12 Women Open Up About Life In Saudi Arabia

This week, Saudi Arabia made a historic announcement: Women will finally be allowed to drive in the conservative kingdom. It's a big milestone many people in the country are celebrating, and rightly so — the news comes on the heels of the 2015 decision that accorded Saudi women the right to vote, and the official loosening of the guardianship rules earlier this year that had previously given men power over female relatives' lives. But, when compared to other developed nations, Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the driving ban is far from a complete fix for the policies and attitudes that still dictate the lives of female residents of the largely patriarchal and religious society (the country was ranked 141 out of 144 for gender parity by the World Economic Forum).

But for all the attention when news like this breaks, the lives and views of Saudi women often go unheard and misunderstood, especially in the Western world and media. The notion that they're no more than completely covered subjects who, until yesterday, couldn't drive, fails to capture the strides many women are making in their professional and personal lives, within the cultural and governmental structures that differ from much of the West.

At the end of the day, young Saudi women, like their Western peers, hold a spectrum of backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences that are as varied as they come. So we went to 12 Saudi women to ask them to share their perspectives in their own words. Read their stories ahead.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this slideshow incorrectly identified Wasan in one caption. Refinery29 regrets the error.

Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Bushra, arts & culture nonprofit
"I listened to a lot of My Chemical Romance and Green Day as a teenager, and read manga. I was heavily influenced by international media because I wanted to be edgy. But as a practicing Muslim, I’ve always worn the hijab. Non-Arabs don’t understand the hijab and think it makes me Saudi, but it’s not actually a cultural symbol.

"U.S. foreign policy impacts how Americans see Saudi Arabia, especially for those whose only source of information about us is the news. They tend to think that everybody is wealthy and religious, and that Saudi people are against women driving, and can’t separate Saudi people from the government’s laws. I feel that a lot of what the Western media chooses to focus on comes from a place of white feminism and Islamophobia. Their superficial focus disregards the complexities of these topics and of Saudis."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"Likewise, many Saudis equate being American with being white, probably because American media tends to project an image of a white America. This erases the struggles of people of color that many might not be aware of.

"To me, Trump embodies every negative stereotype there is about Americans. He is ignorant, impulsive, and egocentric. He’s made politics seem like there’s tension between U.S. interests and global interests, when really we all share the Earth."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Ghada, public relations
"Each state in the U.S. has its own culture — it’s like there are 50 countries in one. I used to think that Americans were all white and obese, but then I went there to study. Now I don’t have a stereotype of them at all, not even of skin-color nor mentality.

"Americans are more individualistic, and we’re more family-oriented. Families are more involved in life decisions here, and that can be good and bad. My family supports me when things are rough, they help me get back up. In America, you’re more independent but you’re also alone when things get tough."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"Americans tend to explain their opinions and talk about themselves a lot. We don’t. We get to know a person through patience.

"I think Trump is trying to make good, positive economic changes in the U.S.. He hasn’t been in power long enough for us to judge, but his history as a businessman is successful. I liked The Apprentice and his way of managing and firing people."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Elham, new product development manager
"The U.S. used to represent intellect, freedom, and possibilities, but now I see that it is not politically stable, and the American Dream isn’t as fulfilling as was portrayed by the media. Discrimination exists there like in any country, the economy is suffering, people are in debt, and the government is manipulated.

"Americans see us as barbaric, but thanks to social media, we are managing to share our lifestyle. We lead trendy, upscale lives, that's full of culture and values. We have come a long way from where we were, and are constantly evolving. Globalization has made different cultures more similar. I won’t deny that the West has affected us nicely.
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"So far, Trump is a brand with no essence. Sometimes, to rebuild a country, you must destroy it first. Maybe that’s what’s happening to America now, to make room for a new world order."
Wasan, computer engineer
"The first thing that Americans think of when they think of Saudi women is that she cannot drive and that she covers up. Americans think she she needs permission to do everything; that Saudi Arabia is only a desert, that we don’t have technology or even internet access. But they don’t really know about us probably because we aren’t important enough for them to take the time to learn more than what their media tells them.

As a teenager, I would listen to American music and watch shows, especially Full House. We had easy access to their culture, but I don’t think they have access to ours.
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan

"The Americans I’ve met are beautiful people. They’re supportive and they listen. I think they’re beginning to see different types of Saudi women now that we have our female scientists working with NASA. The only two career options for Saudi women used to in medicine or education. Now we have more career options — I’m a computer engineer — and a more global presence."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Nouf, communications
"There are several different stereotypes of Americans: the redneck, the Wall Street banker, the techie. There are so many because the U.S. is widely available in the media that it’s hard to have one single image of what an American is. There aren’t different portrayals of Saudi women in the media, but we’re just as diverse as they are.

"America is a strange and mysterious place to me because it’s so big. The town I’m from is relatively small, and you know everything and everyone. It would be intimidating to feel like you’re in the middle of a city where you don’t know anyone."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"Trump made me question if there was something that we, as outsiders, don’t know about American politics, or the way that things are run. But now it seems like Americans are also baffled by the news that he won, and shows you that people don’t really know each other there.

