Why don't Bangladeshi women wear bikinis?

"How can you go to such a country voluntarily?"

Christine Reinholtz lived in Saudi Arabia for over five years. She finished her work at the German School in Riyadh as a local teacher for mathematics, physics and art after one year - a returnee report.


On February 1, 2011, my husband got a position as a lecturer at a college run by the GIZ (Society for International Cooperation) in Riyadh, KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). He was supposed to train young Saudi men to be vocational school teachers. When I announced to my college in Schleswig-Holstein that I would accompany my husband to Saudi Arabia, I only met with incomprehension. "How can you? Women are oppressed there. You have to wear an abaya and a headscarf. Women are not allowed to drive. There are public executions. It's not a democracy. How can you go to such a country voluntarily? ”At the time, my husband and I both knew little about Saudi Arabia, but we wanted to do something completely different again. The contract was initially for three years. We extended twice. Unfortunately, after five and a half years, we had to leave the country because the Saudi client terminated the contract with GIZ.


The German School Riyadh

As a trained secondary school teacher for mathematics and physics, I tried to get a job at the German school there in Riyadh. The OLK salary was very low, but I didn't want to lose my pension entitlements during my time at KSA. The school was pleased as there aren't many trained teachers who happen to be living in Riyadh. At that time the German School consisted of around 20 teachers, including 3 ADLKs. Half of the teachers had no teacher training, but were actually civil engineers, library workers, mothers. Of the almost 110 students, 50 went to kindergarten and preschool, half of the remainder were divided between primary school and the other half in secondary school, i.e. 5th to 10th grade. There were usually one or two students in the graduating classes. Since there had been attacks on expats in Riyadh in 2003, the German School has been housed on the premises of the French School with around 1000 students in a partial building and containers for security reasons. I taught math, physics and art there. As a physics teacher, I was naturally interested in the experimental equipment. There were few. Only after a few months did I find the rest in a container at the other end of the French school. There they had been up to 70 ° C in summer since 2003 and were mostly no longer usable.


Little money and a lack of pension entitlements

Unfortunately, after a few months, it turned out that my hopes for the pension entitlement were not true. Except for Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein, all federal states continued to pay, only these two did not. The effort was not worth it for the small amount of salary: In the morning with the school bus to school, free hours in the overcrowded staff room where concentrated work was not possible, then waiting for the school bus and back home with noisy children from the French school. And if the French school holidays did not coincide with the German school holidays, I also had to pay for the taxi. Taxis are not cheap for western women in Riyadh. Everyone knows that women depend on taxis! And it can happen that you stand outside in the sun for a quarter to half an hour and wait for the taxi. After a year I stopped working and from then on I took care of my hobbies and our travels in this beautiful country.


Living in Riyadh and Saudi Arabia

Riyadh is a modern city with more than 5 million inhabitants. Most western expats in Saudi Arabia live in compounds. These are walled housing estates with some very large villas. The compounds have been guarded by soldiers since the attacks in 2003. The driveways are secured like a high-security wing with sliding concrete walls, the cars are often viewed from below with mirrors, and the engine compartment and trunk always have to be opened. When you first experience something like this, it's a bit bizarre, but you get used to it. You can move around freely in the compounds and even lie by the swimming pool in a bikini. Mostly there is a small supermarket, in larger compounds there are also restaurants, hairdressing salons and other specialty shops. However, if you leave the compound as a woman, you have to wear a black abaya. It consists of a very thin, opaque material. In the really warm season of the year I found wearing the abaya comfortable, because in contrast to the men who had to wear long trousers even at 40 or 50 ° C, I didn't wear so much under my abaya.


Excellent care

I only had to cover my hair in the city center and when the religious police were out. But I did it voluntarily when I was only in a Saudi environment. It was no problem for me to go shopping or walking somewhere in the city by myself. Twice a day the free shopping bus drove from our compound to a large mall and you had to stay there for about 2 hours. There are huge shopping malls in Riyadh. The large supermarkets, such as B. the French chain Carrefour, are mostly in the malls. So when I had done my bulk grocery shopping every two weeks, the shopping bus would take me to our villa to unload. Medical care was also excellent in Riyadh. There are large private hospitals with international standards and employed doctors from Europe and the USA.

And what do you do in your free time?

