The Connection: Gender Segregation and Language Formation in Saudi Arabia

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By Kayla Craigmile

This article was published in the Oct 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.


Imagine being told your whole life that sitting behind the wheel of a car could cause birth defects for your child. Imagine needing to get a man’s permission to receive higher education. Now imagine not being able to walk in the same entrance as your boyfriend, husband, or even brother or father because men and women have to use different entrances. It may seem outrageous to many people, but for women in Saudi Arabia, this is reality. This article will explore the legal insistence on separate spaces and roles for men and women in Saudi Arabia, and the influence of this law on language use and choices made regarding language. Although it will focus on the subordinating effects on women, it does by no means erases the effects gender segregation has on men, nor the lack of agency on the part of Saudi Arabian women. It would be closed-minded to assume that the only “acceptable” or “normal” society is one where there is gender mixing. “Normal” is subjective. In fact, many Saudi women are still hesitant to partake in the new era of compromise between traditional and modern Saudi Arabia (Gorney, Cynthia, Addario2017).

Interconnected: Language, Culture, and Gender

Language and culture are complexly intertwined. They are constantly evolving and influencing one another. Just as culture is dynamic in nature, so is language. Learning a language is not only learning the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but also the cultural meanings and understandings which are embedded within it. In the words of Fatiha Guessabi, a professor of Languages and Translation, “the meanings of a particular language represent the culture of a particular social group. To interact with a language means to do so with the culture which is its reference point (2017).” Understanding this connection is critical in understanding how the legal insistence on separate spaces and roles for men and women in Saudi Arabia is influencing language choice.

The incorporation of cultural understanding makes language even more powerful as it shapes how we see the world and how we live in it. For this reason, it is imperative that gender differences are analyzed through the lens of language. Not only does language play a role in determining gender roles, but it also influences how a society or culture defines gender. For example, many cultures have more than two genders. By analyzing gender difference through a linguistic lens, culture, language, and gender are seamlessly interwoven in a way that helps one realize the most basic assumptions —which are difficult to see—that are embedded in elements of everyday life.

Moreover, when learning a language, one cannot help but learn cultural norms and customs. Hence, it is essential that young people are exposed to different languages and thus, different ways of living, being, and thinking. It allows them to start the conversation, dispel stereotypes, and combat ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is superior to others and then judging other cultures from the perspective of one’s own culture. This being said, in order to understand how language is embodying and constituting gender differences, one must first understand the context of Saudi Arabian society and culture.

Separate Spaces

Saudi Arabia is a desert country that makes up most of the Arabian Peninsula. Its society is based on conservative Muslim ideals many of which preserve long standing traditions of patriarchy. However, when discussing legalities in a country so governed by religion, it is important to understand that the laws  that I will discuss in this article do not represent the faith of Islam as a whole but are specific cultural interpretations of Islam.

For example, though many laws treat women unfairly, this does not mean that the Islamic faith is inherently anti-woman. Nevertheless, as a result of its patriarchal social order, Saudi Arabia is ranked is ranked 138th out of 144 countries in World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Index, which considers elements such as political empowerment and economic opportunity. One of the most influential factors in maintaining this gender gap —and gendered language— is that Saudi Arabian society is separated into gendered spaces.

Saudi Arabian social and cultural norms uphold a long standing tradition of patriarchy that emphasize the women’s sphere as domestic. Women are expected to stay at home and care for the family in a private setting, while men are considered the breadwinners, interacting in public spaces. These expectations then result in a low number of women in the workforce. This inequality is reflected in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap report: only 21.1% of the labor force is women and only 5.8% of legislators, senior officials, and managers are women.

Social Separation

The gender dichotomy in Saudi Arabia is also perpetuated through the types of professions a woman can hold. Institutions of authority like government, religion, and law are all reserved for men while women are typically found in professions that reflect their care-taking roles such as health care and education. This has also been instituted legally: the Saudi labor code states that women shall work in all fields “suitable to their nature” (Manea 2013). This essentially excludes women from the workforce through legal means. Even when women manage to get a job, it is not one of distinction. It is also important to note that employers may not want to hire women because they may have to spend extra money on separate offices, toilets, recreational areas and even entrances to do so (Brightside 2018).

