SAUDI ARABIA: A Woman’s World: Niqab, Coifed Hair and Starting a Business

SAUDI ARABIA: A Woman’s World: Niqab, Coifed Hair and Starting a Business

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Growing up I never had to see any women around me struggle with finding a ‘work life balance’ because women didn’t work much. They were either teachers or worked in hospitals. A few women owned their own businesses but had to have men run them. And the large majority of women I knew worked for the non profit sector running charities or working in them. I would say these charities were where I saw Saudi women working the most. They were a force to be reckoned with.

We also saw women doctors. I remember going to the eye doctor to get lenses for the first time when in walked a tall, thin woman wearing a niqab (face cover with opening for eyes). She was the opthemologist. Her hands, which were the only body parts I could see, were beautiful.

Her nails immaculate (being a life long nail bitter I notice these things). But women who worked in hospitals sometimes had a stigma because they worked in a mixed environment. I later learned that the majority of women who wore niqab’s in the hospital only did so to avoid this stigma and indeed never wore them anywhere else!

I went to an all female school and was taught exclusively by women, but the majority of them were Syrian. One year I remember distinctly there was a surge in the number of Saudi women in managerial positions and some teaching positions in school. They were always well coiffed, smelled nice, wore nice shoes and had make up on. They didn’t look like the typical teachers we were used to seeing, harried and there to do a job.

Then in 2010 things began to change. Mainly because of huge reform in laws that used to restrict women working in Saudi. This was the beginning of the King Abdullah era which saw the number of women in the workforce rise from 55,000 to 454,000 in 3 years! Suddently, women were in the work force, working along side men in many cases.

There was a mixed reaction to this change. Families could see the importance and benefit of adding another income, but at the same time, were conflicted about the women of the family going into the work environment and gaining independence. The women who were already in the work force were a huge support for the women newly coming into it. But men had a hard time working with women. Some didn’t respect them, others had no idea what do with them or where to look or how to address them. In the case of my cousin, who is the head of a non profit organisation, some men flat out refused to talk to her util they realised that they would not be offered an alternative and either had to work with her of shove off.

Then there is me. I have always felt the need to do something.

Since I got married at the age of 22 I have been planning, and researching and imagining this business I would open. I have files and files of papers printed, notes scribbled, suppliers contacted over the years until, finally, my dream was realised. Before opening my business it was a breeze working on it while being a ‘good’ wife and a ‘good’ homemaker and a ‘good’ mother. My time was my own and I worked when I liked. And it was still a dream… not a commitment.

Then I opened… and my life changed. I cannot speak for the women for whom work is a necessity. The ones who’s families depend on them to live. I do not think they have the pleasure of having this ‘life work balance’ conversation because without work there would be no life. Such as Um Ahmed who worked for a while as a cleaning lady at my center. She was the sole breadwinner of her family. When I met her she was in her late 30’s, she had 5 children, none of which worked. What blew me over was when she told me she would have to take a day off or leave early every few weeks as she was learning to read and write and wanted to sit her exams. Um Ahmed left a year after working for me as she got pregnant and had to stay home with her 6th baby.

In my case, working was a choice. It did come from a need to realise a dream I truly believed would be beneficial to society even in a small way. It was a necessity in that sense but it was very much a choice I made. No one is relying on any money I could potentially make (God willing at some point) from my business.

Society here puts the burden of making everything work on the woman. If the marriage fails they look at what the woman didn’t do. If the children turned out messed up they looked at the mother. If the house was less than pristine they looked at the wife. If the husband strayed they say “did you see how his wife let herself go?’.

I remember talking to a school teacher as we sat in a restaurant with her 11 month old and a few friends. She looked tired and harried while she bobbed her child on her knee and told us all about how when she gets home from work she makes dinner immediately so she has time to shower and fix her hair and get dressed up for her husband before he got home from work. She tried to make sure her son was calm and clean for his father.

She even gave us suggestions of things to do to make our husbands lives easier and more interesting (from having him walk in on you wearing your wedding dress to having him walk in on you wearing nothing… not sure what she did with her son in these instances).

She said “you know, we have to make sure they are happy and comfortable”, and I said “who makes sure you are happy and comfortable?”, and she looked surprised, then laughed at the absurdity of it. I went on saying “what little things does he do for you? take you out to dinner? Give your son a bath? Help with the house work?” she didn’t like this line of questioning and thought I was being rude I think so I dropped it.

In our society women must look beautiful for their husbands. And if you are lucky then you have a husband who at least tries to look presentable for you. I remember going to see a child counsellor when I was pregnant with my second child because of an anxiety issue my son had. I walked into her office, 8 months pregnant with my daughter, and talked to her about my son.

