While interviewing Saudi women, I have often been regaled with tales of the odd, obtuse and downright offensive questions that have been put to them on their travels. I didn't doubt their testimonies, but I did find it difficult to envisage the scene. Who were these brazen interlocutors?
Then, on a night out in Paris with one of Saudi’s first fashion models, a night out that started in a tattoo parlour (because that’s how Saudi girls do), some men at the next table started a conversation. And it happened.
Asked where she’s from, my dazzling acquaintance generally replies Texas, where she completed part of her education. It's an omission I found difficult to understand; I wanted her to be proud of her roots, to show the real face of her country. So, in a moment of ill-timed audacity, I answered for her, “She’s Saudi!” I gushed.
“Oh right!”, [cue silence and staring], “…so do you have oil in your back garden then?
Before I could lift my jaw from the table, our gallant gentleman was off again with a trail of references to camels and burqas; it was as though a dam had been unblocked and he could no longer contain the flow.
My ever-elegant companion simply smiled gracefully in response. “Texas it is,” I apologised, as we discretely retreated to another table.
This somewhat disheartening encounter inspired me to quiz my other Saudi female friends on what irritating questions and remarks they most commonly receive while overseas. Here are the top seven.
1. So, you have oil on tap in your bathroom?
Sadly, the interchange described above was not a first for my friend, nor for almost any of the women I spoke to who had travelled abroad.
“I was asked if there was oil in my tent. In my tent.” complained Meria, 22, an art agent from Riyadh.
“That’s always the first question, they’re usually being condescending,” sighs filmmaker Laama Almadani, “when I was living in Paris I took to wearing a leather bag that was moulded in the shape of an oil jug. Mind you, it was stylish.”
It’s true that Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of oil, but sadly, you are no more likely to find a Saudi with black gold in her backyard than you are to find a Liechtensteiner (the world’s largest exporter of false teeth) with a spare pair of dentures in her coat pocket.
Other jerrycan handbag models are available
2. Why aren’t you wearing your [mimes rectangle shape around eyes]?
“‘Why aren’t you covered,’ is usually the first one, or ‘Oh… but… you look normal!’” says my model-friend, who is not entirely sure what such commentators were expecting to find in place of her face.
“I need to carry around a niqab and abaya, for the sake of their cognitive dissonance.” laughs Alyah, 26, a student in Paris, who often faces similar reactions of disbelief when she reveals she is in possession of both a Saudi passport and a healthy head of hair.
Indeed, many Saudi women who veil at home, choose not to abroad. Some fear Islamaphobic attacks, for others it’s a matter of culture and context; in activist Loujain Al Houthloul's view: "the only need for hijab is to protect you as a woman. If your society is mainly uncovered, instead of blending it, you can actually draw more attention to yourself in a way."
3. Do you, like, ride camels?
“We get asked weird questions, sometimes they ask if we ride camels, or if we live in houses,” says Anoud, 21, Meria's business partner.
While it’s true that camels are still a source of pride and cultural identity in the Kingdom, as last week’s botox controversy confirmed, they are now broadly appreciated in the way that we might value racehorses; for their breeding and fine features rather than as a means of transportation.
On the streets of modern-day Riyadh, you are likely to come across Bentleys, dragsters and kids pulling tricks on stunt bikes. But camels? I’m afraid not…
Riyadh's rude boys show off their wheels (girls to follow, 2018!)
4. I bet you're happy you've got out!
"They asked me, 'are you happy now you're in the United States and free?' I said I was never not free. I was quite offended. They also asked if I'd ever seen a tomato..." says university administrator Huda, 38.
Just because you've met a Saudi woman abroad doesn't mean she's escaped. Women in the Kingdom still face many restrictions, which range in severity according to the family and the region they were raised in. But that doesn't mean they don't love their country.
"I like how family-oriented we are," says Huda, "parents, kids, grandparents, uncles and aunts; everyone is very close. I love that!"
Home is always where the heart is
5. Oh cool! My cousin works in Saudi, he's in Dubai.
Alas, even I am not immune to this one. “Oh I get that all the time,” confirmed one senior princess, “’Is Saudi Arabia, like, in Israel or Dubai?’”
I understand of course that all these places are in the Middle East (unless you’re Donald Trump), and how the confusion might arise, but understand that to a Saudi, it is akin to being asked, “So the U.K, is that in Germany or Paris?”
In need of a little geographical refreshment? Amazon's Middle East mug is a bargain at $7.20
6. You can afford it, you’re Saudi!
"'Oh, you are rich, you are a Saudi, you are fooloos*,' everywhere I go!" exclaims exasperated school teacher Inas, 41, from Dammam.
“I hate that comment,” says Huda “everywhere, people assume we have money. No we don't all have money. Why do you think I am working? When I was in the States I worked 60-hour weeks. Why would I do that to myself if I had money. If we want to travel we save, we plan, like anybody.”
Reports suggest that despite the nation’s oil wealth, 20% of the population lives below the poverty line. Divorced and widowed women are especially vulnerable; even those in employment may end up surrendering half their income in order to maintain the driver that takes them to work.
Even in Saudi, independent women gotta hustle
*Arabic slang-term for money
7. Aren’t you terrorists though, I mean… really?
"I know people think we’re no good. I know because when someone sits down next to me on a plane or outside somewhere, I can see they are uncomfortable." Says Inas.
Undoubtedly the assumption that is most distressing to Saudis; I have seen my students brought to tears by such generalisations in the Media, as they explain to me that they too are afraid of ISIS. Unfortunately, such prejudices are also brought across into face-to-face encounters.
“When you say you're Saudi, that’s the first thing that comes in their head - terrorism," laments university professor Nada Al Otaishan, 30, "I tell my mother, your generation was the generation of kings and queens, when you said you were Arab, they used to think about the genie, Aladdin, gold; things like that. Now we’re afraid to say we’re Saudi.”
Love your Saudi sisters!
We hope that soon, the time will come when Saudi women abroad are ready to declare their origins, loud and proud. As Saudi works to reform and to improve their global image, these young women - educated, open minded and ambitious - are sure to be their most effective ambassadors.
And for the Saudi ladies reading, please continue our education by sharing the most irksome and irritating questions you've received in the comments below...