Although more women are joining the workforce as a result of increased access to education, Saudi Arabia continues to have the lowest number of women in the labor force.

The male guardianship system, ​quoted as “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country”​, also ​plays a major role in maintaining the gender gap and increasing women’s underrepresentation in both political and civic spheres ​(Human Rights Watch, 2017)​. In accordance with the system, ​every adult woman must have a male guardian, usually a father or a husband, who makes important decisions on her behalf, including everything from permission to travel, marry, exit prison, and even to go to the police. This minimizes women’s participation in politics, as many times, when women are asked to prove residency in their voting district, they are unable to do so because their names are not listed on housing deeds or rental agreements.

Physical Separation

Even when women are present in public domains, public spaces are often structured in ways that prevent gender mixing. For example, signs can be found outside of many establishments denoting who is allowed inside, and in family restaurants, families are concealed by boxes to separate them from the public.​ ​Some spaces are explicitly gender-segregated, like those with the signs, while others are implicitly gender-segregated, it is assumed cultural knowledge. For instance, it is not necessary to post a sign that men are not allowed in cafes, an exclusively masculine space (Le Renard 2008). Gender segregation in all workplaces, except hospital​s, is enforced by The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue which is government-backed. Either sex can be arrested and receive criminal charges, however punishments are often designated unequally, with women being punished more harshly than men (Manea 2013).

The Effect of Gender-Specific Networks on Language

The official language of Saudi Arabia is Modern Standard Arabic (​MSA)​, however there are many regional variants, or dialects, such as Najdi Arabic, Hejazi Arabic, and Gulf Arabic. MSA is used in institutions of authority such as government, religion, and finance. For example, it is used “during Friday noon prayers that are regularly broadcast on loud speakers by mosques in many neighborhood” as well as during discourse in judicial courts (Ismail 2012 ). In these domains, education and formality is valued to a greater extent than locality and community, both of which are characteristics connotated with dialectal forms of Arabic.

While both men and women typically utilize both MSA and dialectal variations, ​previous studies have found that​ ​gender segregation in Saudi Arabia is reinforcing differences in language use between women and men. (Ismail 2012, Le Renard 2008, and Ibrahim 1986). Women tend to prefer dialectical variations, the more casual or colloquial form of Arabic, while men opt for MSA. This can be attributed to the fact that men and women rarely interact outside of domestic spaces. ​Since societal norms restrict women’s mobility in the public sphere, their social networks are closed. They are often rooted in the local community, among other women, interact frequently and build strong relationships. By using regional forms, women emphasize their ties to the community and provincial area. In contrast, men tend to have open networks where there are not as many strong ties nor fewer close-knit relationships (Milroy, Lesley, Margrain 1980).

Using MSA portrays a global identity and reflects the role of men in Saudi Arabian society as the family wage earner and provider. Since men are more greatly involved in the “supralocal context”, a “non-localized dialectal form that has a broad geographical range” is more fitting to their needs (Ismail 2012). Even more so, MSA is a standardized, institutionalized, and public language, ​which in a patriarchal society belongs to the male sphere, connoting both masculinity and authority​ (Ismail 2012, Bakir 1986).​ This also contributes as to why the majority of women ​do not correlate MSA with themselves nor their speech style. Many times they may feel unworthy or unentitled to speak MSA, since

it is so heavily associated with the masculine sphere. Lastly, men have greater access to educational and occupational opportunities than women do, so it allows them greater chances to practice MSA.

Difference in Pronunciation and Vocabulary

(Words and pronunciations written in ​italics​ /or between slashes / are written in the International Phonetic Alphabet)

Difference in pronunciation is yet another way the gender gap in Saudi Arabia is reflected in the language use of Saudi men and women. In pronouncing different words, one would have the choice of using a more standard MSA pronunciation or using a more provincial pronunciation. In various studies, researchers found that women were more likely to use the provincial pronunciations than the MSA pronunciations. The opposite was true for men (Ismail 2012, Ibrahim 1986, Bakir 1986). For example, Arab women more frequently chose to use the dialectical pronunciation /q/ than the MSA pronunciation /g/ in words such as ​ha:da​, which means “this”. Both /q/ and /g/ are stops, which means that it is a sound made by completely blocking airflow. The difference between the two is that /q/ is made by touching the tongue to the uvula, as opposed to /g/, which is produced by touching the tongue to the velum, or soft palate (Ismail 2012). The same thing happened with the sounds /k/ and /č/. Bakir found that not only was the standard /k/ more prominent in men’s speech than the non-standard /č/, but also that they used it more than women. Similarly, the data shows that women used the non-standard /č/ more than the standard /k/ and that they used the pronunciation /č/ more often than men did (1986).

