Line 120 or 220 volts?

The Iraqi war really brought the spotlight on the Shia -Sunni struggle within  the region, when before, outside of the Middle East, there was no distinction between Muslims. Little be known to the rest of the world there are other  layers of discrimination in the region.  Two of which affect a Saudi’s marriage and job prospects. The first and most important is whether a person belongs to a tribe or not. You are 220 if you belong to a tribe and 120 if you don’t. There are many tribes in the region and tracking and documenting them is a centuries old science that is still very much alive today. I’ve also heard stories of specialists who were able to track which tribe a person belongs to just by looking at their facial features. Though I don’t believe they exist anymore. The most prestigious tribe to belong to is the Ashraff. People who are even remotely related to this tribe will drag out their family tree at every opportunity. And they are understandably the most prestigious because they are descendents of the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) family. Now most claims to this tribe are bogus but the few true lines of heritance are carefully documented in books. The most famous Asharaff family today is the Jordanian royal family. But personally I think they have diluted their blood with too many British and American commoners.

Then there are Saudis who don’t belong to a tribe. The first of two main reasons why is that they go back to an ancestor who has been disowned by his tribe for committing a crime or taking up a manual job. These families are easy to identify because their last name usually means in Arabic some kind of job like blacksmith or baker. The other main reason is that the family goes back to an ancestor who immigrated here. These families usually have a last name that in Arabic means some kind of nationality like Egyptian, Morroccan…etc.  The only exception I know of to the latter reason is the Hindi family who are tribal.

Another layer of distinction is made up of Bedouin or urban. Bedouins are families who only in the past century have settled down. Before they used to roam the desert never belonging to any particular region. Urban are families who belong to tribes that have always lived in towns and cities, only occasionally moving.

Part of a Saudi’s life is to be classified as one of the following:

a) Urban and tribal: These Saudis are the most stuck-up, refined and know how to spend money.

b) Bedouin and tribal: These Saudi are not as sophisticated but are more generous and their women are given a lot more freedom and respect.

c) Urban and nontribal: These Saudis are concentrated in the Western region and they mostly come from ancestors who were originally overstayers after performing Hajj.

d) Salab: These Saudis come from gypsy ancestors.

How does this matter in day to day life? Within their circles, both Bedouins and tribal Urban consider being called the other an insult. Urban mothers tell their children not to be Bedouin when they, for instance, attempt to leave the house in their pajamas.  And Bedouin mothers tell their children not to be urban when they get scared of a spider. To urban families, being called Bedouin has connotations of being unrefined and unruly. And in Bedouin families, being called an urban essentially means sissy.

And until recently, the Saudi nationality had been withheld from many salabs. Even though they have been on Saudi land for more than a century.

When it comes to job-hunting, let me just say that if you take a close look at any Saudi establishment, you’ll find that strangely a great number of the employees belong to the same tribe as the head of the establishment.

In marriage, it doesn’t matter much if you are Bedouin or urban. What matters is whether or not you’re tribal. If a Saudi is tribal and marries someone who isn’t, the father of the tribal spouse is expected to disown them. And the whole marriage has long term negative effects. The siblings of the tribal spouse will be limited in their choice of life-partners. A famous case that originated in such a mixed marriage is that of Fatima who after having two children with her husband, was forcefully divorced by her half brothers after her father passed away. Shockingly the divorce was sanctioned by the Saudi judicial system.

Fatima Starts Hunger Strike Despite HRC’s Reunion Assurances
Ebtihal Mubarak, Arab News

JEDDAH, 25 March 2008 – A Saudi woman, who was forcibly divorced from her husband by a court in 2005 at the request of her half brothers, yesterday began the first day of a hunger strike despite officials saying that the couple would soon be reunited.

“I won’t believe it till I see it… I’ll remain stuck in this shelter like an outcaste. Everyone asks me to be patient and wait,” said the woman known as Fatima.

One of my own relatives fell in love with a person who belonged to a non-tribal family. Just when they were about to announce their engagement, my great uncle threatened the father with disowning his whole family. So everything was broken off before it got too serious. This of course is extremely un-Islamic and a great example of how our society is truly ruled by custom and culture rather than religion.


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38 responses to “Line 120 or 220 volts?

  1. Assalaamu alaikum,

    Very interesting and enlightening post – thanks!

  2. saudiwoman

    Thank you Umm Ibrahim for your encouragement and readership 🙂

  3. I loved it. Very informative. I have a Saudi friend whose mother is from the asharrif tribe that you mentioned. she is a ‘white’ saudi but she married a black saudi from al harbi. i think her immediate family was against it initially but they never severed ties. all of the children from that union have married non saudis, though.

  4. Wow, that was so interesting! I’m going to talk to my hubby when he wakes up and see what his family is! I had no idea it was still so important as far as your status here. Thanks for a really well written and informative post!

  5. saudiwoman

    Hi Ummadam
    Al aharraf marrying someone from Al Harbi is normal. Al Harbi is a very big and respected tribe. That’s another misconception, it’s not like the west, we don’t put as much emphasis on skin color. Family name is a lot more important.

  6. Kenneth

    Wow. it was an interesting post. Was just wondering what legal grounds did the half brothers have for forcefully divorcing Fatima and her husband? Was it through a religious court or a judicial one?

  7. Umm Latifa

    salam alaykum Eman, I am wondering if my comments are reaching you. I would be grateful for your reply.

  8. saudiwoman

    Hi Kenneth, all courts are both judicial and religious because we are governed by Islam.
    Salam Umm Latifa
    yes I am getting your comments. I’m truly sorry if there is a delay in replying.

