Czech nurse finds second home in Saudi Arabia

Zuzana Tomášková, photo: archive of Zuzana Tomášková

Six years ago Zuzana Tomášková made a bold decision to change her life. As a nurse and single mum she decided to move to Saudi Arabia in search of a better job and new experiences. Today, the country is her second home, she has made many friends in a multi-cultural environment and has learnt to accept the restrictions governing a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia. We talked about her life on one of her trips back home and I began by asking how hard it had been to leave family and friends and start a new life in a foreign country.

Zuzana Tomášková,  photo: archive of Zuzana Tomášková
“It was actually quite difficult, because they do not consider it right for a woman to have a child if she is not married or is divorced, so it was quite difficult, but on the other hand people there are very friendly and they helped me quite a lot. So after about nine months I was able to bring my son over and now we are there together.”

Was it difficult settling down in a country that is culturally so different?

“It was a little bit difficult at the outset. It took me around six months to settle down because there was the language – English is not my native language, different culture, covered women, a different routine at work than I was used to, different practices, different people. So it took me about six months to get used to it, but then I discovered it is quite a nice place to live and the people are amazing.”

So to what extent have you integrated – how do you dress? Saudi women are not allowed to drive. What are the restrictions in your life that you wouldn’t have in Europe?

“Well, Saudi women are covered, I as a foreigner have to wear an abaya which covers your dress but not your hair and your face. Sometimes the mutawa (Islamic religious police) stops you and they tell you to cover your hair, so you cover your hair and then you can remove it when they are gone. But that’s fine with me, I got used to it, and sometimes you can even wear pajamas under your abaya so that’s OK. As for the other restrictions, the main problem is the driving. I miss driving and I have to use a taxi to go shopping, but the rest of the things are fine.”

“I as a foreigner have to wear an abaya which covers your dress but not your hair and your face.”

What about attitudes to women?

“I didn’t face any problems. Of course you shouldn’t be seen talking to foreign men in public.”

Does that apply to you as well?

“Yes, it does, but usually if they see that you are a foreigner and you are in a group of people they usually leave you alone. But it should not be.”

What else is there?

“We should not go to a cafeteria or restaurant with foreign men. So if you are with a male friend –we should sit separately, but the restaurants close an eye, you go to the family section and it is usually not a problem. So I do not think that we suffer from these things. ”

When did you move to Saudi Arabia? How old were you?

“It was in 2010, so I was almost 30.”

And have you made friends among Saudi women?

Zuzana Tomášková,  photo: archive of Zuzana Tomášková
“Yes, I have many friends among the Saudis, not just Saudis, I have a lot of Arab friends.”

And what is your impression of their life now that you have more insight?

“Actually, I think that they are happy. Some of them do not like the fact that they are not allowed to drive, but not all of them, and I think they are quite happy with their lives. Saudi Arabia has changed quite a lot since I came there in 2010. In those six, seven years I saw changes, some women went to work for instance. When I came there even shops selling underwear had male assistants, but now you will find women there. So they can go to work. Some of them have opened their own shops and a lot of other things. So it is changing, but it needs time. On the other hand, I also have Czech friends there who are married to Saudi men and they are fine with the way of life, they told me they wouldn’t change almost anything and they are happy. Because the men there have to take care of them -it is not like here when the man will leave you without paying you anything. There the man is bound to take care of you. So things are a little bit different.”

Are you happy enough there to think about staying permanently? What are your plans?

“Actually, I do not expect to stay there all my life. But at the beginning I went for a year or two and now I have been there for seven, and I think I may stay for three or five more years and decide later on. ”

Would you consider marrying a Saudi man and living that kind of life with the restrictions it would involve?

“I have Czech friends there who are married to Saudi men and they are fine with the way of life, they told me they wouldn’t change almost anything.”

“I don’t know….they are very nice, very polite and you can see that if they really love a woman they give her everything. But I am not sure that I would be able to change my life to such an extent …I think I wouldn’t do so.”

If you were to compare everyday life, the relations between men and women – here and there –in what way are things different?

“It depends on whether the marriage is arranged or not. Among the young generation it is often the case that marriages are no longer arranged and they do not have as many children as before. So it is more similar to life as we know it in the Western world. But among older people most marriages were arranged. One doctor at the hospital explained it to us – he is between 50 and 60 I would say – and his marriage was arranged when he was 30. He said “I didn’t know the lady, I hadn’t seen her face and I couldn’t imagine how I would live with her and have children, but now I have grown to love her. She is my wife and the mother of my children.” So they have different relationships. We cannot imagine it, we find it hard to understand but the fact is that they respect their women; only in a different way than we do.”

How did your son settle down? How old was he when he moved there?

“He was six and a half, almost seven. The first Christmas I spent there he joined me and we decided in favour of home schooling because we couldn’t find a school for him. So he stayed at home and I taught him by myself. We still haven’t enrolled him anywhere, but hopefully from September he will start school. Right now I still teach him at home. ”

Zuzana Tomášková with her son,  photo: archive of Zuzana Tomášková
Has he tried to get you to come home?

“In the beginning he tried, but I think that now he sees that life there is quite easy and nice. So we have two homes – one here and one there.”

How were you received at work? The conditions…the relationships….

“At the hospital it is nice. The people are very friendly and it is a multi-national, multi-cultural team – a lot of Philippinos, Arabs, people from Western countries, Brits, quite a lot of people from Greece –so it is nice, you can share a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, even from your personal life. It is nice to know something different. So it is fine.”

So you do not get less respect in your profession for being a woman?

“Not at all.”

What do you like most about life in Saudi Arabia and what would you change if you could?

Zuzana Tomášková's son,  photo: archive of Zuzana Tomášková
“I like the friendly people there. It is different to what I knew here. You walk into a shop and they smile at you, they try to help you with everything. There are three people around you asking whether you need anything. And if something happens to you and you ask for help they are willing to help with everything. It may also be because they are quite religious and this willingness to help comes from their hearts –they want to do it, they need to do it and they are taught to do it. So that is different. What I miss? I miss the driving, as I said, and I sometimes miss the freedom to walk across the street with a group of people, with my friends, because it is still quite dangerous. I believe it is going to change, but they cannot change it immediately, because it would be quite messy. But that is what I miss – to walk around, cross the street, go to the park and sit on a bench or have a picnic with other people – not having that is sometimes quite difficult. ”