"I’m just a normal person, and I’d like it if my nationality wasn’t seen as my identity. If there’s an Arab or Muslim woman on a show, that in itself will create enough drama to be part of the plot. She can’t just be a character like any other character, even in shows that claim to be diverse."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Reem, computer scientist and artist
"Americans think they’re free, but I don’t see their freedom. They’re pressured, and they have a lot of responsibilities that are theirs alone, like mortgages, student loans, and taxes. They’re mostly working on their jobs, or second jobs, or continuing their education to get ahead. They don’t have time to sit and think, so they’ll take what the media says about Islam and Saudi Arabia at face value. I definitely feel pressure to represent Islam and Arabs, but I don’t believe that I have to explain myself to anyone. I have the right to be whoever I am as much as anyone else."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"Some of my dearest American friends are Trump supporters and they’re very frustrated. They believed that if they vote for a 1%er, that he will lead them all to become part of the 1%. But I don’t believe that a person who has never felt or experienced the problems of American workers can actually fix them."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Ajwa, broadcast journalist
"I used to see America as a big melting pot of a lot of opportunities, where people can create things out of nothing. But now, I see that it’s limited to only a privileged few.

"I grew up watching a lot of empowering Saudi female characters, such as Maryam Al-Ghamdi, the first Saudi woman TV host. I also loved watching Oprah and would stay up at night for her show. They’re both my role models."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"Americans think we have a lot of money and don’t know what to do with it. Look at the movies: When they show the 'Arab guy', he’s either a backwards rich man or a terrorist. We’ve gotten into the habit of letting people tell our stories for us. When that changes, everything else will change. We’ll be able to tell the rest of the world who we are, what we do, our traditions, our past, and our future."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Nisreen, elementary-grade teacher
"Americans tend to think that everyone in Saudi Arabia is rich. I have met a few who think we use camels as a main source of transportation, live in tents, and have an oil well in the backyard. They think honor killings are common practice. They’re magnifying very small minorities.

"The [Western] media tries to instill fear and propaganda. They use headlines to twist the facts to get people shocked. Most people will just read a headline, and go with that."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"Trump has given a green light to people who have been hiding their racist, bigoted sides. It’s more like, 'If he can do it, then I can do it too.' Now it’s all out in the open.

"The U.S. has power, and it’s scary. They’re trying to divide and conquer the Middle East and to pit us against each other. They’re using religion and fear to get us to go against each other and distract us. In the end, it’s all about money.
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Sarah, designer
"I don’t really believe in democracy, because it’s impossible for one size to fit all. But I do believe in the 'pursuit of happiness' — that every person and every culture has their own interpretation of happiness and that they’re all valid. In the U.S., I think that’s become warped into 'your pursuit of my happiness,' and people think that unless you live like they do, you’re unhappy and oppressed and you need to be saved. It’s condescending and patronizing, and it gets tiring to be on the receiving end of all that pity and insecurity, like I need to validate them by wanting what they have."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"When Trump won the election, I was devastated. I felt like Islamophobia had won, Daesh had won, and now we were seeing the new world order. But when he put the ban in place, my feeds were suddenly filled with images of people protesting at airports, lawyers camping out, and this massive display of support and love that I’d never seen or felt before. There was even a Muslim call to prayer in airports, and people supported them praying in public. I was blown away, and I’m grateful that Trump made that possible."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Raneen, curator and entrepreneur
"The image that is portrayed by the mainstream media is that all women are oppressed and covered. No other image of Saudi women is portrayed as widely. Americans think that all women need to be covered, from top to bottom, in public areas, and they view women who don’t as exceptions or rebels.

"I feel like America is going through some kind of renaissance at the moment. I think Trump’s election shocked them in seeing that they’re really complacent. That’s really interesting to see from an outsider’s perspective."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"I haven’t seen a steady message from the Trump administration yet. There’s a lot flip-flopping and turning against each other. In other presidencies, you didn’t know the names of the staff, but now I do. I think that America elected a reality TV star, and that’s what they are getting.

"America has not solved anything internationally, and its failures are so gigantic. Some colonizers put a lot of effort into creating infrastructure in the countries they colonized, whereas America’s policy has been to come, wreak havoc for resources, and leave the country in shambles, like Iraq. That affected me directly; Iraq borders my country."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Reem, human resources
"America exports its culture through music, film, TV shows, and fast-food chains, and that has influenced the world. But I think it’s in America’s interest to have conflicts in different regions of the world, as a good chunk of its economy is based on selling arms.

"Since Trump began running for office, he was promoting that Islam hates Americans. And when Americans think of Islam, they think of Saudi Arabia. I know that Trump pursues what’s profitable to him, but his actions make Americans afraid of us. I just can’t see any principles or values that he lives by."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"In every era of human history, there’s been an extremist group that misrepresents a religion. Daesh doesn’t represent us any more than the KKK represents Christians."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
Zainab, researcher

America is schizophrenic: it pretends to be liberal, and to advocate for liberal ideals and rights internationally, but it’s all about pursuing their interests alone. It’s obvious, and I think the romance people once had with America is gone now.

"I’m disappointed with the American people, but it’s not their fault. The U.S. is so profit-driven that it’s working against its own people. The country is one of the most powerful in the world, but their people are struggle to make a living. They’re in an American bubble, and the only language they speak is the American culture. They’re isolated from the rest of the world because of their geography, their economy, and the media. That mix does not produce a knowledgeable person."
Photographed by Tasneem Alsultan
"America has only recently become interested in Saudi women, and frames Saudi as if it’s from Aladdin: That oriental, faraway place, where the camels and the Bedouins roam, where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face… it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home!

"Americans elected Trump out of boredom and a need for stimulation. By putting him in power, Americans aren’t taking themselves, or the rest of the world, seriously."
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