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Saudi Arabia's Dichotomy

Tradition vs. Modernity*

* The article was originally published at   

By  Dina Abdel-Mageed Staff Writer - [image]

Women paint benches in the city of Qatif at the start of the summer season, May 15, 2008. (Reuters Photo)

As I neared the Starbucks café, the music got louder. And on reaching the now-globally-ubiquitous coffee-shop chain outlet, my suspicions that it was playing pop music in the heart of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, were confirmed. Inside, with their hair uncovered, local women were sipping cappuccino, chatting in their exposing clothes. It could have been a normal scene from any modern city except for one detail: there were no men on the premises.

The "Kingdom of Women" is a "male-free" area located in the huge skyscraper in which Saudis take pride: the "Kingdom Tower." To be found on the third floor, the female-only space gives women the chance to dress and act freely. In the conservative Saudi surroundings, such places allow women an outlet to do what they cannot do in public, sometimes resulting in what some consider to be ostentatious behavior.

"Such women-only places are really good. Women need ... privacy and to spend some time with their friends. [Unfortunately,] some women overdo it; they wear excessive make-up and dress the way they dress for night parties," says Abeer Al Khliwe, a young Saudi woman, adding that "for some, it is a way of showing off, which reflects [superficiality]."

The strict segregation between men and women has created "parallel universes: one occupied by men, the other by women," wrote Susan Martin recently for the St. Petersburg Times.

According to Salma Mohammed (real name withheld on request), a 31-year-old Saudi mother-of-two: "Segregation affects the unity of the family. I don't like it. Why [should] a married woman go somewhere on her own without her husband? All our social events, including family visits, are segregated."

Saudi women's conservative appearance in public, however, tells only half of the story, given that modern technology is now enabling young people to get around social norms and traditions. Today, many of the kingdom's young people of both genders exchange phone numbers and videos in shopping malls via Bluetooth systems, and use cell phones and online chat rooms to talk to each other. Meanwhile, in women-only gatherings, many females reveal what they must publicly suppress.

Girls of Riyadh 

The dichotomy between tradition and modernity depicted in Banat Al Riyadh has echoes in reality that can be felt in all spheres of Saudi life.

Banat Al Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh) was a bestseller that appeared in bookshops September 2005. Written by a 24-year-old female author and Saudi native, Rajaa Al Sanie, and printed in Beirut, the novel followed the lives of a number of Saudi women, portraying their dreams, fears, and disappointments.

The Saudi society depicted in Sanie's novel is totally different from how it is widely perceived, a world so contradictory it sometimes borders on the schizophrenic. In Banat Al Riyadh, young men and women rebel against norms, and its heroines navigate a minefield of social taboos that eventually destroy their dreams.

Unsurprisingly, Sanie's controversial depiction of Saudi women's closed world was met with strong disapproval in the kingdom and was ultimately banned.

For her part, Salma was also unimpressed with the book: "I didn't like [it]. It scandalized many people. [Sanie] ... made sweeping generalizations ... [giving] the impression that all the girls of Riyadh act the way the characters in her book act, which is untrue."

The novel also drew on "bad examples of girls and exaggerated too much" according to Salma, being merely "about gossiping and scandals."

On the other hand, many argue Sanie's book was warmly welcomed by non-Saudi readers because it dealt with what they believed to be the hidden aspect of a very closed society. To Saudi natives, though, it presented an extremely shocking portrait of life in the kingdom, a portrait that, in their opinion, was untrue, or, at least, exaggerated.

Still, the dichotomy between tradition and modernity depicted in Banat Al Riyadh has echoes in reality that can be felt in all spheres of Saudi life; from the teens' attention-grabbing abayas (traditional black robes) to the satellite dishes found everywhere in the kingdom's ultra-Orthodox capital.

And certainly from a foreigner's perspective, Saudi society remains perplexing. In the words of the British Broadcasting Corporation's Saudi Arabia correspondent Kim Ghattas, "Saudi Arabia is a country of contradictions."

Glitzy Appearance 

Like most Arab capitals, Riyadh offers the semblance of modernity but not its essence.

Wandering Riyadh's luxurious malls and shimmering skyscrapers, the modern side of the Saudi capital is fully on display, but encounters with the kingdom's strict social regulations shows the city in a different light.

