Although the restrictions can be stifling, I have identified a few perks of being female living in Saudi. (Of course, some of these “perks” are likely also associated with nationality – i.e. being a Westerner vs. Saudi vs. other nationality.) Take your typical experience at the airport. Usually, the sight of the line-ups for the foreigners in the immigration area is enough to induce a sinking feeling of dismay, particularly after a long flight. But in the Riyadh airport, they usually reserve a counter for the foreign females and if you flash the right passport (e.g. from a Western country), you get whisked over there right away. Meanwhile, the lines for the male travelers who are not Saudi or GCC can extend at least the length of the hall.
(I have recently found that having a North American passport in hand has also come in handy for bypassing the airline counter lines and getting checked in at the “special needs passenger” desk, as long as I don’t have any luggage I need to check in. Hey – I don’t mind being “special needs” if it’s yet another line-up to avoid.)
Similarly, at the security area, women have to enter a separate room for “security screening” by female security officers. I put this in quotations because this involves little more than a cursory swipe with the wand, once across the front and then across the back. No metal detectors and certainly no pat-downs. When you enter the room, they are usually drinking tea, having some snacks, and checking their phone, and I often have the same feeling you get when you’ve found yourself somewhere where you’re clearly not invited. Most of the time, they don’t even bother standing up from their chair. So they swipe you from a seated position; I guess they can at least check that you don’t have anything packed around your waist – and then you’re through. Meanwhile, you would have placed your bags through the x-ray machine outside, and by the time you’re through the female security room, your luggage is waiting for you at the end of the conveyer belt.
So all in all, if you’re a woman, it’s a relatively pleasant and very quick passage through the airport, albeit with some disconcerting security practices. Yet another perk of being female in Saudi.
I’ve had the chance to travel a bit over the past month, and every time I return to Riyadh, I experience what only can be described as the “back-to-Riyadh-reality”. This last trip was a particularly interesting study in contrasts because I went to Switzerland and Germany, landing first in Zurich after leaving Riyadh. I am not sure there could be two more different cities in the world as Riyadh and Zurich. Coming from Riyadh, with its chaotic, construction-laden, everyone-for-himself traffic and where the lines on the road are more like suggestions – to landing in Zurich, possibly the most organized and orderly city in the Western world where cars, trams, and buses share narrow city roads and no one is ever late … well, it was one of the more disorienting experiences I ever had during traveling. (Not to mention that I felt almost naked without my abaya when I first got off the plane.)
This got me to thinking about why there can be such differences in human society across the world. Obviously some differences can be attributed to differences in culture and traditions, but I think a lot also has to do with externally-applied rules and regulations. What if we transplanted some Swiss to Riyadh, or some Saudis to Zurich while keeping the same systems and regulations in place in each of those cities – how will the behaviour of the people change? I know from my own experience how much the surrounding system (or lack of one) can affect your behaviour. When I visited China a few years ago, for example, I found myself transformed from a nice, polite Canadian who stands in line with arms-length distance from the person next to me, to a person who is wary, aggressive, and stands with her elbows-out to prevent someone cutting in front. I like to think that I am generally well-behaved and courteous, but those characteristics didn’t get me very far in Shanghai. But does this mean that Chinese people are pushy and aggressive by nature, or is it the system that makes them this way? And are all the Swiss really so orderly and structured inherently? (Well, maybe they are.) But by the same token, is Riyadh chaotic because Saudis don’t know how to drive between the lines or wait their turn at the stop light? Or is it the lack of properly enforced traffic rules and regulations and systematic planning?
As I was boarding a Lufthansa flight this morning back to Riyadh, there was a young Saudi couple, probably in their early 20s, ahead of me in line. For those of you who have flown out of Frankfurt before, you’ll know that you have to scan your boarding pass through an automated gate before you can board the plane. The young man of the couple was holding both of their boarding passes. He first scanned the woman’s boarding pass and had her go through before scanning his own boarding pass to proceed through the gate. I thought that he was a very nice, courteous young man, and then didn’t think anymore of the situation. But then a female Lufthansa agent who was standing nearby saw this, and she said to the young woman, “You are very capable, you know. You could have done that yourself!” and then addressing the young man, said, “Women are very capable of doing many things. They take care of the house, take care of the children. They are very capable! You should value her. Make sure that you treat her nicely!” Her friendly, jolly tone of voice belied her condescending and disdainful attitude towards Saudis.
Would she have said the same thing if it had been a young European couple? I highly doubt it. Why does she assume that this young Saudi man doesn’t already treat the woman nicely? If it had been a European couple, would she have labeled the man’s actions as indicative of a domineering, controlling husband, or a thoughtful, considerate husband?
Also, had this woman even been to Saudi Arabia before or bothered to learn anything else about the country besides what mainstream media would have us understand? Probably not, because if she had, she also would not have defined Saudi women’s capabilities only be their apparent ability to take of the house and children. She would have seen that Saudi women are physicians, professors, scientists, writers, teachers, businesswomen, and yes, some are homemakers – just like in many other parts of the world. Also, she obviously assumed that this young couple was married. Maybe they were brother and sister, which would have made her remarks even more inappropriate!
I think that this Lufthansa agent should stick to her job – getting people on the plane so it can leave in time – and forgo the obtuse social commentary!
There’s an interesting sign above the baggage carousels at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The sign very politely asks you to declare if you have certain items of interest to the customs inspector. I am always slightly bemused, if not a little nonplussed, not so much by the actual items, but by the order in which they appear:
First on the list: video tapes, films, and audio recordings. I assume they mean x-rated videos or messages (political?) disseminated by cassettes (which really dates the sign too). Some of the items that follow are pretty standard, like drugs, currency, and commercial goods. Others, like sculptures, alcohol, and pork, reflect the religious regulations here.
But what caught my eye is the fact that it’s not until the very end of the list that fire-arms and ammunition appears. I would have thought that in terms of a country’s and its citizens’ security, this last item should be a priority for the border officials to check!
As I alluded to above, I think this sign reflects policies and practices from an earlier era. I have yet to be questioned by a customs official, or seen anyone else being questioned or having their bags searched. Camelman says they used to be much more strict and would hand search people’s luggage more often. Nowadays, before you can exit the terminal, all your bags have to be put through an x-ray machine, which is manned by a bored-looking officer. So maybe they are not as worked up about finding those contraband materials (except, hopefully, firearms and ammunition).