“At the Saudi-owned company where I work, all 2,000-plus employees are male,” explains my U.S. friend, Ed, who currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia. “So there was originally no need to build a women’s restroom in any of our headquarters’ facilities. As times change and international businesswomen from other companies visit our location, they must plan ahead for something as simple as restroom needs.”
As you might expect, business in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia can be very different than in the West due to the many legal and cultural norms affecting women. Expatriate businesses in Saudi Arabia can be aided by a proper understanding of these norms and their advantages and disadvantages.
Many Saudi traditions began with the intent to protect women from physical or moral danger; however, with changing times, these same traditions have unintentionally placed women in difficult situations.
Until recently, the country faced a similar paradox where only men were allowed to sell lingerie. A prohibition against Saudi women co-mingling with men in the workplace was intended to protect women from interacting with strange men, but this even kept women from working in lingerie shops.
Even when most clerks — all men — would usually maintain a distance of five to 10 feet from their female customers, these good intentions have led to the most awkward situations when buying and selling intimate apparel. Imagine the embarrassment involved when a conservative Muslim male clerk tries to help a completely covered Saudi woman in the selection of an undergarment. Fortunately, with a new law that allows women to sell lingerie, this is one area where the country is adapting to help preserve the original intent of making women feel safe and comfortable.
This separation for protection and propriety extends to other areas of Saudi life, too. Ed and his wife, Emily, U.S. citizens, can sit together as a couple in a restaurant, but must do so in a separate “family” section. Unfortunately, some Saudi women may not feel comfortable eating with another couple to whom they are not related. Banks have a separate side door for women’s banking, and even ice cream lines may be divided — even if only by a few feet — into one line for men and another for both women and families.
Saudis also separate grade schools and universities into institutions for only men or only women, which does not seem too foreign since single-gender schools exist worldwide. However, if a male professor teaches a course at a women’s university, he will deliver his lectures via either a video or a one-way mirror so that he does not actually see his female students.
Emily notes that Saudis allow foreigners some flexibility in cultural matters to which they are unaccustomed. She, for example, needs to wear a traditional abaya (robe) in public; however, she is not required to wear a niqāb (veil) or hijab (headscarf). In a public place, a mutawa, or volunteer religious enforcer, may occasionally pass by to “remind” her, “you need a headscarf,” but she and other expatriates are usually excused.
Where women are allowed to work and conduct business, a cultural ban on female drivers has made it difficult to get around in the country. The motivation is for men to protect women from dangerous activities such as driving, but this has the unintended consequence of forcing women to either wait for male family members to chauffeur them or pay to ride in the confined space of a taxi cab with a strange man.
Recent protests against the ban are garnering both domestic and international support, and many Westernized men and women hope this restriction will soon go the way of male-only lingerie clerks.
Simply knowing what to expect may not be enough for Westerners in Saudi Arabia. Even with the proper expectations, reacting appropriately to such strong cultural differences may be difficult. Understanding the motives behind foreign customs helps immensely.
For example, one may find Islamic culture easier to understand when considering that the original establishment of Islamic law is said to have been a great improvement for women’s rights in the region. One might also consider that Judeo-Christian cultures have anciently followed customs that treat women similarly — in some ways, such as adherence to certain dress codes — without intending to be oppressive. This shift in perspective helps Westerners to understand that many of these customs originated with the best of intentions to protect and respect women.
Open-mindedly talking with Saudis about their culture also helps bring understanding. Emily notes U.S. women may feel such Saudi protections encroach on their freedom, but some Saudi women have told her they strongly value this protection and feel U.S. women actually live very harsh lives. Incidentally, she feels safer on Saudi streets than she has felt in most U.S. neighborhoods.
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” explained a Saudi colleague of Ed’s. “We are OK with you Westerners playing with and talking to our children, just as you are OK with strangers talking to your women. However, just as you are protective of strangers talking to your children, we are protective of our women.”
“The longer you live here, the less extreme everything seems because you understand where they are coming from,” says Ed. “You start to see more similarities than differences.”
As with anything, you cannot really know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. Or, in this case, greater understanding may come from living in Saudi Arabia and maybe walking many miles in an abaya. In any case, greater understanding brings greater respect, and greater respect improves our capacity to work well with others.