Somehow we ended up talking about me and about how I needed to make an effort in the way I look! She said “why don’t you have any makeup on? did you husband see you like this before you left the house?” Needless to say I left the office and never came back.

But it goes without saying that if you, like me, work because you want to work not because you have to work, and that work means you will not be perfumed, creamed and coiffed and wide awake for your husband when he comes back from seeing his friends at night, then you have failed. If your house is not totally impeccable then you have failed. If you don’t look like you stepped out of some sort of magazine at least 85% of the time then you have failed.

We have not entered, nor do I think we will ever, the phase of being proud of our mommy pants and the fact that we look tired because, well, we work hard and we are tired. Regardless of how hard you work or how much you have accomplished you will always be expected to maintain yourself. And in most cases it is down to you to make life interesting, entertaining and comfortable for your husband and children.

How do I feel about this? Even though, in the light of how much I have put into this business and how obsessed I was when starting it and how supportive my husband has been, (He only asked me to shut it down once when we were on vacation and I spent my whole time Skyping the staff.) I feel like I am failing probably about 60% of the time.

My husband works from home, and therefore, sleeps late. This means that I sleep late because I love spending time with him one on one. And by the time my kids are in bed he would have gone out to see his family or friends, and I would do the same. On most nights I would go out just to avoid falling asleep on the couch or in some instances I would fall asleep with my kids do and have a late nap till her comes home!

How is your life similar? How is your life different?

This an original blog post by World Mom, Mama B. of Saudi Arabia. You can also find her at her blog, YaMaaMaa.

Photo credit to Roberto Trombetta. This photo has a creative commons attribution noncommercial license. It has not been altered. 

Mama B (Saudi Arabia)

Mama B’s a young mother of four beautiful children who leave her speechless in both, good ways and bad. She has been married for 9 years and has lived in London twice in her life. The first time was before marriage (for 4 years) and then again after marriage and kid number 2 (for almost 2 years). She is settled now in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (or as settled as one can be while renovating a house). Mama B loves writing and has been doing it since she could pick up a crayon. Then, for reasons beyond her comprehension, she did not study to become a writer, but instead took graphic design courses. Mama B writes about the challenges of raising children in this world, as it is, who are happy, confident, self reliant and productive without driving them (or herself) insane in the process. Mama B also sheds some light on the life of Saudi, Muslim children but does not claim to be the voice of all mothers or children in Saudi. Just her little "tribe." She has a huge, beautiful, loving family of brothers and sisters that make her feel like she wants to give her kids a huge, loving family of brothers and sisters, but then is snapped out of it by one of her three monkeys screaming “Ya Maamaa” (Ya being the arabic word for ‘hey’). You can find Mama B writing at her blog, Ya Maamaa . She's also on Twitter @YaMaamaa.

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SAUDI ARABIA: Women Achieve the Right to Vote

SAUDI ARABIA: Women Achieve the Right to Vote

Saudi Woman Registers to Vote

Saudi women have the right to vote for the first time in their country. A woman proudly holds up her filled out voting registration form. The first voting day will take place on December 12, 2015.

In 2011 King Abdullah (God rest his soul) declared that Saudi women would have the right to vote and run in the municipal elections in 2015. When I first heard the news of women being allowed to vote and nominate themselves I imagine many women felt as I did, overjoyed, excited and, slightly doubtful that the day will come.

It’s one thing to have it said, and an entirely other thing to have it happen. Over the last few weeks women have, for the first time in Saudi history, registered to vote!

Every article or news piece I have read about this event has had a ‘however’ attached to the end of it. You won’t find any ‘however’s’ in this one though. Every situation has a ‘however’, but the change that has happened for women in our country over the last ten years alone shows me that these ‘however’s’ right now are just rain on a very well deserved parade.

Saudi women are held up to the litmus test of the west that totally ignore (or are ignorant of) the fact that Saudi women have been campaigning for this right and other rights for over a generation. The foreign media also seems to be ignorant about the role society and culture play in these advancements.

It’s not as easy as flipping a switch or changing a law (contrary to popular belief there actually is no law against women driving in Saudi Arabia, it’s just not culturally accepted). It is more like rewiring a circuit board. (Now, I would lie if I told you I had any idea what that involved, but i am quite sure you cannot just do it willy nilly and have to take into account all the other hundreds of wires before messing with one.)

Saudi Women Register to Vote Wall

A message board in Saudi Arabia provides voting registration information for women.

