Confessions of a Saudi Diva: FAQ’s about Gender Segregation

I decided to keep this post light, funny and easy to read. Mainly because I got a headache after writing the recent post about the reasons why I don’t want to drive a car! If you missed that article, have a look here.

Despite the topic being a deep and serious one, I will try my best to explain things in simple and basic terms…and to inject some humor whenever possible 🙂

As most of you know, I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. I’m a ’90s girl – born in the year 1980. And I still reminisce about the ’90s. I believe that it was the best decade. Great music, movies and much more simpler times.

In Saudi Arabia, gender segregation is normal. What does this mean?

Let me paint a picture for you…In all public and private schools, gender segregation applies everywhere. There are schools for boys only and others for girls only. Although in kindergarten, we were mixed! (gasp).

I do recall having a crush on a boy from my class when I was four and it lasted for one year only, and then it was summer break and then I went to grade one and that was girls only. So we couldn’t keep in touch 🙁  (Just kidding). I can’t even remember the time when we had boys in our class, because obviously I was too young to know anything!

OK, so in school, the two genders are completely separated. Then in college or University? yes, you guessed right. They are separated there as well. There will be a campus for college boys and another one for college girls. In some classes in University, when there was a professor who was teaching at the girls’ college, he would be teaching from behind a wall or something. Honestly, I didn’t attend University in Saudi. But I do know for a fact that this was the case. He would be teaching from behind something. He would be in a separate room and through some technological tool, his lecture would reach the girls’ hall. If someone went to (or is currently going to Uni in Saudi), please correct me 🙂

To give you an idea about our culture, and how some elements of it apply to other GCC countries, let me tell you briefly about my experience while studying at the University of Bahrain. That’s where I got my first degree. It wasn’t the Uni of my choice, but that’s another story for another time.

The majority of Bahraini people are conservative. So in University of Bahrain – which is the public University of the country – male and female students sat in separate sections of the class. I think that’s the main reason that my parents insisted that I enroll in that University :p

For someone coming from Saudi (well, I was in Switzerland before that), but still, I found it strange. Just when you thought that it couldn’t get any more conservative than it was in Saudi, you find yourself in a study room separated into sections by gender! The ladies sat on one side of the room, while the boys were on the other. During breaks, they would talk. But there was always a great distance and barrier between the two. I had transferred to that University from a college in Switzerland (which was my choice for education) and I was truly surprised by the way the locals in Bahrain behaved. Or at least the conservative segment of the population. The meaning behind the word ‘respect’ was taken to very extreme levels. The communication between the two genders was highly formal and unnatural. Or at least that’s how I perceived it.

Don’t ask me if I was communicating with the opposite sex in that University. I was always goal-oriented and still am. It was very important for me to focus on my studies and getting the degree over and done with. I didn’t care much about boys or even go out on dates. Until today, I have to constantly remind myself that I need to ‘find’ a partner and put some effort into it! yes, I know I’m crazy like that.

Now that I explained to you about gender segregation in the educational system, I will explain to you about that topic in society. I will leave the workplace for another post. As that will require a post on its own 🙂

In Saudi society, separation of men and women is standard. How is that possible you might ask. Let me give you some examples; in most restaurants, there are sections for families and others for single men. Yes, you read it right. If you’re a single man thinking to relocate to Saudi, then you might want to think twice. Just saying. So, if I’m a single woman out with my girlfriends, which section do I sit in? That would be the family section. With all the families and their kids and some other groups of women bonding together over coffee 🙂

If I’m a married man out with my family, where do I sit? that would be the family section again. Since you are out with your family, you can sit in the family section and maybe look around at some single ladies who are sipping on cappuccino in the same section. (joke). Now, there’s a trick, if you’re a married man out on your own (without your family), then you must sit in the single men section. Because that’s your current status Mister! you are out on your own and you must pay the price.

What is sad is that some malls don’t allow single men in their premises on weekends or on specific days. So, the men must find other ways for entertainment.

