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I faced death threats to become one of Saudi Arabia’s first female tour guides

One day in the city, I came upon a tour guide. The courage to approach him escaped me. Men do not like that anyway. Instead, I observed him from a distance. He stood in the middle of a group of people telling stories. His eyes filled with passion. Everyone around him listened intently, and he appeared to love his job. The idea of being a tour guide thrilled me.

  • 3 weeks ago
  • January 17, 2023
7 min read
Shahad Bedair, one of the very first female tour guides in Saudi Arabia, leads a group of tourists around Alula Shahad Bedair, one of the very first female tour guides in Saudi Arabia, leads a group of tourists around Alula | Photo courtesy of Priyanka Chandani
Interview Subject
Shahad Bedair is one of the first female tour guides in Alula, an ancient city in Saudi Arabia. She has led more than 200 tours on her own and inspired many other women in the city to forge their own paths. Over the years, Shahad has acquired deep knowledge about the history of the city and the place called Ikmah Mountain which is the world’s first open library, highlighting the trading routes and tales of local communities that existed centuries ago. 
Background Information
It was only in 2019 that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began allowing women to be tour guides. The first women who were issued a license to be the first female tour guides of the country were from Riyadh. Ever since this event, more than 205 women have become tour guides in the country. It was around this time that the government allowed women to drive and issued driving licenses. They also withdrew their rule of wearing an abaya or burkha for female tourists.

ALULA, Saudi Arabia — As a woman living in a country where I have few choices, through photography I found freedom. I became one of the first female photographers in Saudi Arabia’s tour guide industry. Years before, as a young 17-year-old, I felt suffocated. Uncertain about my options, my dreams seemed limited. I never considered photography as a career. Although I still faced difficulties, my life truly started when I picked up the camera.

Shackled by the world around me

I grew up in Alula, Saudi Arabia [A world heritage site, Alulu was once a crossroads for incense-trading routes and the capital of ancient kingdoms, famed for its monumental tombs. Today it is a major tourist attraction.]

The youngest of five daughters, we attended an all-girls school and rarely interacted with men. I knew I grew up different from many girls around the world and during adolescence, I became bored. I craved adventure and change.

Sadly, the more we try to take control of our lives, the more resistance we often face. When I announced I wanted to be a tour guide – something unheard of for women – I expected backlash. My parents responded negatively to the news, knowing the challenges I faced in a place like Saudi Arabia. Still, they respected my decision. After all, they raised five women in a place that places little value on us, and they instilled in us a strength to live on our own terms.

Read more stories about women breaking social norms at Orato World Media 

I plunged into books and movies. Westerns quickly became my favorite, inspiring me to travel someday. I wanted to meet people from all over the world, take long car rides in the sun, and wear anything I wanted.

I saved up and purchased my first camera. It came with me everywhere. My shy and introverted nature transformed. Suddenly, I felt like a new person. I went out more, capturing the happy faces of strangers everywhere. In my art, I found refuge.

A peculiar encounter with a tour guide determines my path 

One day in the city, I came upon a tour guide. The courage to approach him escaped me. Men do not like that anyway. Instead, I observed him from a distance. He stood in the middle of a group of people telling stories. His eyes filled with passion. Everyone around him listened intently, and he appeared to love his job. The idea of being a tour guide thrilled me.

I wanted to tour the country, talk to strangers, and have adventures. Having never heard of a female tour guide motivated me even more. After graduation, I told my family I wanted to learn English. Tour guides needed to communicate in Arabic and English. My relatives felt shocked by my decision. They laughed at me.

Shahad Bedair photographed during a solo tour in Saudi Arabia. | Photo courtesy of Priyanka Chandani

Nevertheless, they saw my determination. Within a few months, I began English and translation courses. Going to class every day excited me and my ambition grew. Armed with new confidence, I went back to the city to find that tour guide.

I walked up to him and asked about his work. A look of surprise covered his face. He stared at me for a moment, uncertain about my intentions. Once he realized I was serious, he told me about being a Rawi – the word for a cultural storyteller in our country. As he spoke, my eyes filled with joy.

I asked him to consider training me. For a split second, I forgot the narrow-mindedness of our country. Nothing could stop me now – not even how people looked at or interacted with me. After much consideration, he agreed to teach me. I took my first step toward freedom, not understanding, this would be harder than I anticipated.

Facing death threats, I received a special invitation to train in America 

Training days proved difficult. Strangers stared at me disapprovingly. They made it their mission to remind me, “You are not right for this job.” Some groups rejected me as their guide, and others requested I not accompany them at all. They left me behind.

Every morning, I woke up to hate messages on social media; to strangers saying horrible things to discourage me. Some made threats against me and my family. What did I do wrong? I just wanted a place for myself, to forge my own path instead of the one decided for me. I wanted to do what I love and what I was good at, but I faced a man’s world.

Believing one day I would earn the respect I deserve, I told myself, this is temporary. I persevered and ignored the negativity. After completing my training, things took a turn. To become a professional tour guide, I needed international exposure. My teacher suggested I go to the United States for a four-month training.

I immediately thought of my family. They already suffered from hate because of my career choice. My sisters bore the brunt of it. People stopped interacting with us and looked at us with disgust. They whispered, and my friends abandoned me. No one offered us support and I felt guilty.

That night, I kept the opportunity to myself. After a few days of deliberating, I pled my case. Surprisingly, my family stood behind me. I gained the courage needed to pack my bags and go to America.

 Longing for a Saudi Arabia where women are equal  

In the United States, I met people from all over the world, experienced a new culture, and learned what it takes to be a good tour guide. Back in Saudi Arabia, I learned the government passed a new law allowing women to drive. I quickly got my license and felt ready to become a solo tour guide.

Once again, my WhatsApp and Twitter flooded with hate. People in our neighborhood treated us like criminals, but this time I did not let it affect me.  I took my first job as a tour guide in Alula where tourists flooded to see the natural beauty and history.

Shahad Bedair drives her first tour bus after getting her license. | Photo courtesy of Priyanka Chandani

While some things have improved for women in Saudi Arabia, so much still needs to change. We suffered greatly from he patriarchy and fought our battles alone. I feel grateful that I grew up with amazing women who inspire me and show strength. So many women continue to be denied their choices.

Today, Alula boasts more female tour guides than men. For me, I wake up everyday excited. Now, at 27 years old, I feel confident, make my own decisions, and care for my entire family. I moved out of my parents’ house and live on my own. I feel empowered that the struggles I faced in life made me a strong woman.

Sometimes, I still come across tourists who react strongly to me being a woman, but I don’t mind anymore. I accepted the fact that it takes time to change people’s mindset. I long for a Saudi Arabia that sees the extraordinary value of women: to position us as equals and make this a better place for everyone.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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