FeaturesSpecial topic: HCI in the Arab world

XXVI.3 May - June 2019
Page: 44
Digital Citation

‘My guardian did NOT approve!’ Stories from fieldwork in Saudi Arabia

Soud Nassir, Adel Al-Dawood, Elham Alghamdi, Eman Alyami

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Recently, the ArabHCI (https://arabhci.org/) initiative conducted a workshop that sought to "explore participatory design methods to engage with Arab communities" [1], encouraging researchers and practitioners to bring forward their stories, experiences, and lessons learned from conducting qualitative fieldwork and designing in the Arab world. Similarly, the workshop included discussions of the extent to which current HCI approaches are culturally and methodologically challenged in the Arab context. One of the most prevalent themes discussed in the workshop was the difficulty around recruiting participants, particularly women in Saudi Arabia.


In this article, we (four Saudi researchers) aim to briefly describe how privacy, cross-gender communication, and male guardianship laws are perceived in the context of Saudi Arabia. More important, we highlight how these norms and social practices created interesting challenges for recruitment and conducting qualitative fieldwork across four different studies. In doing so, we hope, through our collective experiences, to expand current understandings of HCI research methods and discuss ways in which future researchers can manage/traverse some of these challenges when conducting qualitative research in Saudi Arabia.

back to top  Insights


back to top  Challenges to Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork in Saudi Arabia

Despite rapid modernization, Saudi Arabia as an Islamic country remains conservative and proud of its culture. Religious and cultural values heavily influence social norms, people's lives, everyday practices, and social interactions in Saudi Arabia [2,3,4]. However, these cultural and social norms can create interesting challenges for researchers conducting qualitative fieldwork.

In their recent work, Soud Nassir and Tuck Wah Leong [2] noted that privacy concerns and cross-gender communication are two main challenges that can significantly impact recruitment and interviews, saying Saudis have a heightened sense of privacy that extends to the family and the community. This means avoiding discussions of personal life and opinions with "strangers" [3]. This maintenance of privacy is further heightened during non-familial cross-gender communication.

The presence of chaperones during face-to-face communication with female participants may impact interviews; that is, participants may offer answers that are not necessarily their own.

Furthermore, gender segregation is a common practice in Saudi Arabia. Interactions between non-related men and women are generally considered culturally inappropriate and are often mediated through a chaperone/guardian who is an immediate male relative (e.g., a husband, a father, a brother, or even a son) [5]. Guardians are socially responsible for providing for and "protecting" their female family members, maintaining the family's privacy and home sanctity, and upholding the family's honor and good name [3]. This protection role extends to legal procedures, as the Saudi culture and civic services system require every woman to have a guardian (also referred to as a mahram/wali). Legally, guardians can determine or even control some of their female relatives' life decisions, such as marriage and travel. However, these guardianships laws are practiced differently depending on personal and familial beliefs, political and religious views, educational background, socioeconomic status, and local context.

These social norms and conventions can create difficulties and unforeseen challenges for recruitment and conducting qualitative fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. For example, researchers reported difficulties in gaining access to participants due to the heightened privacy concerns and a reluctance to talk to strangers [2,3]. Furthermore, researchers may be required to inform, or even gain approval from, the guardians of potential female participants during recruitment. In addition, the presence of chaperones during face-to-face communication with female participants may impact interviews; that is, participants may offer answers that are not necessarily their own [5].

back to top  The Stories

In this section, we tell our stories and experiences of conducting qualitative research in Saudi Arabia. In particular, we focus on how privacy, cross-gender communication, and guardianship laws created interesting challenges before and during the early stages of our fieldwork.

Story 1: The clause. Adel Al-Dawood is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on how Saudis view the use of technology to find spouses beyond traditional arranged marriages [4]. Al-Dawood aims to develop a better understanding of how to build a matchmaking system that is inclusive of Saudi values both religiously and culturally. However, he faced challenges before he started conducting interviews:

My university's Institutional Review Board (i.e., ethics committee) was concerned about male guardianship laws and how recruiting Saudi women and conducting interviews with them may violate these laws. Being a male researcher conducting interviews with female participants plays a significant part in this. It may have been avoided if a female co-researcher was part of the study. After many discussions with the review board, we agreed to include a clause in the consent form that recommended that potential female participants should inform their male guardians of their participation in the study.

Al-Dawood then approached prominent social media figures in Saudi Arabia to promote the study and to recruit participants (mostly via Twitter). He recruited 18 Saudis to participate in the study: nine women and nine men. The majority of participants were between the ages of 18 and 35. Al-Dawood used interviews to explore current practices, experiences, and perceptions of matchmaking systems in light of the local context. He writes:

During recruitment, many Saudis on Twitter were outraged about the inclusion of this clause [inform guardian of participation] in the consent form, as the de facto reality of Saudi Arabian gender politics does not always align with the de jure laws of male guardianship. Many Saudis believe that male guardianship laws are just a social formality that extends to legal procedures. Another reason is that during my recruitment, there was a trending social media campaign to abolish male guardianship laws, allowing women their rights and freedom. Because of that, my participants did not believe that women were required to have their male guardians' permission to take part in a study.