The thing people also don’t give us credit for is how hard-working we Saudi women are. And believe us, there is no one more adamant on us getting our rights than ourselves. Small changes are happening that have a big impact on our society’s perception of the role of women outside of the home, in businesses and in government.

For the first few months after women joined the Shoura council, during the televised portions, when any of the women were talking, the camera men didn’t know where to focus. Fast forward to a year later, and the cameras are clearly focused on the strong female representatives broadcasting their voices and their faces* clearly.

There is not one road block stopping the progress of women’s rights in Saudi, but rather, there are many small holes and bumps and detours to get around and navigate. For the first time since women being granted the right to get an education, we are seeing fundamental change that cannot be taken away from us. It is exhilarating.

There has been contagious buzz in the air since registration opened. The Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs (MOMRA) launched a campaign, website and an app with all the information needed to register to vote or run in the municipality elections. The philanthropic women’s society, Alnahdha, held one of the biggest campaigns to spread awareness around the elections and how to register. They held workshops and partnered up with local businesses and other NGOs to spread the message of “your vote makes a difference” campaign.

Saudi Women Register to Vote Clothing

Saudi women taking part in the campaign to spread voter registration information to women.

Small business even got on board. Many taxi services such as Easy Taxi and Careem offered free rides for any women who wanted to register to vote. Uber carried flyers and information about voting in their cars.

Saudi Register to Vote Lunch Tray

A lunch tray in Saudi Arabia advertises women’s voting registration.

Registration closed on the 10th of September, and the vote is on the 12th of December. According to MOMRA 22% of the registered voters are women and 16% of the candidates running are women.

Thinking of my daughter now, I pray that she will be shocked she was alive when women were still not allowed to vote. I pray she can’t imagine what it was like to not have full power over your life and your decisions because of your gender.

And for the first time I believe without a doubt that change is not only coming, it is here, just pay attention. It’s moving fast!

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by World Mom, Mama B. in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

Photo credits to the author. 

Mama B (Saudi Arabia)

Mama B’s a young mother of four beautiful children who leave her speechless in both, good ways and bad. She has been married for 9 years and has lived in London twice in her life. The first time was before marriage (for 4 years) and then again after marriage and kid number 2 (for almost 2 years). She is settled now in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (or as settled as one can be while renovating a house). Mama B loves writing and has been doing it since she could pick up a crayon. Then, for reasons beyond her comprehension, she did not study to become a writer, but instead took graphic design courses. Mama B writes about the challenges of raising children in this world, as it is, who are happy, confident, self reliant and productive without driving them (or herself) insane in the process. Mama B also sheds some light on the life of Saudi, Muslim children but does not claim to be the voice of all mothers or children in Saudi. Just her little "tribe." She has a huge, beautiful, loving family of brothers and sisters that make her feel like she wants to give her kids a huge, loving family of brothers and sisters, but then is snapped out of it by one of her three monkeys screaming “Ya Maamaa” (Ya being the arabic word for ‘hey’). You can find Mama B writing at her blog, Ya Maamaa . She's also on Twitter @YaMaamaa.

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SAUDI ARABIA: Balancing Act

Today I sat in my baby’s room, nursing him, while I looked over my eldest son’s math homework (and pretended to remember how to add fractions and prayed I was making sense). My daughter was busy changing into her 6th outfit for a birthday she was going to and coming to show me, while my other son lay on the floor, face down and whaling like the world was ending.

I was resisting the urge to pierce my ear drums when it hit me. I have a two-year old again! I seem to have blocked the other 2 times I had two-year olds (as people block out traumatic times in their lives), but I found solace in the fact that this, too, shall pass.

They won’t be stubborn, screaming, irrational, dramatic little people for ever.

B is 2 years and 4 months old and in the last 3 weeks (surprisingly coinciding with the birth of my fourth son and the travel of his nanny) he has turned into a little opinionated, loud (VERY loud) stubborn, and I’m afraid to say, sometimes rude, little child.

I did well to get my 2 eldest through this phase, but I cannot for the life of me remember how! Granted I didn’t have a new-born when they decided to have their “terrible twos.” (more…)

Mama B (Saudi Arabia)

Mama B’s a young mother of four beautiful children who leave her speechless in both, good ways and bad. She has been married for 9 years and has lived in London twice in her life. The first time was before marriage (for 4 years) and then again after marriage and kid number 2 (for almost 2 years). She is settled now in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (or as settled as one can be while renovating a house). Mama B loves writing and has been doing it since she could pick up a crayon. Then, for reasons beyond her comprehension, she did not study to become a writer, but instead took graphic design courses. Mama B writes about the challenges of raising children in this world, as it is, who are happy, confident, self reliant and productive without driving them (or herself) insane in the process. Mama B also sheds some light on the life of Saudi, Muslim children but does not claim to be the voice of all mothers or children in Saudi. Just her little "tribe." She has a huge, beautiful, loving family of brothers and sisters that make her feel like she wants to give her kids a huge, loving family of brothers and sisters, but then is snapped out of it by one of her three monkeys screaming “Ya Maamaa” (Ya being the arabic word for ‘hey’). You can find Mama B writing at her blog, Ya Maamaa . She's also on Twitter @YaMaamaa.

