Friday, 30 March 2012

A trip to Kuwait and Social Change in KSA

March Break Travels

Hello my lovely readers! While family and friends in Toronto, Canada have been enjoying a mild spring with temperatures going up to the high 20s (Celsius), it's been consistently 30-35 degrees C here in Jeddah. DH and I had this past week off work and while he continues to study for his GMAT (business school entrance exam that he'll be writing on April 12th), I had the chance to visit some close friends in Kuwait City for 5 days. It was wonderful to get away, but, since Kuwait is MUCH more liberal than Saudi, it was also a bit of a culture shock! It was warm and sunny all week, and we enjoyed checking out a local souk (my first time going to one!), walking along the Persian Gulf (sans abayas and hijab!) and soaking up some sun.
Map of Kuwait
Fun Kuwaiti coasters!
Kuwaiti woman driving.
When I first exited the airport, I was taken aback by the sight of a woman driving past. Yes--she was driving herself!!! Although Kuwait is only a 1.5 hour flight from Jeddah, and is on the north east border of Saudi Arabia, it's a much more "open" country where women can drive, people can dress pretty much as they please, and there is religious freedom. It was nice to walk around in ordinary clothes, and enjoy a Friday night Bible study with friends.
Long walkway along the Persian Gulf. So beautiful! 
The Persian Gulf and Kuwait City skyline
Colourful trinkets at the souk
The beautiful corniche in Salmyia, Kuwait

I'm about to be published!

I'm also writing today with some exciting news! A friend of mine, Shakira Abubakar, founder of Continental Rescue Africa ( is compiling a book on youth and social change, and, after being intrigued by reading my blog, she asked me to write an article for it! Before the book is officially published, I'm pleased to give you a sneak peak at my piece. Here it is:

The voices of “soft, gentle women”:
Contemplating social change in Saudi Arabia

Should women be permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia? Last week, I was standing in front of my class and posed this controversial question. Controversial not to those of us from Western cultures, of course, but for young Arab women, this is a highly contested topic. Among the voices that resounded strongly and adamantly in favour of women getting behind the wheel in this ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom, a single voice was heard, quietly affirming her “no.” The week previous, this college class I teach had engaged in an in-class debate about women driving. 

Upon reaching an agreement on the debate topic—the well-to-do 18-25 year old women in my class from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries had selected this topic themselves—nearly all the girls wanted to argue that women should drive. Those appointed to the counterargument were quite distressed, but managed to gather strong evidence (mostly from religious sources) for their case. Although there is no “law” against women taking the wheel, there are strong religious rulings, or fatwas, that oppose it. In June 2011, a woman was arrested in the capital city, Riyadh, for driving. The charge against her, one student demonstrated, was not for being a woman driving, but for “not having a license.” 

Knowing that many of my students did not argue in favour of what they truly thought on the issue, I began the next class with the above question, asking for personal opinions outside their appointed debate stances. Chaos ensued. “Of course women should drive!” the girls proclaimed with passion. In the background, a timid voice resisted the group. The class was shocked. “What?! Women shouldn’t be allowed to drive?” The poor girl who had gone against the crowd! I asked her to explain her feelings on this topic. “Well,” she began, repeating some of her words from the debate (it appeared that her arguments had, in fact, reflected her personal views), “women are soft and gentle. They shouldn’t drive. It’s dangerous. What if her car breaks down? How can she change a tire?” “True,” another piped in, “when we’re wearing our abayas and hijab, it would be difficult…” Now the class was rethinking its stance. No one changed her mind, but the conversation was intriguing. 
Women driving: a religious issue?
In a theocratic country where religion governs society—the Qur’an is the law here—there are voices of resistance. Resistance is complicated, however, by the millions of expatriates, mostly from neighbouring Arab countries, though many from the West, who want change. But Saudi Arabia is not their country—not our country—to transform. Many of the girls in my class, however, were born and raised here, and perhaps their sentiments and desire for change should be heard. In ways different from other countries in the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia is extremely complex. It is influenced by a vast number of foreign nationals, by various extremes in thinking, by tradition, and by a tight, closed society that seems, on first sight, impenetrable to influences from the outside world.

Much of the younger generation before me in lecture each day, however, desperately wants change, freedom, and a voice. But what happens when their voices are dominated by those of more conservative women in the Kingdom (there are, indeed, many women who do not want to drive)? When they are overpowered by traditionalists in authority? No, women driving does not sound controversial to the Western ear, but here in Saudi Arabia, even the girls who argued in favour made careful note of the challenges and obstacles to this happening. They were all concerned for their safety. As modest, respectable Muslim women, every single one of them is taken aback when a man approaches her, makes an unwelcome advance, calls out to her when she is minding her own business, abaya on, hijab tightly wrapped around her head, not a strand of hair showing. No, they do not consider themselves all that conservative, but they do demand respect. Respect, but not submission. Respect, but not disempowerment. Respect, but most definitely not lack of freedom.
Just a dream...?
The challenge here, then, is how the girls—and others in Saudi Arabia—can attain the freedom they seek without sacrificing their deep desire for respect. In a country where, despite the strong tradition that governs every aspect of society, and where things are changing on a daily basis, women driving remains a complex issue, one that is marked by unique challenges, questions, and opposition. We can only watch, and wait to see what will happen when this generation of Saudi women has the chance to make their voices heard.

Julie is a Canadian currently living and working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She is interested in making changes and speaking to youth about global poverty, women’s rights, and social action. After completing her master’s degree in English with a special interest in women’s issues, she followed an opportunity to teach—and learn extensively from—Saudi and Arab female university students. When she is not teaching, she enjoys relaxing with a good book, or publishing her cultural observations about Saudi Arabia on her blog, Pink Jeddah Sunset. You can find her at:

Your turn to share YOUR thoughts!
So...what do YOU think, readers? Does Saudi Arabia sound like a place so unique and "dangerous" for women that they / we shouldn't be allowed to driver here? Or would it be better for women to challenge this rule, and take their chances against the crazy men on the roads, and risk having to change a tire in our abayas?

Comment below! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this complex topic.


  1. I just happened upon your blog.. and love it! I lived in Kuwait when I was a teenager.. and loved it soo much! And it always amazes me how DIFFERENT Saudi is from the surrounding GCC nations where women can do much more without the finger of shame being pointed at them. I hope that one day things change.. and we can all be part of this amazing new Saudi! After getting married I moved from Toronto to Riyadh (MAJOR culture shock!!!)... anyway... I hope ur well.. and again.. nice finding your blog!

  2. Hi Lujain! Glad you found my blog and enjoyed reading! :) It's shocking how different the Gulf countries are, you're right. When I was deciding whether to make the move to KSA I met my husband (then fiance) in Kuwait to see if I liked the Middle East (not being married yet, I couldn't come to KSA to visit him here). In Kuwait, it seems most pay lip service to tradition (many women still don the abaya and tarha) yet embrace western ideas and ways of living to a greater extent. In Saudi, many people seem more sincerely committed to tradition--especially Islamic values.

    Before the move, everyone who knew both countries said Kuwait and KSA are SO different and there was now way I'd be able to know what Saudi is like without being here. Nevertheless, I really like Jeddah overall, and am glad I made the decision to come.

    Beyond not being allowed to drive, women here in Jeddah do enjoy a lot more freedom than I's just a different way of doing things than us Canadians are used to :)