As a result, many potential participants (both men and women) wrote, via Twitter and through emails to the research supervisor, that they would not join the study because of this "sexist" clause. Al-Dawood spent some time explaining that the researchers do not need the guardians' consent to approve women's participation in the study. Instead, he recommended that female participants should inform their guardians to avoid any potential conflicts in the future.

Story 2: "My Guardian Did NOT Approve." Elham Alghamdi and Eman Alyami are two interdisciplinary Ph.D. students who do similar research with a different focus. Alghamdi combines HCI with business to study the emergence of Saudi women who practice Instagram entrepreneurship and how it has changed their lives. She also studies how visual presentation on Instagram is impacting the business landscape in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Alyami's research combines computer science with women's and gender studies to understand Middle Eastern women's identity development in online social networks. Both researchers used interviews and other tools (e.g., contextual enquiry) to conduct their fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. Alghamdi and Alyami recruited 13 female participants ages 21 to 49. However, they both faced challenges during recruitment, writing:

At least three potential participants have asked to conduct the interviews through texting because their male guardians did not permit them to call a stranger. This is despite the fact that we are both Saudi female researchers who grew up in Saudi Arabia and are familiar with the local culture.

It is important to note here that the interactions between women in Saudi Arabia do not need to be chaperoned. As we later discuss, this reluctance is perhaps a matter of privacy concerns.

Alghamdi and Alyami also added that at least seven female participants canceled their interviews at the last minute or did not show up for them. Unfortunately, they could not ascertain if this was due to the guardian's disapproval or another reason.

ins03.gif Heritage buildings in the old part of Jeddah (Al-Balad), Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, technology (e.g., texting and voice-recording messages) was suggested by participants as a workaround to conducting interviews, despite the guardian's disapproval. However, Alghamdi and Alyami did not pursue this to avoid potential conflicts, as well as legal and ethical concerns.

Story 3: An Alternative Approach? Soud Nassir's research aims to design technologies to support older people in Saudi Arabia in aging well. This includes exploring design opportunities to enhance older people's living experiences while maintaining their independence, autonomy, and social agency. Nassir used interviews and probes to develop a deep and rich understanding of the living experiences of aging Saudis in light of their religion, gender, culture, and local context. Nassir recruited 14 Saudi participants (six women and eight men) ages 55 to 71.

In his work, Nassir took an alternative approach to recruiting female participants. As noted in [2], Nassir and Leong refrained from initiating direct contact with potential female participants. Instead, they relied on participants' chaperones to mediate negotiations. This meant that they had to explain the research aims and process to the appropriate chaperone/kin. Although this chaperone involvement in the research process yielded surprising benefits beyond recruitment [2], the researchers learned upon their initial interview that most female participants had only a vague idea about the research. Nassir spent time introducing and explaining the research and its merits, which was a bit overwhelming for some since it was followed by an interview and a research probe (Figure 1 shows an example of an interview with a female participant). Nassir writes:

ins04.gif Figure 1. A photo of Nassir's initial interview with a female participant. It was taken by her chaperone.

We only established direct communication with our female participants after that initial interview, which was an important occasion to establish and build trust. For the remainder of the research period, we stayed in touch with our participants using social media to answer their probe-related questions and to capture their responses and probe them for more when possible. These conversations did not need to be mediated through a chaperone.

We found in all four research projects that establishing trust and rapport with our participants and their guardians/chaperones was key to conducting qualitative research in Saudi Arabia.

Although this approach (i.e., chaperone-mediated negotiations) coupled with the snowball sampling method was generally effective in recruiting participants, we wonder if approaching older female participants directly would be problematic. This is because older people in Saudi Arabia are granted a sense of authority and respect by their younger kin and the public in general; older Saudis' wishes are often prioritized and respected. In terms of research, this means that older Saudi women do not necessarily need their guardian's approval to participate in the study. In fact, Nassir and Leong [2] found that their participants enjoy greater authority and autonomy over their chaperone (often their younger kin).

back to top  Reflections

The variations in our stories could be attributed to a number of factors, including the research topic and time frame; the researchers' gender; the participant's age, personal beliefs, views, and local context; and the medium and form in which a guardian may grant their approval to participate or otherwise. Although it is hard to determine, we wonder if the researchers' gender played the most significant role here. Could it be that our female participants were more comfortable talking to a female researcher, particularly in the absence of external influences (i.e., chaperones) and regardless of their approval? Could the chaperones' disapproval of their female relative's participation in Alghamdi and Alyami's study be due to their lack of control over what was being said and discussed during the interview, possibly affecting their role of maintaining the family's privacy? Could the outraged reactions to Al-Dawood's work stem from the spelled-out, written clause, versus the usual subtle, indirect verbal expression of this cultural norm? These questions and many more invite us to always consider the local context and to test the water first when designing and conducting our qualitative research in Saudi Arabia. Next, we will briefly discuss two ways to manage or even traverse some of these fieldwork challenges.