For example, even though Riyadh's locals can dine at the city's many international fast-food chain outlets, they must still eat behind the closed curtains of private booths, with families taking their meals in a section apart.

Thus, like most Arab capitals, Riyadh offers the semblance of modernity but not its essence. Being modern here means using brand-name products, shopping in top-class malls, and driving fancy cars. When it comes to social codes, however, people have to abide by rigid rules limiting the movement of women, preventing them from driving cars, compelling them to keep to a strict dress code, and even determining the criteria of their husbands-to-be.

While some Saudis express resentment at such strictures, others feel satisfied with the status quo, one way or another.

"I don't wear the Islamic veil," says Salma, adding, however, that she likes "the idea of modest clothes being obligatory because it protects women from [bad] people." And while she does not think "wearing abayas is a must in Islam," what matters is "dressing modestly." Ultimately, she says, "we grew up to find women in our country dress in abayas."

Abeer had a slightly different opinion: "[While] it's good here for women to wear abayas because it's safer this way ... I'm against imposing anything on people. For me, [wearing the traditional robes] is a personal conviction. I find abayas modest, decent, and practical. I can go out in the summer wearing whatever I like [underneath]."

Still, the glamorous, revealing clothes sold throughout the country's world-class shops may never be worn in public and some Saudi women cannot wait to take off their abayas on the plane on their way out of their country.

Inconsistencies of this kind pose serious questions about the effect of social pressure, the role played by the kingdom's religious establishment, and the widening gap between liberals and conservatives in Saudi society.

What makes it even more difficult at times to understand the kingdom's social landscape is the fact that its norms are based on a mixture of religious and tribal traditions. And while flexible enough to adapt to different cultures, the implementation of Islam here is often colored by local practices. As Salma says, "It is really bad when traditions are mixed with religion, which is the case here." Thus, in considering the Saudi dichotomy between old and new, the cultural context in which Islamic principles are implemented in the kingdom must also be given importance, not focusing solely, as some mistakenly do, on the religious factors alone.

Different Levels of Conservatism 

Jeddah and Khobar are commonly regarded as far more liberal than the Saudi capital.

But not all Saudi cities are characterized by the same level of conservatism as Riyadh. Two examples of a freer urban social climate are Jeddah and Khobar, cities commonly regarded as far more liberal than the Saudi capital - even "too liberal" according to Abeer.

But she is also quick to point out: "compared to other Saudi cities, Riyadh can also be considered liberal. Qaseem, for instance, is too conservative. In some Saudi cities I cannot walk around with my face uncovered; I have to cover not only my face, but also my hands."

Higher education levels and better living conditions usually mean increasing demands for civil and political rights. However, reflecting the same dichotomy between modernity and tradition, such demands have not manifested in Saudi Arabia - at least not as a widespread phenomenon. Though the kingdom's educational system is improving, and more Saudi nationals are studying abroad, calls for greater individual rights are barely registered here. Such silence is derived from a number of factors, including the historical evolution of the state, the nature of Saudi society, and the socioeconomic conditions in the kingdom.

Still, browsing through shopping malls such as the "Kingdom Tower," it is easy to notice how Riyadh has changed. A decade ago, a 10-year-old girl would have been frowned on and yelled at by the religious police for not covering her face. Today, young women can do their shopping without even bothering to cover their hair. The presence of religious police, also, is hardly ever felt anymore.

At the same time, however, it was not considered unusual when a group of radical students recently stormed the stage of a play being performed at Riyadh's Imam University, deeming the work un-Islamic because of the inclusion of background music. According to the kingdom's university rules, students are not usually allowed music for such events.

Such occurrences continue to highlight the growing rift between Saudi liberals and conservatives, and the kingdom's ongoing clash between modernity and tradition - "tradition" here meaning an ideology combining local culture with the most conservative elements of religion.

Whether or not the rift will widen further is unclear. Yet, it seems the ultra-Orthodox country is moving ever-closer to the liberal side of the spectrum, despite the condemnation of its conservatives. 

Dina Abdel-Mageed is an editor at's Muslim Affairs section and a freelance journalist. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, she holds a BA in political science with a specialization in public and international law. She has written articles for several online and print publications, including al-Jazeera International, Daily News Egypt/International Herald Tribune, the Edinburgh Middle East Report, and the Middle East Times. Click here to reach her. 

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