A former police officer and travel industry professional, Susie Khalil’s American life changed dramatically in 2007 when she followed her Saudi husband back to his homeland. She now lives in Jeddah, a seaside city, learning first-hand about a new culture which isn’t always friendly to women. Her award-winning blog Susie’s Big Adventure was once banned. Susie is now part of the Saudi women’s human rights movement. Women on the Road caught up with her a few years ago and decuded to republish this interview, given the changes now taking place in Saudi Arabia – such as women finally being allowed to drive!
What was your first impression of Saudi Arabia?
I felt like a kid going on a very exciting adventure and I hardly slept a wink on the long flight. When I was looking out the window of the airplane as we were approaching Jeddah, I thought it looked awfully brown, with not much vegetation. I was moving here from Florida which is very green, so it was a visual jolt.
I arrived during Ramadan. It was 10 or 11am on a weekday. There was absolutely no traffic on the streets at all and the businesses were all closed up! I thought it was really strange, but I learned that since it was Ramadan when all Muslims fast during the day, everybody sleeps late and many businesses are closed all day and open up later in the afternoon and stay open quite late.
I was welcomed warmly by my husband’s family and I think that had a lot to do with all the positive energy I have felt here. I found the mix of the old and the new here to be remarkable – in architecture, in dress, in culture and in technology. The older areas of the city and just the whole ethnic feel reminded me a lot of Mexico.
And what are your impressions a few years later?
I’m still amazed that I am here because I never thought it would happen. I still feel like a newcomer here and I’ve been told that I see things differently from other women ex-pats who have been here much longer. I think maybe I notice many things that people who’ve been here a long time take for granted and just don’t pay attention to.
I still find wonder in many things that others would consider mundane, but to me are fascinating. Jeddah blooms with magnificent artwork all over the city – I don’t know that most people here really appreciate it the way I do. I still find so many things here remarkable, but after a year or so, that euphoric honeymoon phase wore off and more of that in-your-face reality set in.
I can see that things could be so much better here with some small changes. Like for example, the trash and rubble I see all over the city, even right next door to a beautiful villa. Foreign workers are brought in to clean up the place, but people aren’t concerned about dumping their trash wherever. To me, it makes no sense. There’s also a lot of graffiti, which initially surprised me because of the stiff punishments here for crimes. But I realize there is graffiti everywhere – I just didn’t expect it here for some reason.
Saudi Arabia gets really bad press in the West: is it deserved?
Yes, and no. For the most part, the population is made up of warm and lovely people. I do think that because Saudi Arabia is such a closed society, there is so much mystery surrounding it, and there are a lot of misconceptions and generalizations made that aren’t necessarily true. I think that the West has gotten a bad impression about Islam, Muslims, and Saudi Arabia because of 9/11 and other unfortunate events.
What the West needs to realize is that those responsible for the terrorism are no more representing Islam than Tim McVey represented Christianity. Extremists exist everywhere.
That being said, I think that in many ways, Saudi Arabia doesn’t really help its own image. Some of the legal cases, verdicts, and sentences that are handed down are impossible for the West to understand or agree with.
Take, for example, the case of a 75-year-old Syrian widow who was sentenced to 40 lashes, four months in prison, and deportation. Her crime was that she received two 25-year-old male visitors in her home who were not related to her and were bringing her bread. They were doing a good deed and trying to help out an elderly widow. But they were all charged with immoral behavior because they were alone in her home together and were unrelated members of the opposite sex. How can Saudi Arabia expect anything but bad press for a story as absurd as this?
And this is just one example. I could give you many more that are equally ridiculous. Blaming a woman for being gang raped and sentencing her to lashes and imprisonment. Upholding as perfectly legal the marriage of an 8-year-old child to a man in his 50s as payment for a debt her father owed. In other countries, this is considered child molestation, but not here. I think that the cultural and religious extremism here does a lot to damage the reputation of Saudi Arabia, but the weird thing is that they don’t really seem to care.
As an American, how do you cope with the lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia?
This is a very difficult issue for American or other Western women to deal with here. Luckily I have always been optimistic and tend to focus on the positives instead of dwelling on the negatives. I am able to go with the flow and I am a very flexible person. However I have never in my life had to bend as much to conform with the rules as I have here.
The vast majority of women do not work, and at this point in my life, I guess I am ready for that. I was a career woman all my life back in the States. I was very independent. Here women are forced into a position where they are very dependent on the men. I have to remind my husband that I am not a Saudi woman and I never will be, and I must stay true to myself. Just because we have moved a different continent doesn’t mean that I must change who I am as a person. I can still have respect for the culture and traditions but remain true to my own beliefs and feelings.
One issue that has come up recently has been covering my hair with the hijab. I don’t object to covering my hair when we are out in public. I have blond hair and I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I don’t mind covering my hair in front of my husband’s family because that is what they do. But I do have a problem understanding why my husband insists that my hair has to be covered in a small private social setting where other women are not covered. My husband knows that I am not comfortable wearing the hijab. Not only that, I truly dislike wearing it. It makes me hot and makes my neck itch.
On two different occasions recently, he insisted I wear the hijab when the other women did not. I conceded and wore the hijab to please my husband because it was his wish, but I voiced my objections and unhappiness about the situation. I am feeling now that if another occasion arises like this, either I will stay home or he will. He is not willing to compromise for some reason on this issue, and I feel I have compromised enough by wearing the hijab when out in public and in the company of his family. I went for 55 years of my life with my hair uncovered and it wasn’t a problem, and I don’t see the point in covering it now when I don’t feel it’s necessary.
What do you miss most from America and what do you appreciate most in Saudi Arabia?
Of course I miss my family and friends back home. I don’t so much actually miss driving (Ed: the law changed in 2017 to allow women to drive), but I miss the freedom of being able to just grab my car keys and go whenever or wherever I feel like it. I miss going to the movies (there are no movie theaters here either). Since there is strict segregation of the sexes, I miss simply socializing in mixed company. I miss going out with my girlfriends shopping or to dinner.
What I appreciate most in Saudi Arabia would have to be my husband’s family. They have been nothing short of amazing toward me and my son. I’m sure if it weren’t for them welcoming us with open arms, our experience here would be totally different. I am grateful for feeling safe here when I thought it might be a bit scary before I came. Modern technology is something that I am thankful for each and every day because without it and my hobbies, I would likely go stir crazy because there is really not much for women to do.
I also appreciate how much cheaper it is to live here – food, medicine, and clothing and other things are cheaper. I’m thankful that my son is being exposed to his own Saudi heritage, is learning to read and write Arabic, and I hope that one day he will appreciate it.
What does the future hold for you?
Honestly I don’t know. Some years ago there was no way I ever imagined I would be living in Saudi Arabia. Right now I cannot see myself living here long term. I have met Western women who have been here for more than 20, 30 or even 40 years. I cannot imagine that, but who knows?
My true desire is to live in a cooler climate because right now I am feeling doomed to living in hot places all my life – Arizona, Florida and now Saudi Arabia! My husband does not want to move back to the States, but he is open to living in another country. So, for now, we are here. I hope that the future holds happiness and contentment for me and my family, wherever in the world we may be – but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!
You can keep up with Susie on her fabulous blog, Susie’s Big Adventure.