Establishing trust. We found in all four research projects that establishing trust and rapport with our participants and their guardians/chaperones was key to conducting qualitative research in Saudi Arabia. As noted earlier, Saudis have heightened concerns about privacy. We found the snowball sampling method to recruit participants to be effective. This form of chain referrals relies on personal referrals, which establishes trust and allows researchers to gain access to potential participants [2,3]. As Nassir and Alyami found in their work, these personal connections are respected and are sometimes treated by the referred as a request for a favor from the referee.

Furthermore, initial meetings with participants and their chaperones are an important occasion to develop mutual trust. This may mean that the researcher should be willing to answer personal questions about themselves and others in their circle (e.g., family and community). Elham writes about her fieldwork, saying "I needed to share some of my daily life short stories to gain participants' trust. I once discussed my son's after-school program with a participant. On other occasions, I answered personal questions about myself and my family." Finally, researchers need to be aware that these early encounters with potential participants and chaperones can be lengthy and overwhelming, as discussed in [2].

Guardian/chaperone inclusion. We believe the inclusion of guardian/chaperone in the research process can be beneficial. For one, guardian awareness and involvement in the research may make them feel more comfortable about their female relative's participation in the study. Furthermore, as Nassir and Leong reported in [2], chaperones can also act as co-researchers during interviews, sometimes by, for instance, reminding participants of stories or things they may have forgotten to mention.

However, it is important to note that a guardian's participation should not be forced upon participants in any written or verbal way. Additionally, researchers should be aware that a guardian's involvement (e.g., chaperoning an interview) may influence participants' responses. Here, cultural probes can be useful as a tool to collect data. Probes enjoy the benefit of minimizing external influences while allowing the researcher to triangulate participants' response. Finally, researchers need to be aware that a guardian's participation in studies conducted by female researchers could possibly be limited. As we noted earlier, this is because female-to-female conversations do not require a proxy (i.e., a chaperone) to mediate the communication.

back to top  Conclusion

In short, current HCI research methods are not culturally universal. There is a need to further adapt, tune, and even develop new research methods that are considerate of local contexts. Perhaps through sharing these stories and reflections, we can aid in providing an initial stepping stone for future researchers wishing to conduct qualitative fieldwork in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Finally, even though many of the challenges and lessons discussed here extend to other countries and communities in the Arab world that share similar cultural and religious values, researchers need to be mindful of the variations in religious, cultural, and social practices from one context to another.

back to top  References

1. Alabdulqader, E., Lazem, S., Khamis, M., and Dray, S.M. Exploring participatory design methods to engage with Arab communities. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, W27.

2. Nassir, S. and Leong, T.W. Traversing boundaries: Understanding the experiences of ageing Saudis. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 6386–6397.

3. Abokhodair, N. and Vieweg, S. Privacy & social media in the context of the Arab Gulf. Proc. of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, 2016, 672–683.

4. Al-Dawood, A., Abokhodair, N., and Yarosh, S. Against marrying a stranger: Marital matchmaking technologies in Saudi Arabia. Proc. of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 1013–1024.

5. Al-Shahri, M.Z. Culturally sensitive caring for Saudi patients. Journal of Transcultural Nursing 13, 2 (2002), 133–138; http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/104365960201300206

back to top  Authors

Soud Nasssir is a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology Sydney. His research aims to design technologies to support older people in Saudi Arabia in aging well. He is interested in domains such as aging, techno-spirituality, research methods, and cross-cultural research. soud.a.nassir@student.uts.edu.au

Adel Al-Dawood is a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota working under Svetlana Yarosh. He is exploring how to design a culturally sensitive marital matchmaking technology for Saudi Arabia, a conservative country where dating is not culturally acceptable. aldaw004@umn.edu

Elham Alghamdi is a Ph.D. student at Dalhousie University working under the supervision of Derek Reilly and Sandra Toze. She is part of GEM Lab and the School of Information Management. Her research interests are interdisciplinary across the fields of HCI, e-commerce, social media, and social enterprise. elham@cs.dal.ca

Eman Alyami is a Ph.D. candidate working under the supervision of Stan Matwin of the Institute for Big Data Analytics at Dalhousie University, Canada. She is interested in studies around HCI, IT, and women in technology. alyami@cs.dal.ca

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