We got picked up from the Auckland airport by a Saudi Arabian couple. For the next five days, we learned from our hosts what life in Saudi was like for women.
Our couchsurfing host in Auckland, New Zealand came from a middle class family in Saudi Arabia. After obtaining a tourist and then a student visa, she moved to New Zealand and never plans to move back. She has given up her practice of Islam and seeks a new way of life in the Western world.
* * *
An eleven hour plane ride delivered a Saudi woman and her brother across oceans to start life anew. She would have gone alone, but the laws of her country wouldn’t have allowed it. New Zealand handed her a three month visa to explore as soon as she stepped on its soil. She slung her bag over her shoulder and walked out of the airport, ready to discover a foreign way of living.
She wasn’t wearing her usual long, black abaya or her headscarf, as enforced by religious police in Saudi Arabia. Here her hair blew in the wind, uncovered, and, for the first time ever, she donned clothes with color. Life in New Zealand is just like in the movies, she thought. Girls in jeans shopped and drove their own cars, men opened doors for her, strangers smiled and said hello. She could go where she pleased, alone, unobserved, dignified.
She came from a family of eight siblings in the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. She was the second oldest. At 22, she became first in her family to travel outside Saudi Arabia. Plans to study abroad made her a local topic of concern and scorn. Neighbors dropped by to chastise her mother for allowing a young teenager out into the deceiving world. It would be dangerous for an easily influenced girl with only half a brain, they reasoned. Yet her mother encouraged her to go. She believed in her daughter, and saw in her a capable adult with full range of ideas and purpose.
The story paused. My mom interjected:
“They didn’t actually tell your mother you had half a brain, did they?”
“Yes, it is written in the Koran that women only have half a brain.”
She gave us a half smile.
“We have very little freedom as women in Saudi. My brother had to stay in New Zealand, under the pretense that he was escorting me everywhere, until I got married. When I married four years later, he said, ‘Finally!’ and returned home to uphold his duty as guardian over my mom.”
“In Saudi, you couldn’t go anywhere alone? Not even to the grocery store?” I asked.
“No, it is illegal. If a woman is found walking alone outside, Muslim men are encouraged to rape or kill her, as long as they don’t draw witnesses. My father or brothers had to bring me everywhere.
One time, I wanted to go to my friend’s house after school. My oldest brother was able to walk me there, but would be busy later on and not able to walk me home. So the whole thing was called off.”
She still seemed to think of it wistfully, with a touch of bitterness.
In Saudi Arabia, she had been accustomed to overpowering male domination. Men ruled; women were less than second-class. Still in the practice of arranged marriages, sometimes fathers gambled off their daughters to be married if they lost their bet in a game of cards.
“How do arranged marriages work there? Does anyone ever refuse an arranged proposal?” I asked her.
“Very rarely,” she replied, “It would be considered a disgrace and rude to turn down an arranged match. Most people just go through with it, but Saudi Arabia has the highest divorce rate in the world.”
So here’s how it works: from school days, girls are required to obtain permission to do any activities from the head male of her family, whether that’s a father, grandfather, or… younger brother. If that head of the family didn’t like her and wished to limit her at anytime, there was nothing she could do.
Women must have male supervision when using social media such as Facebook, because woman are said to be untrustworthy.
Divorce and Multiple Wives
Men are legally able to obtain up to four wives at once. And more often than not, men take more than one. Her own step-father had two wives.
It is very easy for a man to divorce his wife, but there’s a maze of hoops to jump through for a woman to divorce a man. She must go to court and declare she wants a divorce. The court will tell her to think it over because maybe she really doesn’t want to divorce. She must repeat this declaration in court three times before being allowed to start the divorce process. It typically takes two years for a woman to divorce.
Some men love to make life miserable for women.
Sometimes, instead of filing for divorce, a husband will simply send his wife out on her own. She is left to survive by herself without having the option to marry.
Unable to work (outside of being a teacher,) a woman in Saudi needs a man to survive.
Her brothers back in Saudi, although the age of adult men, still reside at home with her parents. They work and bring home money to contribute to the family in lieu of rent. This is a normal setup and situation when a man does not want to pay the costs of living alone. In some cases, the parents do not allow their adult children to leave.
“What about after they get married?” I asked.
“They don’t even leave then,” she answered.
“That must be so uncomfortable for the wife to move in and live with his family!”
“Yes! It’s so the parents can know everything. There are no secrets.”
* * *
Soon after arriving, our host obtained the ability to study English in New Zealand. After gaining fluency in English, she went on to take beauty courses at a university in Auckland.
She married a man named Mohamed who also disagreed with the degrading laws against women under sharia law.
Mohamed, a Saudi man and an experienced traveler, was also living in NZ, helping international students find schools and work. Most of the Saudi men he worked with asked the price of sleeping with a woman, as a regular, routine question. They didn’t come to integrate, but to treat New Zealand as a kind of playground.
When I asked what she loved best about NZ, she quickly responded: freedom. She enjoyed the ability to do as she pleased. We noticed however, that our host didn’t understand the concept of freedom as we did. Each day she wore skin-tight, revealing clothing, watched videos with copious swearing and continuously invited us to drink beer. With no foundation, her conception of freedom was shallow and skewed.
She would love to have her family come and visit her and they say they will. But it is a long journey and her mom has young children to look after. In the meantime, she and Mohamed work towards residency in New Zealand and continue building their lives there, hopefully one day learning the true meaning of liberty and embracing it fully.