Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi, but many of these views are either outdated or just plain wrong. Although all women – even non-Muslim women – are required to follow certain rules and regulations, these rules are nowhere near as strict as most people would believe.
So we’ve put together a few of the most common assumptions about Saudi Arabia, and the actual realities…
MYTH: Women can’t be seen in Saudi Arabia.
REALITY: Women are required to wear a long, black, loose-fitting abaya and a veil when they are out in public. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country which rules using Sharia Law. That means that there are laws which were specifically designed for the protection of women, and one of these laws refers to women’s clothing. Whether you agree with this or not, it is the law of the land and all visitors are expected to comply.
However, these rules are not as strict as many people think – especially when it comes to Western women. Women aren’t required to wear the full burka – a simple headscarf is fine. In fact, many Western women leave their heads uncovered, and carry a scarf with them just in case they are stopped by the religious police.
On the expat compounds, women wear what they please – and there are even some private beaches near Jeddah where women can wear bikinis. Just make absolutely sure before you start shedding the layers!
MYTH: Non-Muslims can’t enter the country
REALITY: Most people can enter Saudi Arabia, providing they have the correct visa documentation. There are no restrictions on different religions, and there is no need to hide your faith when you are in the country.
However, non-Muslims are not allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (you will know when you are getting close as there are huge signs on the motorway saying ‘Non-Muslims Exit Here’). And it is against the law to preach any religion other than Islam while you are there.
MYTH: Women can’t travel freely around the country
REALITY: Women can travel to most of the same places as men in Saudi Arabia, although many gyms, museums and public spaces will have separate operating hours for men and for women.
It is recommended that women in Saudi travel with their husband or a male family member, but any male companion will do. In Saudi, women don’t tend to hold front-of-house positions (e.g. baristas in cafes; waitresses, receptionists) so you will find that you deal mostly with men in the service industry. A very conservative Saudi man may feel uncomfortable dealing directly with an unknown woman, so in these circumstances it is useful to have a male companion there to speak on your behalf.
However, if you are travelling with a partner to whom you are not married, it is important to book separate hotel rooms and avoid any public displays of affection. Common-law relationships (as well as adultery and homosexual relationships) are forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
MYTH: Women are not safe in Saudi Arabia
REALITY: Saudi Arabia is probably one of the safest places to visit if you are a woman, although many Western women will find the restrictions a bit frustrating.
Saudi’s crime rate is extremely low, and the conservative values of the Kingdom mean that women are unlikely to ever be in a situation where they might be vulnerable to attack or unwelcome attention. Most public spaces (e.g. parks, restaurants, schools) have separate entrances for women and for men, and women are treated with a huge amount of respect by any men they meet.
As long as you abide by the local rules and restrictions, there is no reason why women can’t enjoy everything that Saudi has to offer.
MYTH: Women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia
REALITY: Until recently, this was largely true. However, this all changed in June 2018. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of some local women, the ban was lifted.
Female drivers are still very much in the minority across the Kingdom, and female visitors may find it difficult to hire a car without a male companion being present. However, progress is being made as part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s plan to modernise Saudi Arabia by 2030.