'They think we're fundamentalists': the truth about Saudi women

Nicola Sutcliff
'I know how people look at us. They think we’re bad' - Reuters

“I know how people look at us. They think we’re bad, we’re fundamentalists, we’re violent - all these things,” 26-year old Moudi tells me as she pours us each another thimble-size cup of bitter cardamom coffee.

Saudi women, especially those of the younger generation, are not unaware of the way the world views them. Moudi has never left the country, but she has read the headlines.

As she talks, her manicured, illegally tattooed fingers flutter constantly over her smartphone screen. She is attending to her Instagram business where she sells false eyelashes and brightly coloured contact lenses. “They don’t see that we’re living our lives, that we’re doing whatever we want - even when it’s not allowed,” she says, winking an artificially vibrant blue eye at me.

Of course, stereotypes run both ways. As a ‘liberated’ Western woman, I was often regarded, not with envy, but with concern. I spent four years living there, during which time I worked at a university and interviewed women for my book, Queens of the Kingdom, to bring their voices to light. Some offered themselves as surrogate mothers and sisters, seeing that my own, in their eyes, had quite clearly abandoned me.

After all, if the region’s own headlines are to be believed, I was but a promiscuous, unmarried unfortunate, forcibly ejected from her own home on her 18th birthday and left to roam the Earth without a father or brother who cared enough to accompany her. Qamar, a student, told me that Saudis struggled to comprehend the kind of Western family values that ejected teenagers from their homes: "you must feel like you’re nothing."

Nicola Sutcliff lived in Saudi Arabia for four years Credit: Al Mazroa

Moudi, meanwhile, is happy with her life in Riyadh. Business is going well. While public streets might be awash with a seemingly uniform sea of black veils, in the private worlds of women, fashion provides an unregulated form of self-expression. To stand at the gates of the all-female university campus where I worked is to witness a daily morning metamorphosis.

Sweeping black cloaks and swirling veils are discarded to reveal a rainbow of hairstyles, piercings and smartphones on neck chains. With the arrival of the Internet and exposure to international pop culture, trends have become ever-more adventurous. When Lady Gaga went washed-out green, so did the girls of Riyadh; never mind the quantity of bleach it took to get them there. 

It is the internet too that has allowed Moudi, and thousands like her, to lay their own paths to economic independence. Her online business is part of a growing informal economy, where women are finding they can support themselves - without the cost of childcare, the taboo of working in a mixed-sex office or the need to secure a male guardian’s consent. It also allows her to speak to boys.

It is a period of dizzying change often marked by startling paradox. As a university teacher, I was forbidden from even mentioning Lady Gaga - music of any kind is still considered immoral by many. Meanwhile my teenage students rolled into class thumping raunchy R’n’B tracks out of their Skullcandy headphones.

'When Lady Gaga went washed-out green, so did the girls of Riyadh' Credit: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

In terms of officially mandated change, women have clearly come out on top. In the last five years alone women have gained the right to vote, manage their own businesses, and drive their own cars. They now outnumber, and outperform, men in the country’s universities.

It was with dismay then, that I learned of the surprise arrest of a dozen peaceful women’s rights activists in May of last year, some of whom I knew personally. It was with horror that I read the claims of harassment and torture during their detainment.

Behind the scenes, there continues an ongoing battle between the desire for change and centuries old tribalist tradition. The course of rapid modernisation has not been met without resistance, it is women who are often caught in the crossfire. This is still very much a man’s world.

For all her entrepreneurial exuberance, Moudi is quite aware of this fact, “My family married me off when I was twenty-one.” she says “I was so disappointed. I felt they didn’t want me anymore.” The marriage was not a happy one, “We were only married for four months in the end. But that’s not so unusual; I was wife number four. The fourth one you know, they always swap that one in and out.

Saudi women wait for their drivers outside a shopping mall in Riyadh, prior to restrictions being lifted  Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s easy to feel sorry for me,” she admits, “it would be easy for me to feel sorry for myself. But now I look back on it as a success… it made me realise that I have to be financially independent, that I have to make my family hear my point of view.” And this, it would appear, she has achieved; the topic of a second marriage has never been raised. If she marries again, it will be to a partner of her own choosing.

As Saudi women continue to advocate for their rights, in their societies and in their homes, one thing is clear: they want respect, not pity. 

“The worst is when you meet people outside, and they say, ‘aren’t you happy you escaped?’ says photographer Haya, rolling her eyes. “I didn’t escape from anywhere - I’m Saudi, this is home.”

Saudi women are proud of their heritage, their culture and of the changes they are now witnessing, and instigating. It is a transformation for which their leaders have proudly and publicly voiced their full support.

But actions speak louder than words. After almost a year of silence it has been confirmed that the imprisoned activists will now face trial. Within the country, public opinion is polarised; some call the activists heroes, many others, including women, consider them traitors. The cruelty or clemency with which this patriotic group of students, academics and grandmothers are met, will provide a litmus test of  that support. The state must now show their own hand. And an important indication perhaps, of the shape of womanhood in the Kingdom to come.

Queens of the Kingdom: The Women of Saudi Arabia Speak by Nicola Sutcliff published by Simon & Schuster Ltd RRP £14.99. Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514