Everyday Woman Making a Difference| Susie Johnson Khalil
I first read Susie Johnson Khalil's blog back in 2008. I was looking for other bloggers in Jeddah that time and she was one of the few who dared to take photos of Jeddah and post them publicly. She would also post of her life here in Saudi Arabia as an expat and many people all over the world were able to see Saudi Arabia through her eyes. She is one of the women here in Jeddah who has been inspiring women to make their voices heard. Let us learn more from Susie through this short interview Pathways Jeddah had with her.
1.When did you arrive in Saudi Arabia?(And from where)
We moved to Jeddah in 2007 from Florida.
2.How was your life as an expat back then? How did you adjust to the life and culture in Saudi Arabia?
I think I spent the first couple of years in disbelief that I was actually here. My husband had spent years telling me that someone like me would never be allowed in the country – he likes to tease me. Being here felt like I was stepping back in time. It was almost surreal.
It took a good three years for me to acclimate to my new life. I didn’t really start enjoying life here in KSA until three things happened: 1) I made some friends. 2) I stopped waiting around for my husband to help me explore this place (he has no interest in it). 3) I finally worked out the transportation issues.
3.What were the major differences in culture and ways that you struggled to adjust with when during your early years in Saudi Arabia?
Not having transportation readily available to me was difficult. My husband didn’t want me taking taxis, so he would either have to take me or my friends would have to pick me up or send their drivers for me. Either way, I felt like I was imposing on others. As the years went on, my husband got more relaxed about my safety, so once I finally got a phone with data, I was able to start using the car services. That made a major improvement in my quality of life here.
I grew up in a small town where it was normal to say hello, goodbye, and thank you to everyone. So it’s been difficult to try to cut back on those ingrained niceties. To this day my husband gently reminds me that I don’t need to talk to everyone like I do, but it’s a hard habit to break. He also thinks I talk and laugh too loudly for the population here.
During my first few years when the religious police were dominant, I got the distinct impression that having a good time was haram. The atmosphere of the country seemed more formal and serious. I’ve got to admit I really enjoy the “new and improved” version of life these past few years a lot better than before.
4.What inspired you to start your blog back then?
I started blogging purely for my family and friends back home – to ease their worries, to share with them what I was doing, and to hopefully educate them a bit about life in Saudi Arabia.
5.How did sharing these pictures and life in Saudi Arabia help you and changed you?
Blogging has been one of those factors that has truly made a difference in my happiness here. It’s been a lot of work and it is a major commitment, but it’s definitely been worth it. But it hasn’t always been peachy keen and has actually been frustrating and maddening at times, and I’ve even thought about quitting a few times. I’ve met a lot of people through blogging and that has actually opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve been invited to social events, to travel, to speak at various venues, to participate on panels, and much more.
The biggest benefit I’ve received from blogging is the sense of purpose that it has given me. It’s so rewarding and such a good feeling to know that I have been able to make a difference in people’s lives by providing help and information about this country. Some people do take the time to let me know how appreciative they are that I was able to help them – and I know that there are many more I don’t know about that I’ve been able to help. Blogging reinvented me as a person and my life as an expat.
6.I remember how you were actively involved in pushing the rights of women to drive. Were you not afraid that time? What were your thoughts why there was a need to do it even if there were many risks involved?
Yes, I was pretty vocal about the women’s driving issue in the years prior to its implementation. I don’t know if I was naive or stupid at the time, because I was not at all afraid and I probably should have been. I felt that I wasn’t saying or writing anything that hadn’t been said before. I rationalized that I didn’t write in Arabic so my target audience wasn’t Saudis. I figured that the Saudi government had more important things to do than to hassle an American grandmother complaining about not being able to drive or about wearing a scarf on my head, so I felt safe.
When I had begun to speak out, I got hate mail from Saudis. They told me things like to mind my own business, that I wasn’t Saudi so I didn’t have the right to speak out, to leave KSA if I didn’t like the way things were, and some that even made threats to me. It was alarming.
I remember talking about this with a friend of mine who was an activist. She encouraged me by telling me that I lived here in this country so I did have a right to speak up, that I had a voice that should be heard because I offered an outsider’s perspective.
I have been driving since I was 15. There was no valid reason on earth why Saudi women were deprived of this right for so long. Not being allowed to drive severely affected my quality of life here, and I am sure it affected most other women in this country as well. This was my motivation – it was a quality of life issue, and to me, it was worth fighting for.
7.After spending many years in Saudi Arabia, what do you think are the major improvements that happened especially among the women living here?
The improvements regarding women have been mind boggling these past few years. When I first moved here 13 years ago, I never imagined seeing the rapid changes that have occurred. Driving, of course, is a major one. Employment is another. Seeing the strength, motivation, and savvy of Saudi women as they organized boycotts of lingerie shops was inspiring. Their efforts helped bring about changes in the laws forbidding women from working in jobs other than education or medicine.
Gender segregation is another change that I’ve delighted in seeing come about. To me, it was awkward and unnatural, and I feel it was damaging to people’s psyche. People need to know how to deal and communicate with others, and I feel gender segregation hindered that.
Social events are out in the open now. Entertainment has developed and evolved. I’m ecstatic about all these changes that have happened in record time. And what really astounds me is that it all has happened so fast without much fuss from the opposition. I remember hearing for a long time that change here has to happen slowly because society wasn’t ready for it. But this has all happened so fast and It sure wasn’t the nightmare many people predicted it would be.
8.What are your best memories of living in Saudi Arabia?
There are so many! Probably the most important memories are of the many friendships I have made here with people from all over the world. Getting to know my husband’s wonderful family has been another fulfilling experience. The Saudi weddings I’ve attended, snorkeling in the Red Sea, exploring Al Balad, and traveling all have created so many special memories I will cherish forever.
9. What piece of advice do you want to share to women living in Saudi Arabia?
Embrace it! Explore! Don’t be afraid of doing things. Respect the culture and learn about it. Don’t expect things to be done the way they are back home. I don’t know how long I will be here, so I’ve always tried to see and do as much as I possibly could while I can.
Susie has witnessed a lot of changes in Saudi Arabia. Not only that, she even became an agent of that change. You can know more about by reading Susie's blog and discover how an everyday woman was able to make a difference in this country.