Without Borders


Without Borders

What I Learned About Women and Work Through My International Upbringing, and How it Changed the Way I See my Future

Bayan el-Bashir spent her childhood and young adulthood in three different countries: Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United Kingdom. In each country, she learned about how social customs and practices--from religious restrictions to financial constraints to freedom--benefited or limited women when participating in the economy. Here, she explains how these lessons have informed her perspective and opportunities, as well as what she wants for her future.
Bayan el-Bashir
As a child in Saudi Arabia, I attended an international school where we celebrated holidays from many cultures, including Halloween. View Larger >


Bayan el-Bashir
Though in many ways I was "westernized" and disconnected from Saudi culture, just like any other female in Saudi Arabia, I had to learn to wear an "Abaya" when visiting certain places.
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Bayan el-Bashir
I took my A-levels in the UK. There, I experienced much more freedom than I did while living in Sudan or Saudi Arabia. View Larger >


Bayan el-Bashir
I grew up in Sudan and now attend Ahfad University for Women, but I've taken my international experience to heart and hope to move to the UK for graduate school. View Larger >


Bayan el-Bashir
As I prepare to enter the workforce in Sudan after graduation, I believe my international upbringing has equipped me with unique skills that will open doors for me. View Larger >

Saudi Arabia

As a child, I was born and brought up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until I was 13, after which my family moved to the Sudan. During my childhood in Saudi Arabia, I went to an international school, where I had classmates from all sorts of backgrounds. My parents spoke Arabic with us at home, but at school and elsewhere, English was more dominant, and my sister and I were "westernized" in many ways.

As an adolescent I felt conflicted by the difference in the norms and values that I was taught at home and the environment I was surrounded by at school. My school didn't have a single Saudi, and my exposure to Arabic was minimal. As a result, even though I lived in Saudi Arabia, the host culture hardly affected me. I was taught to celebrate all sorts of holidays, including Eid, Ramadan, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Since then, I have harbored a deep appreciation for other cultures.

Life in Saudi Arabia is measured mostly by Sharialaw. The Saudi rules include forbidding women to drive and requiring that women wear the abaya at all times, as well as forbidding alcohol and virtually all other Western "vices." 

Saudi women are often thought of as oppressed. That may be the case for some Saudi women, but it is also an overgeneralization. While I lived in Saudi Arabia, the status of women transformed dramatically. In the past, women were barely a part of the work force due to restrictions imposed upon them by the state. However, economic necessity forced hard-line clerics and conservative society in Saudi Arabia to accept the idea of women in the workplace. 

Even though the rules have changed, most Saudi women still do not work outside their homes. Those who do work outside the home do so either in hospitals or schools. However, more and more Saudi women are working in business, and some are running their businesses from home.

Saudi Arabia was an impoverished desert country before they struck oil. In just a couple of generations, the money from oil transformed the country into a wealthy consumer society. Most women in Saudi Arabia who choose to work do so because they want to and not because they need to. Women at the university level are actually paid by the government in order to help cover for their university expenses. However, there are still certain fields that women are not allowed to study--for instance, engineering or law. The thought of being judged or represented by a woman in court is repulsive to most Saudi men! Thus, while the country has made strides in the march to equality for women, there is still a long way to go.


At the age of 14, it was time to pack up and move to Sudan. As a child who went to an international school since day one, I was different from my family in Sudan in several ways. Naturally, we missed many social cues, and some cultural do's and don'ts had to be learned the hard way. Many cultural structures seemed quite odd to me. I quickly learned that situation of women in the Sudan is very different than that in Saudi Arabia.

Although Shari'a laws had been implemented in Sudan since 1983, many people didn't abide by these laws. Most people in Sudan, including myself, come from very large families. Living with your extended family in one home is not uncommon. Thus, the segregation of boys from girls required by Shari'a law would have been impossible.  

At the primary stage, schools can either be mixed or separated. In many cases, the poor economy in Sudan has a huge negative effect on education: schools can't afford to give books to their students or hire well-trained teachers, and many students were underachievers due to these factors. 

Families' personal financial restrictions also have an impact on education, particularly for girls. In circumstances where a family cannot afford to send all their children to school, they usually send their boys off to school and pull out their daughters. There is no such thing as free schooling in Sudan. A fee is required even for public schools! Girls who do not finish their schooling usually start doing odd jobs so that they can contribute financially to the family.

Still, a great number of young Sudanese women go into higher education, and upon graduating they make up a great part of the workforce. A regular Sudanese family would have a female doctor, engineer, business woman, lawyer and even a judge! There are no regulations whatsoever on women's abilities to participate in the workforce.

Despite these freedoms, in my experience Sudan remains a country were many are educated, yet many are unemployed, and where there is a staggering lack of freedom of expression.

The United Kingdom

As soon as I was out of high school, which I attended in the Sudan, I left to the UK to do myA-levels. It wasn't until I moved to the UK that I realized just how much my identity was tied to English, a language I spoke more fluently than Arabic. Making friends was an entirely new and exciting experience.

London has always astonished me, and I thought of it as a place where different races came together. While living in London, I learned so much and had the opportunity to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds. I was able to mature intellectually and I gained a great sense of personal responsibility. I felt that I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. This freedom was entirely new to me, and I truly enjoyed it. I was constantly experiencing new things while living in London, and I felt I grew in a number of ways. Living in London enabled me to be myself without being judged, which is often an issue in Sudan. I really enjoyed the open-minded nature of people in the UK and found that I could discuss a broad range of issues with most people. Being where I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do was amazing and gave me a great sense of self-satisfaction.

Some of my classmates chose to work while they were in school in order to pay for their expenses. They had a wide array of options for employment, including working at restaurants, bookshops, grocery shops, bars, etc. I couldn't help but notice how some women didn't go to University. However, they still were able to get decent jobs upon completion of their A-levels. Some even started off as junior employees at banks and worked their way up through time. What I loved the most about the UK was knowing that the sky was the limit. A woman could most definitely get practically any job she wanted if she had the credentials.

My Future, My Choices

As a person who has grown up in different countries, some might classify me as a product of a third culture. I have a great appreciation of a variety of cultures, and I value various aspects of my different host cultures. I was taught valuable lessons in life while growing up, and I've learned to accept people just the way they are regardless of their race, status or religion. Looking back, I feel that the advantages of being a third culture kid far outweigh the disadvantages. I will always be unique in my own way. Furthermore, I have a great sense of adaptability, flexibility, and understanding.

Upon graduation, I'm planning on working in Sudan for a year, and then going to graduate school in the UK. As an accounting and finance student, I want to get a job in my area of expertise. The economic crisis has had a great effect in the Sudan that might make it hard to find a good job, but my international background will likely benefit me enormously. It has given me skills and skills that I know make me stand out, including my grasp of the English language. Not only have my experiences across borders taught me invaluable, broad lessons about women's work and freedom around the world, but ultimately I feel that they will allow me to make informed personal decisions about my future as a young woman entering the global economy.

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