Memories of Riyadh: From Saudi Arabia to Pakistan

Memories of Riyadh: From Saudi Arabia to Pakistan

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Every year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia celebrates its National Day on September 23 with zeal and fervour. This time was no different, but as someone who spent all of her childhood in Riyadh, National Day celebrations shared by people on social media mean it is a nostalgic and bittersweet day, bringing back tons of memories now that I live in Pakistan. Growing up in Riyadh will always remain a huge part of my life - so much so that if someone were to ask me to move back, I’d do so without giving it a second thought. 

I moved to Pakistan in 2010, and since then, in so many of my conversations about my life in Riyadh, I find I am often met with stereotypes and ignorance, especially from those who have never visited the country of my childhood. Some think women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to occupy public spaces, that I wouldn’t even be permitted to hang out at my local coffee shop with friends. Others believed that coffee shops and restaurants were the only activities women could occupy themselves with in Saudi Arabia because parks were inaccessible. In huge part, the narratives pushed by the international media some decades ago have done great damage to mindsets all over the world. Luckily, social media has fixed that to an extent. 

I had several female friends who interned at some of the biggest companies in Saudi Arabia and landed full-time jobs too, busting the myth that women could only be teachers or doctors in the Kingdom. 

Shaheera Anwar

But as someone who’s lived in the Kingdom for 18 years of her life and visited for another five, I want to set the record straight. As a curious, outgoing teenager, I was a regular at all my favourite restaurants. I’d visit the region’s finest amusement parks, many with days dedicated solely to women visitors. Malls too had entire floors only accessible to women so they could roam around and shop as they pleased. This never meant we weren’t allowed around the rest of the building. It was only an additional gesture, sensitive to the cultural preferences of most women in the Kingdom. 

Even then, women were not only a major part of the ecosystem when it came to occupying public spaces, but were also involved in the corporate world and entrepreneurial ventures. The local gold markets and abaya plazas were abuzz with Saudi women. With palms bright with orange henna, they would sell a host of things- fully participating in the country’s trade and commerce. 

I had several female friends who interned at some of the biggest companies in Saudi Arabia and landed full-time jobs too, busting the myth that women could only be teachers or doctors in the Kingdom. Some thought that it was only Saudi women who landed these jobs, but I know women from Pakistani and Indian communities who were, and still are, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Saudis. 

Road trips were common and a feel-good experience with access to a beach and mountains - not just deserts. Another popular misconception. 

Many think that it is only in the last few years that Saudi Arabia has reached new heights and become more inclusive. But this narrative has taken root now only because social media has revealed the truth and played a huge part in finally showing an accurate representation of the Kingdom - a country where women are an integral part of society. It is only now that people see the country for what it is - and for what it has been all this while. 

It goes without saying that Saudi Arabia is improving in many aspects, but aren’t all countries? It is at par with all other nations striving towards betterment. If social media existed during the 90’s or the late 80’s, the world would have thought differently. One-sided narratives would have been that much harder to push. Maybe then the world would have known everything good Saudi Arabia always had to offer women- and all that it continues to. 

- Shaheera Anwar is a Pakistan-based journalist with a keen interest in entertainment and lifestyle stories. She currently writes for South Asian and Middle Eastern publications. Twitter: @ShaheeraAnwar

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