Just as with the differences in pronunciation, there is also notable disparity in men’s and women’s choice of vocabulary. Women often decide to use more everyday, or colloquial, words to emphasize locality while on the other hand, men use more formal or standard words. One example would be the words used to describe the negative version of “but”, “but not”. Women used the word “​bas mu”​ , an informal, colloquial vocabulary term, while men used the standard word ​“la:kin leisa”​ . In Ismail’s study, of the 258 total non-standard lexemes used during the formal interviews, which was the selected

method of collecting data, 203 of them were used by women (Ismail 2012). Lexeme refers to a single word, for instance, “run”, and all of its forms, in this case run, running, runs, and ran.


Since Saudi Arabian society asserts that women’s place is in the home, men deal with public situations and represent women in various ways, such as with the male guardianship system. This gender segregation then reinforces differences in linguistic behavior women and men: men favor MSA which in order to emphasize formality and a public persona, while women tend to use regional variations that show locality and connection to the community. Their linguistic choices correlate with the spheres in which they are involved: men in the global and public sphere, while women are in the private and local sphere. Therefore, one could conclude that men’s and women’s choice to use either MSA or a regional variations is an exceptionally powerful marker of social network and group identity. ​Language is a powerful force that can both embody and constitute gender differences. By more closely analyzing linguistic choices, one can see how gender gaps are produced and reproduced through linguistic means.

Works Cited


Ansary, Abdullah F. “I. Saudi Arabia: A General History.” ​A Brief Overview of the Saudi Arabian Legal System – GlobaLex​, July 2008,​.
Bakir, Murtadha. “Sex Differences in the Approximation to Standard Arabic: A Case Study.” ​Anthropological

Linguistics,​ vol. 28, no. 1, 1986, pp. 3–9. ​JSTOR​,
“Boxed In | Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System.” ​Human Rights Watch​, 6 June 2017,​.

Gorney, Cynthia, and Lynsey Addario. “The Changing Face of Saudi Women.” ​National Geographic​, National Geographic, 19 June 2017,​.

Guessabi, Fatiha. “Blurring the Line between Language and Culture.” ​Language Magazine​, Language Magazine, 2017,

Ibrahim, Muhammad H. “Standard and Prestige Language: A Problem in Arabic Sociolinguistics.” Anthropological Linguistics,​ vol. 28, no. 1, 1986, pp. 115–126. ​JSTOR,​ JSTOR,

Ismail, Manal A. “Sociocultural Identity and Arab Women’s and Men’s Code-Choice in the Context of Patriarchy.” ​Anthropological Linguistics,​ vol. 54, no. 3, 2012, pp. 261–279. ​JSTOR​, JSTOR,​.

Le Renard, Amélie. “‘Only for Women:” Women, the State, and Reform in Saudi Arabia.” ​Middle East Journal,​ vol. 62, no. 4, 2008, pp. 610–629. ​JSTOR,​ JSTOR, ​​.

Milroy, Lesley, and Sue Margrain. “Vernacular Language Loyalty and Social Network.” ​Language in Society,​ vol. 9, no. 1, 1980, pp. 43–70. ​JSTOR,​

Manea, Elham. “Women in Saudi Arabia Are Caught in a System of Gender Apartheid | DW | 30.12.2013.” ​Deutsche Welle​, 20 Dec. 2013,

Sawe, Benjamin Elisha. “What Languages Are Spoken in Saudi Arabia?” ​WorldAtlas,​ 4 Nov. 2016,

“11 Prohibitions for Women in Saudi Arabia That Are Hard to Believe.” Brightside, 4 Nov. 2018, 516010/.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.
The cover image, “The Empty Quarter,” is by Tom Duggan and is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Modified from original using VSCO.