5 Ways Growing Up Female In Saudi Arabia Is A Nightmare
When Saudi Arabia makes the news, it's usually because their government has done something horrible to somebody undeserving for a very, very stupid reason. But you can't judge an entire country by their government (America desperately hopes). That's why we reached out to Aaida, a Saudi woman, and Adam, who spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia's capital of Riyadh, to find out what life there is really like. This is what they told us.
Editorial Note: Since this article was published the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reversed its policy on female drivers, and now the ladies of the country can work for Uber. That's awesome. But all of the other terrible and crazy restrictions listed in this article are still reality for millions of Saudi women. There's a long way yet to go.
Basically Everything We Love Is Banned
Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law, which is a set of Islamic rules that pretty much boil down to banning anything that stimulates in any way. Adam elaborates:
"Everybody knows about beer, pork, and porn, but it also extends to congregating in large groups (more than five, I think) and the playing of music in public. Also, I think Jeddah [a popular Saudi resort town] has recently forbidden the walking of dogs in public, because they may be used to attract the ladies."
Evil takes many forms.
Imagine an entire country run by a crusty, mean old dean from an '80s college comedy, and you'll come up with something very close to Saudi Arabia. Throw in a few rules a sheltered suburban mom named Carol would come up with, and the illusion will be complete.
"Since my dad was a biology teacher," Adam says, "it was quite difficult to use the web to research things, because of the propensity to display naked bodies. This is the page you used to get back in the day ..."
"We're not mad at you. Just disappointed."
Censorship also infiltrates the physical realm: "On occasion, I used to buy PC Gamer magazine, and all the computer-generated women had their arms, legs, and exposed cleavage colored in with black permanent marker. (Very precisely outlined, though. The censors were very fastidious in executing their jobs.) And since Islam prohibits the depiction of the human form, many people you'd see on billboards would have pixelated eyes." (Or sport sunglasses, making all of Saudi Arabia look like it was sponsored by Ray-Ban.)
All those rules are enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), aka the religious police, the holy fuzz, the anti-pig pigs. We'd say it's Orwellian, but even Big Brother wouldn't ban puppies.
The Religious Police Have A Very Strange Role In Daily Life
The idea of religious police might sound terrifying, but as it turns out, Saudi Arabia's CPVPV is a lot like The Blair Witch Project: kind of scary in the '90s, but mostly annoying now.
"For example, they have these huge GMCs. They like to park their cars in front of girls' high schools, women's universities," Aaida told us. "And they have a microphone, and they'll tell every woman who passes by to cover up. If they see a woman standing outside for a relatively long time, they'd ask her, 'What are you doing? Why are you standing here?'"
"Well, cover up regardless."
On rare occasions, the religious cops definitely can ruin someone's day (Adam's friend was once sentenced to 40 lashes for being drunk in public), but mostly they resort to threatening to tell your parents, like a weenie fourth-grader with a badge. Aaida explains: "When I was in university, the reading club organized a book fair. They had two separate corners, one for females and one for male students. And the female coordinator spoke to the male ones, and the RP saw them there, took them in, and they told her, 'You need to sign this confession that says this man was harassing you and we saved you from him. If you don't sign this, we'll call your guardian.' She signed the thing and left."
And yet the religious police aren't all bad. "Let's say, a woman kind of has this sort of man she talks with, and she sends him pictures of herself," Aaida told us. "Sometimes, the guy will blackmail her with it. 'If you don't give me X dollars, I'll publish these pictures' -- something that puts her in danger. This is where the religious police come in. They do this ambush thing, tell her, 'Tell him to come here,' and they bust him," and later hopefully tell his mom about what he's done.
Even Adam's brother has had positive interactions with the CPVPV, like when he was in an accident and they helped him change his tire. But god help you if they see even a hint of butt crack poke out while you're doing it.
There Is An Obvious And Strictly Defined Racial Hierarchy
Saudi Arabia is one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the Middle East. That reputation is reflected in everything, from the vast number of universities dedicated solely to STEM to their precisely calculated racial hierarchy.
"Whenever we drove into the diplomatic quarter in Riyadh at the National Guard checkpoint," Adam recalls, "we were always treated respectfully, with plenty of 'please,' 'sir,' 'welcome' -- no problem at all. But if you're dark or look Arab, your car would get searched. The social hierarchy is: Saudis, Gulf Arabs (excluding Yemen, because they're perceived as country bumpkins and drug addict truck drivers), Americans and Europeans, other Arabs, Indonesians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, then Bangladeshis."