In my city (Al Khobar), we have a really cool mall called Al Rashid Mall. It was one of the first big malls in town. It’s where the cool kids hang out, and I was one of those kids 🙂

In the mall, the cafes must follow the gender segregation rule. So, there would be two distinct doors in each cafe. One for the families (and single women) and another for the single men. However, one chain coffee shop took this rule to the extreme when they introduced an additional section to the already ‘divided by gender’ sphere. They actually had a room within a room. Picture this; a small cozy room for the families, then as you go further into the space, at a corner you will see another entrance to an even smaller room. That room caters for female clients only. So, if you want to have a cozy chat and catch up with your girlfriends, you can head to the tiny hidden room within the family section in that cafe, and be in your own private little zone. Now that’s another level of a bespoke cafe experience 🙂

Oh dear, there’s just so much to write about. That’s why I will leave the rest for another post. But basically, the genders are separated all the way from grade one until one’s life ends. As a girl, you can’t have male friends – only girls. The same rule applies if you’re a boy. Only guy friends. We are separate in places such as schools, public places or social gatherings. We meet when we get married only. Otherwise, you will see only girls for the rest of your life.

Another question that many people wonder is this: so if the genders are completely segregated in society, how do men and women meet and eventually get married?

Aside from arranged marriage – which is the norm, there might be some secret relationships. But, they must always conform to the general rule when the time comes for marriage. I.E. They didn’t know each other prior to marriage – they must pretend.

And then during my era (the ’90s), the mothers of potential husbands would be looking out for a suitable wife for their sons. They would find the prospective bride by socializing with other women from other families, or by attending social gatherings, or at wedding parties. Despite the gender segregation, the wedding ceremonies are the best places for a single woman looking to find a perfect match. Or shall I say husband. As they might not really be a good match, but you can’t hope for miracles.

I think I should end the post here as I’m beginning to sound very cynical and pessimistic and I don’t want to convey that kind of attitude to my lovely readers. I must be a true journalist and report stories with fairness, objectiveness and impartiality. And that’s why, I will continue the story of how men and women traditionally meet in Saudi at a later time.

If you’re a Saudi person reading my post and thinking that my facts are out of date and don’t relate to the current situation, then please update me 🙂 I would love to hear your perspective on this.

Of course when I write about the lifestyle in Saudi, I only refer to my experience in the city that I grew up in (Al Khobar), the era that I grew up in (the 1980s, 90’s, and 2000’s), and my personal background and social status. Therefore, I understand that what I write about doesn’t necessary apply to the whole population or society. It’s just a collection of memories from my own personal experiences while living in Saudi. B.t.w. I lived there until August of 2009. I was 29 years old when I left…

One last point worth mentioning is that going to an all-girls school has definitely shaped my character. I’m sure many of the women who went to all-girls schools (wherever they may be) can share my opinion. We grow up to be more independent, more confident and are made to think that we can conquer the world and make anything that we want a reality. Women have this strong sense of empowerment, that comes from within. We are our own heroes, and we are taught that everything is achievable and that no one can save us, but our own selves…

It is important to remember that we are the sole masters of our future and our dreams. It is us who hold the keys to our own happiness, our future and our success. We are resilient and we are strong and we are the heroins of our life stories. It is crucial to take full responsibility for our own actions.

That might be one reason why I’m 35 and single :p

Last Thoughts:

Did you attend an all-girls school, College or University? if so, how do you think that gender segregation experience has helped shape your character and life decisions?

Did you grow up in Saudi Arabia? or did you live there in the ’90s? if so, how would you describe your experience?

Do you live in Saudi Arabia now? do you visit coffee shops regularly? how do you feel about gender segregation in public places? do you enjoy the privacy of sipping your coffee in a family section? in a ladies-only section?

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  • Umar Siddiqi says:

    What about family gatherings? Are those also segregated? Suppose it’s Eid and entire extended family is at one place. Could you meet and talk to your male cousins on such occasions?

    • Nada says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment Umar! I would like to answer your question in a separate post as the answer is not very straightforward. Stay tuned to future posts for the answer to your question 🙂

  • During my first year in high school, the Catholic school I attended (ran by nuns) tried to have a girls-only section for a year as an experiment. They wanted to control the “teenage crushes” at a very crucial age of *ahem* puberty.

    Let’s just say that the girls who are in this section became a loooooot more curious about the opposite sex so the idea was completely abandoned by the next year.

    If this segregation in Saudi was imposed in the Philippines, I bet teenage pregnancy would’ve soared. Lol.

    • Nada says:

      Very smart and wise comment Noemi! It’s true that when you enforce strict rules, chaos is born and people become more rebellious and curious to try the banned subject.

  • Wow! That’s A LOT of segregation there ! Good that UAE is way more open that S.A.

    • Nada says:

      Yeah. There’s a huge difference between the two countries in many aspects. I’ll be highlighting more of those differences in future posts. Thank you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate your support Udit!

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