At first glance there isn't much: no cinemas, no pubs, no alcohol, no sporting events, no music events, no dancing - because only men are allowed to dance. Restaurants with separate entrances for “singles” (men) and “families” (women or women with men). And if the restaurant is too small and only has one entrance, women have to stay outside. But at second glance, there is everything in Saudi Arabia that does not exist. And be it a "bikini beach" on the Red Sea north of Yanbu. This beach is reserved for expats only. Saudi citizens, on the other hand, are not allowed to go here. Usually women in Saudi Arabia are only allowed to swim in abaya and only in the sea. The swimming pools in the hotels are for men only. But here women are actually allowed to swim in bikini under the supervision of the Saudi coast guard.


Cultural offers from foreign embassies

The European embassies organize European Film Days every year and with a bit of luck you will not only get a glass of wine or beer but also a few snacks afterwards. Free of charge, of course. The German Embassy - and many other embassies as well - regularly organize cinema evenings, cultural events and "public viewings" on the embassy grounds when there are important football broadcasts again. In the first few years we regularly went hiking in the desert with the “Hash House Harriers” on weekends. Every couple of weeks they also host overnight stays in the desert. Then carpets are rolled out, lamps and loudspeakers are set up and there is dancing until late into the night. At times the alcohol flowed freely at these events, because after a few months in this dry country many start producing their own beer and wine.


Excursions in the desert

Saudi Arabia is a closed country. There are no tourist visas. Only those who work there come in. Visitor visas can only be applied for for the closest members of the family. On the other hand, you don't get out that quickly either. Simply booking a flight and getting on the next plane is not an option. You need an exit visa. However, if you live a little longer in the country, you can usually get an exit reentry visa and can then go in and out for 6 months as you like. But once you are in the country, you can move around freely. Cars are cheap, as are gasoline. Until 2014 a liter cost the equivalent of 12 cents. We bought a four-wheel drive Ford in 2011 and often drove into the desert on weekends. In the sand desert, of course, only with several cars, because we regularly got stuck. But we went to the stone desert more and more often on our own, sometimes with an overnight stay, several times for a week or two. Then we looked for a secluded wadi for camping in the evening and enjoyed the peace and quiet and the starry sky. Or we visited the archaeological attractions, such as B. Madain Saleh, the counterpart to the Jordanian Petra. We didn't have any security problems. If Bedouins happened to come near, they always kept their distance.


Slow opening of society

Getting in touch with the Saudi population is difficult. Not only are the walls around the Saudi houses very high. But if you succeed, you meet very friendly, polite and extremely helpful people. We were invited to three different families. There are basically separate rooms for men and women. That doesn't mean that a man isn't even allowed to peek quickly into the women's room. But in such a case women have to veil themselves. Only the father and his own brothers are allowed to see a woman unveiled. The husband's brother may, for example, B. not. In this case, of course, we were in a very conservative family. The young Saudi women in this family couldn't understand why I missed driving. You would have your own driver. That would be much more convenient. Otherwise, however, we were able to see how Saudi Arabia opened up in mini-steps every year. While all women were still veiled at the annual Janadriyah Festival in 2011, more and more women were seen at the festival from year to year, mostly young Saudi women who were no longer veiled and since 2015 they have also been seen unveiled in some malls. Women are now increasingly working in shops and supermarkets and at trade fairs and exhibitions.


Foreigners first and second class

As Western expats, of course, we had a lot of privileges. We were able to rent a large villa and occasionally drive or fly to the surrounding Arab countries at the weekend. The poorly educated Asian expats from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan, on the other hand, are often doing very badly. Their situation is characterized by long working hours, little money, sometimes unreasonable living conditions in containers far away in the desert or as a driver for Saudi families in small 2x2 m cabuffs in the outer walls around the houses with only access from the outside. The female employees live inside, otherwise the women of the house would have to veil themselves at home. The Asian workers not only have to hand over their first monthly wages to their Saudi sponsors, but also their passports upon entry. From then on, the sponsor decides whether, when and how long they can fly home at some point.


Bumpy reintegration in Germany

Conclusion: We are happy that we were able to live in this interesting country for five and a half years. Working with his Saudi students was particularly important to my husband. Returning to Germany turned out to be difficult, reintegration more than bumpy and so far - nine months after our return - it has not yet been entirely successful. Nobody is interested in our additional skills and experience. We miss freedom, that is to say the absence of bureaucratic hurdles.