Great. Racist and confusing.
Why such a laser-guided approach to racism? It mostly comes down to the type of jobs foreigners do in the country. Most Westerners move there to be doctors and engineers, so they're at the top of the list and "always get waved through to the front of the line at immigration, ahead of all the other countries," according to Adam. But other nationalities tend to go for manual labor jobs, which in Saudi Arabia means you're not technically human.
"One form of racism," Adam explains, "is that it's not permissible for a woman to be in the car with a male who isn't related to her, but somehow it was acceptable to use a driver or take a cab driven by a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi. I guess it's because in this case, the driver is part of the 'furniture' and completely nonthreatening."
(They're also a necessity - after all, women can't drive cars because, according to a Saudi cleric, seatbelts can destroy their ovaries.)
If this all sounds suspiciously like slavery, there's a reason for that.
Say what you want about Western racism, but at least we don't think of our minorities as gussied-up Barcaloungers. We mostly just shoot them. Which is actually much worse, but, uh ... hey look, another entry!
Dating Is Like Living In A Spy Movie
"Saudi culture is very gender-segregated," Adam explains. "From restaurants to banks, a lot of places have both family sections and men's sections. There's even a women-only mall in Riyadh. Kindergartens are mixed, but from first grade onward, there are separate boys and girls schools. That's why people get creative about how to get in touch with the opposite sex. Back in my day, a popular method was to put your MSN ID on the side of your car and go for a cruise around town in the hope that a girl would spot it and contact you on her own."
"I've always loved you from afar, LongRod420."
Another popular method was the Bluetooth chat. "If the MSN ID trick didn't work out, you could always go to a cafe, sit in the men's section, turn on your Bluetooth, and hope for someone behind the wall in the women's section to see your phone. Then they'd connect to it, and the two of you could text." All while trying to determine how attractive the other person was solely by their emoji usage.
"Red dress dancer! Don't blow this ..."
"In a mixed area like the food court at a mall, a guy might also write his phone number on the back of a McDonald's receipt and then crumple it up and drop it on a fine lady's tray or on the floor next to her table. If she's interested, she can pick it up and unfold it and text him, or she can reject him by flicking it off the table."
Nowadays, people mostly use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. That takes all the desperate, horny spy action out of courtship. But that may soon change, as Saudi Arabia has already banned Facebook's chat function, and is considering banning the site altogether because they think it might be turning people gay. So start brushing up on your romantic carrier pigeon messages, young people.
Women Are Not Legally Adults
When you take away someone's rights, you have essentially turned that person into a child. But Saudi Arabia is the best Arabia! They can do better than "essentially." Adam told us: "Women aren't adults in Saudi Arabia. My mother didn't have her own residence permit. She was just listed as a dependent on my dad's permit ... I'm not sure if it's still the case, but a woman's mahram [guardian] could even get a text message if she tried to leave the country."
Being picked up at the lost child kiosk is embarrassing enough at seven; imagine it in your 40s.
That's true, by the way. There is indeed a Saudi app that lets a woman's father/husband/brother/male family pet know when she tries to leave the country. Because how can they be sure that some sicko hasn't lured her away with cute pics of those unholy, irresistible puppies? See? It's all an effort to protect women.
"As a Saudi woman," Aaida explains, "I'm treated as a minor legally. If I want to renew my passport, my guardian has to do that. If I want to get a job, my guardian has to sign that off. It needs to be clear that my guardian is OK with that. Until 10 years ago, my guardian would have access to my bank account, but they stopped that now."
Probably realizing it'd be easier to simply not let women have their own money.
And yet, another Saudi woman we spoke to insists that the country's rules have their occasional upsides: "When you go to some party and, y'know, you have somebody with you, then you will not be talked at so much by people. You're not so much exposed, because you can always refer to your relative -- 'Help me out. This person won't leave me alone.' Sometimes, it may happen that someone wants to talk to you, dance with you, and it's really helpful to have someone who can say, 'She doesn't want to talk to you.'"
So Saudi Arabia treats women like second-class citizens in order to protect them from assholes, who believe they are justified in behaving like assholes because Saudi women are second-class citizens. It's an ouroboros of crap.
Adam is a renowned forum lurker. As an avid Cracked fan, having his pseudonym mentioned in this article is nothing short of the fulfillment of a life-long dream.Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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