the male guardianship system. Human rights groups focus on the idea that women’s lives are controlled by their fathers, brothers, husbands or sons.
Ms Tarek somewhat agreed with observing a kind of oppression during her earlier life, having to be accompanied by a father or brother if women wanted to go somewhere.
However, Ms Tarek re-established that there are now reforms. Ms Ibrahim, who lived in Saudi more recently said “Saudi women go everywhere and they travel around by themselves.”
She gave the impression that male guardianship existed but wasn’t really applied practically in Saudi Arabia.
Ms Salama said, “the guardianship is mostly to travel,” travel referring to leaving the country.
A topic of long controversy is the veil. Counter to the Western idea of strongly enforced veiling, Ms Tarek said that she believes “No woman should be obliged to do anything that she doesn’t want to.”
She also noted that some parts of Saudi Arabia are already giving women the freedom to not have to wear the hijab.
Similarly, Ms Ibrahim said that women want to be free of obligations, and it seems that this idea is becoming more of a reality every day.
“I don’t really disagree or agree… it’s their system, it’s their tradition,” said Ms Salama. She stated that when foreign women go to Saudi for work, they are aware that they are going to have to wear the hijab.
One accurate depiction of Saudi Arabia that the women agreed upon is the gender segregation.
Ms Ibrahim discussed how Saudi Arabia was very much a gender segregated society stating, “Everything in Saudi Arabia is separate. Even in schools.”
Schools are separated into a male section and a female section, including not only students, but also teachers and principals. This is one of the inequalities Ms Ibrahim observed.
“[Australian women] are treated equally from the government, from the community,” said Ms Ibrahim.
“But on the other hand, [Saudi Arabian women] really have a luxury life, more than the woman in Australia. The woman in Australia, her life’s really hard… she has a big responsibility towards the kids, the family, her work.”
Thus, according to Ms Ibrahim, although Australia has more equality between men and women, women in Saudi Arabia, in her opinion, have an easier lifestyle than women in Australia.
Their first-hand experiences of life as women in Saudi seem to completely differ from the portrayal Saudi women have in the media, such as in Escape from Saudi.
Ms Ibrahim believes Saudi women are living a life of luxury, not battling daily oppression.
Like Ms Ibrahim, Ms Salama and Ms Tarek contradicted the typical Western media portrayal of Saudi women.
Ms Tarek recalls her experience in Saudi Arabia as having ‘pros and cons’. She admits feeling oppressed at some level but overall feels she had a good life in Saudi Arabia and was able to learn a lot about Islam.
Ms Salama explained that she lived a wonderful life and didn’t feel as if she missed out on anything. She also agreed that women in Australia had more of a challenge with greater responsibilities whereas life in Saudi for her was more laid back.
Ms Tarek made the point that Saudi Arabia cannot be compared to the US or Egypt because they are all completely different.
“Saudi Arabia is not to have fun,” she said. “It’s just to live, have a quiet and peaceful life, and that’s it.”
“I think the West, whether it’s the media or the people, have this format of life that all people have to live by or otherwise it’s just wrong.”
Ms Tarek’s experience poses the question whether the societies that view Saudi Arabia as backwards for women are merely trying to impose their Western lifestyle on Saudi Arabia.
In Western standards, the women are oppressed, but in Saudi Arabia these women might not actually view it as oppression.
“[Saudi Arabian women] thought they were treated like queens because everything is just at their hands,” said Ms Tarek.
“Actually now, as everything there is changing, not all women like it. Some actually like the way it was. Better than now.”