More Posts

SAUDI ARABIA: Balancing Act

Today I sat in my baby’s room, nursing him, while I looked over my eldest son’s math homework (and pretended to remember how to add fractions and prayed I was making sense). My daughter was busy changing into her 6th outfit for a birthday she was going to and coming to show me, while my other son lay on the floor, face down and whaling like the world was ending.

I was resisting the urge to pierce my ear drums when it hit me. I have a two-year old again! I seem to have blocked the other 2 times I had two-year olds (as people block out traumatic times in their lives), but I found solace in the fact that this, too, shall pass.

They won’t be stubborn, screaming, irrational, dramatic little people for ever.

B is 2 years and 4 months old and in the last 3 weeks (surprisingly coinciding with the birth of my fourth son and the travel of his nanny) he has turned into a little opinionated, loud (VERY loud) stubborn, and I’m afraid to say, sometimes rude, little child.

I did well to get my 2 eldest through this phase, but I cannot for the life of me remember how! Granted I didn’t have a new-born when they decided to have their “terrible twos.” (more…)

Mama B (Saudi Arabia)

Mama B’s a young mother of four beautiful children who leave her speechless in both, good ways and bad. She has been married for 9 years and has lived in London twice in her life. The first time was before marriage (for 4 years) and then again after marriage and kid number 2 (for almost 2 years). She is settled now in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (or as settled as one can be while renovating a house). Mama B loves writing and has been doing it since she could pick up a crayon. Then, for reasons beyond her comprehension, she did not study to become a writer, but instead took graphic design courses. Mama B writes about the challenges of raising children in this world, as it is, who are happy, confident, self reliant and productive without driving them (or herself) insane in the process. Mama B also sheds some light on the life of Saudi, Muslim children but does not claim to be the voice of all mothers or children in Saudi. Just her little "tribe." She has a huge, beautiful, loving family of brothers and sisters that make her feel like she wants to give her kids a huge, loving family of brothers and sisters, but then is snapped out of it by one of her three monkeys screaming “Ya Maamaa” (Ya being the arabic word for ‘hey’). You can find Mama B writing at her blog, Ya Maamaa . She's also on Twitter @YaMaamaa.

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SAUDI ARABIA: The Choice I Made

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote a short while ago titled ,”The Choices We Make (For Them)“. To summarize, in January we moved back to Riyadh, the city we used to live in. My kids want to go back to the schools they were in before.

I want them to go to a small school with a higher standard of education. The old schools are big and chock full of students (My son S had 28 classmates, My daughter J had 18). This school is small and has relatively few students. In S’s case there’s only one other student in 3rd grade!

Well, I made the choice! I chose the small school for both my kids. Needless to say, neither child was thrilled. But I am the adult in charge of making these decisions for them. The decisions that will make them sad and angry at me and say things like “it’s so unfair” and “I want to be with my friends.”

When I told them the decision they instantly crumpled. (more…)

Mama B (Saudi Arabia)

Mama B’s a young mother of four beautiful children who leave her speechless in both, good ways and bad. She has been married for 9 years and has lived in London twice in her life. The first time was before marriage (for 4 years) and then again after marriage and kid number 2 (for almost 2 years). She is settled now in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (or as settled as one can be while renovating a house). Mama B loves writing and has been doing it since she could pick up a crayon. Then, for reasons beyond her comprehension, she did not study to become a writer, but instead took graphic design courses. Mama B writes about the challenges of raising children in this world, as it is, who are happy, confident, self reliant and productive without driving them (or herself) insane in the process. Mama B also sheds some light on the life of Saudi, Muslim children but does not claim to be the voice of all mothers or children in Saudi. Just her little "tribe." She has a huge, beautiful, loving family of brothers and sisters that make her feel like she wants to give her kids a huge, loving family of brothers and sisters, but then is snapped out of it by one of her three monkeys screaming “Ya Maamaa” (Ya being the arabic word for ‘hey’). You can find Mama B writing at her blog, Ya Maamaa . She's also on Twitter @YaMaamaa.

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