Fatima Almusabbeh. Photo Reyer Boxem

Saudi women on life in Groningen

‘It’s amazing to be independent’

Fatima Almusabbeh. Photo Reyer Boxem

What’s it like to study in Groningen when you’re from a country where, until very recently, women weren’t allowed to drive or vote, and couldn’t travel without the permission of a male guardian? ‘I have never felt that I’m weak because I’m a woman.’
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Door Yelena Kilina

19 October om 13:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.
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By Yelena Kilina

October 19 at 13:27 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.
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Yelena Kilina

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Fatima Almusabbeh (21) Third-year medical student

Photo: Reyer Boxem

Fatima always had two goals in life: to study medicine and to have more than ‘an average student life in Saudi Arabia’. By doing a medical bachelor in Groningen, she achieved both those goals. She embarked on her studies even though she knew she only had a few years to obtain a B2 level of Dutch, which is required to be admitted into the master. ‘I thought, I like the challenge! I believe that learning a new language leads to new knowledge.’ 

Dutch values 

She succeeded; three years into medical school, Fatima has mastered her Dutch. ’It makes me feel at home. I feel closer to people here and not like an outsider.’ But what if she never needs it after she graduates? ‘I will always be able to look up research written in Dutch. Even if I don’t stay here, I would come back occasionally to visit the country of my student years’, she says.

Moreover, the language has given her an insight into Dutch values. She appreciates the fact that Dutch people are down to earth when it comes to taboo topics. ‘If there is a problem, Dutch people won’t pretend it doesn’t exist even though everyone knows it does.’ They will acknowledge ‘heavy topics like alcohol and drug addiction’, even if it is painful for some. 


The experience of studying in the Netherlands has changed her, Fatima says. ‘When I arrived, I thought I was open-minded enough, but every year I learn and get even less judgemental.’ Her friends and relatives have noticed this, too, which means they sometimes clash. ‘The worst thing about living abroad is that your family and friends don’t go through the same things you went through.’ 

I’m proud we are changing for the better

Fatima’s Saudi friends are always curious about her everyday life as a student. What’s it like, and how does it feel to be completely independent? Does she have her own community there? For them, it’s a different world. 

Meanwhile, in Groningen, Fatima often has to battle preconceived notions about Saudi Arabia. That doesn’t really annoy her, though, because some of those were true once upon a time. ‘I’m not ashamed of our history, but I am proud that we are changing for the better.’ 

Women’s rights

Because Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocracy, most people assume that anything that happens in her country stems from religion, Fatima says. ‘But that’s not true. Activities that Saudi Arabian women were once banned from, including driving or travelling without a male guardian’s permission, have nothing to do with the essence of the religion.’ She feels people should differentiate between religion and politics.

Actually, a woman has many rights in Islam, says Fatima. ‘If I didn’t have rights, I wouldn’t be studying in the Netherlands on my own. I have never felt that I’m weak because I’m a woman. My father is an open-minded person and he was never an obstacle to my freedom. I never felt that I was dependent on a man. My mum drove me around herself, though we couldn’t do that outside of our compound.’

Saudi Arabia has changed a lot over the last few years, she says, and the new generation’s culture is changing with it. ‘As long as we are moving forward and women are getting more and more rights, that’s what matters.’

Photo: Reyer Boxem

Photo: Reyer Boxem

Saja Al Jasim (23) Fourth-year medical student

While women in her home country of Saudi Arabia hadn’t yet been allowed to drive, Saja – then eighteen years old – was cycling around Groningen. ‘It felt amazing to be on my own and not be dependent on anyone else’, she says, looking back. ‘I wouldn’t trade that for anything.’

It was her first time outside of the Middle East, and she really had to step out of her comfort zone to start studying in the Netherlands. Unlike in Dutch universities, male and female students aren’t allowed to attend classes together in Saudi Arabia. ‘After my all-girls school, I had to get used to studying in a mixed-gender class. It’s not that I find it weird or wrong, it just took time to get used to’, says Saja. 

More independent

To her surprise, she found out that Saudi girls over here are more independent than the guys. ‘Many of them aren’t used to being on their own and miss their families in a kind of dependent way. Girls don’t really feel lonely, because they take care of each other.’

Saja was given a King Abdullah scholarship to study abroad, and she was supposed to have a male family member stay with her while she’s in Groningen. ‘It’s legally required, but once you cross the border, they don’t really check that’, she says. Her brother visits her occasionally, but only when Saja has time off. ‘We travel together sometimes, but I live on my own.’

Speaking up

Saja comes across as a very confident woman. But it wasn’t always like that, she says. ‘I was a passive student in the beginning.’ In her culture, high school students aren’t supposed to have their own opinions. Instead, they memorise their notes and repeat them back, she explains. ‘There is more hierarchy in the educational system there.’ 

My Groningen classmates taught me confidence in myself

It wasn’t until she joined an international class after a pre-med year with Saudi peers that Saja learned to express her thoughts. ‘Seeing my Groningen classmates speaking up so openly definitely taught me confidence in myself’, she says. It still took her nearly a year to speak up herself. ‘I thought, I know stuff, so why shouldn’t I share it?’

In Saudi Arabia, she would never speak up, ‘even when it came to smaller unjust situations’. But she gave it a try last year, when she was interning in a Saudi hospital. ‘There was a guy who cut ahead of me in line, so I said politely that he shouldn’t be doing that. It worked’, she says with a smile. ‘I really want to keep doing that.’

All about family

Overall, the Saudi society is more traditional than the Dutch one, Saja says. For example, the Saudis are all about family. ‘You live in your family’s home until you get married, regardless of your gender.’ It’s not uncommon for students – even those who live abroad – to tie the knot in their early twenties. ‘I know two or three couples who met at the UG and got married in Groningen.’

However, when it comes to things like family values, social customs, or religious beliefs, Saudi people don’t all have the same views. For example, while Saja knows there are mosques in Groningen, ‘I’ve never been there’. Meanwhile, her religious friends live by the Islamic standards and values. ‘You can easily find halal food here, and there are prayer rooms at the university and in the hospital.’

Saja admits her attitudes are changing as she balances her cultural traditions with her international experience. This has not gone unnoticed by her family. ‘When I went back to my parents for the first time, they said that I had matured and become more relaxed.’ Do they approve? ‘To a certain extent, yes’, Saja says. ‘But there are some things that I keep to myself.’


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