Back to Index

Islam: Women in Saudi Arabia

     Jaqui White, who lived in Saudi Arabia for years, writes:
     I can only mention the Saudi Arabian women with whom I had contact, and to whose homes I was invited. Amazingly, to a western woman, they all seemed extraordinarily happy, content, even if they were one of several wives. First of all, the woman is absolute queen of the household. It is her domain. The children, servants, and complete life within the home is hers. It is true when they go out they must be with their husband or a male member of the family - father or uncle. They must be completely covered with the black abaya, including the face, and often wearing gloves. They seem to be so accustomed to this, however, that they like it, they told me - they feel protected in the anonymity it offers. When they remove the abaya after they enter their home, they are usually clothed in the most elaborate of gowns, satin, beaded, sequined, always long. We were in Abha, which is rather rural in the Asir region. It may be that in Riyahd or Jeddah that the women wear more western attire. They spend long hours with the children, watching television or movies on the VCR, and in the evening they may have parties, with traditional dancing - women only. These traditions vary according to the economic classes. In the homes I visited there were always separate living rooms and dining rooms - since the women and the men must be separate, unless they are related. The wealthier classes travel to Europe, the States or South America during the holidays, and usually the sons are sent away to universities approved by the government either in Europe or the States. If there are multiple wives (four is the limit) the husband must show absolute proof that he can furnish each wife with exactly the same thing - each has her own home, or wing on the house, etc. Again, this seems unspeakably stultifying to a western women, but since this is all they have ever seen, they seem to be content. This is not to say that it is right, but it is simply a different way of life, culture and tradition. Things are slowly changing. Women are being allowed to continue their education. When I asked why the women were not allowed to drive, the answer was that then they would be seen by other men (not allowed) and if there were an accident and they had to go to jail there were none for women.
     Since my husband was an orthopaedic surgeon it was almost impossible for him to examine a woman who came to his office. She would be accompanied by every adult male in her family, and would sit on the opposite side of the room. Since he was accustomed to having his patients, male and female, don swim suits and walk around in the halls so that he could determine what was wrong with them, he found this frustrating beyond belief. The nurses in the hospitals were all from other countries - the majority from the Philippines, some from Ireland. It was simply not appropriate for a Saudi woman to be working with nor in the company of men, other than her family.
     Again, all this may have changed - we left Saudi Arabia ten years ago.

     My question: The American ideal is "the pursuit of happiness," but half of American marriages end in divorce. Is Jaqui telling us that Saudi women are happier? She says nothing about divorce in Islam. It is often reported that one of the wives is the husband's favorite one. Does feminine jealousy not exist in Islam? Jaqui does not mention concubines. What about the notorious cases of women escaping from Islamic homes in Paris and reporting the brutality to which they have been subject?

Ronald Hilton - 10/21/99