  9. Umm Latifa

    salam alaykum,
    I recently posted 2 comments reg. your explanation of “Wahabi” term (and cannot find them on your blog) – I liked it v. much and wanted to translate it and post on my blog (in Polish) on Saudi Arabia (+ link to your original note).
    I would appreciate your allowance to do this, in sha Allah.
    My blog aims to provide reliable information on Saudi Arabia from the point of view of Saudi citizens (concentrating on life of Saudi women). I do believe too many blogs are created on Saudi Arabia (in different languages) that do not represent the voice of a Saudi people; that’s why I find your blog so valuable. Ma sha Allah.
    I assure you, the translation is to be precise and of high quality. If you would like to see the blog before, pls let me know to my private email.
    Please note, that I have already recommended your blog to my readers.
    Jazak Allahu khairan.

  10. saudiwoman

    Salam Umm Latifa
    Thank you so much and I’m honored that you would like to translate my posts. I never recieved the 2 comments you mentioned. And you can go ahead and translate as much as you like. I trust as a fellow Muslim and woman you will not take liberties. There’s no point in sending the translation to me first because I don’t speak a word of Polish. 🙂
    BTW Where are you based?

  11. The saudi culture is one of the most prejudice cultures I’ve known… and Eman, when u say “personally I think they have diluted their blood with too many British and American commoners.” that makes u sound like a nazi… Islam teaches us that we are descendants of one man and a woman… and guess what, science says the same… so the concept of pure blood… well, I thought u were a little more educated.

    Another thing which offended me as a reader when u say “These Saudis are concentrated in the Western region and they mostly come from ancestors who were originally overstayers after performing Hajj” did it ever occur to you that people have emigrated to the holy places from all over the world? even the tribe of Quraish, a descendant of a tribe called Jurhum, were passing by the valley which is today Makkah… when they saw a woman with a little child (Hajar and Ismael) and of course water, and asked if they could stay… so the term overstayers… well… is derogatory… u know people move all around on God’s earth, they don’t just grow and stay in one place like plants…

    I know these are just your thoughts on the subject and are by no means based on scientific evidence… but I do agree with you on one thing… “This of course is extremely un-Islamic and a great example of how our society is truly ruled by custom and culture rather than religion.”


  12. ihudaif

    back on the 60s and 70s, most of the restaurants in the US would hang signs saying “No Nigger, No Dogs are allowed”! meanwhile, it didn’t get to that point in Saudi. however, I would say Saudi still much less prejudice especially than with these Brits! Salam

    • Mark

      Maybe I might discuss with you and hopefully give you another point of view to the one you have posted as I find it quite insulting…
      I grew up in a gorgeous English County where there were none but one black family I knew in the mid 70`s. Then a black Jamaican family moved close by where I lived. I was approx 12 yrs of age.. There were 3 sisters and one brother… I met them.. grew up with them and went out with one of the sisters for many years.. I experienced abuse from both black and white folk back then… but not now in England.. its very rare really.. we have shown our true sense of tolerant people.
      Anyway, later when I was around 14, my dad got work in the Middle East and moved the whole family to Abu Dhabi in around 78/79…
      One of the first people I met was a Lebanese girl named Carol at the private members beach club… She was gorgeous.. and we stole a kiss behind a small speed boat…
      At School, I had a very hush hush relationship with a Muslim girl from a very well respected family.. A great relationship.. she was truly an educated woman…
      I then dated a Half Egyptian and Half Iraqi Girl named Miriam, stunningly beautiful… very independent, loving nature…
      I dont think I have a racist bone in my body, maybe you should buy a mirror…
      Love isa the key and the path.

  13. Lynn

    That statement that you made is completely false. It was FAR from MOST of the US where that kind of discrimination took place. The KKK were ignorants from some southern states and they most certainly did not hold sway in the majority of this country.

  14. Lynn, what is your race, age and where are you? Just because you did not see the sign yourself doesn’t make it false. America is an extremely racist society. The only people that I know that do not acknoledge this are white people who don’t live near or know any black people. I have been married almost 10 years and have never met my white mother in law because she is a racist. My husband told me all the N- word jokes he heard. Racism in America is real and still exist.

  15. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Saudi Arabia: Part of the tribe

  16. great post, very interesting. i just saw your blog via global voices, keep up the good work!

  17. Lynn

    ‘Just because you did not see the sign yourself doesn’t make it false.’

    If you read my comment again you will see that I did not say that the sign was false. I said ‘It was FAR from MOST of the US where that kind of discrimination took place.’ The discrimination that took place in this country has been well documented and we now have laws against discrimination against anyone. Because your mother-in-law is a racist does not make the whole country racist.

    Racism did and I’m sure still does exist to some extent. And it does and did go both ways I might add. I am white and I grew up in the 60s and 70s in the north. My sister lives in the south now and her best friends are a black couple. That is something that,in the south, could have gotten them all killed at one time.

  18. Umm Latifa

    Dear Eman,
    I’ve been living in Riyadh since 5 years ;). I assure you translation will be precise, in sha Allah. Jazak Allahu khairan.

  19. Umm Latifa

    BTW, according to my husband (he is a Saudi), 110 are descendants of slaves (?). Is that right?

    • Mark

      Yea, most probably… much like the Nazi tattooing numbers upon the Jews… How sick a society which discriminates so vividly it is sad to see numbers are issued…

  20. Umm Latifa

    And one more thing, I was not intending to send you the Polish version ;-), but just suggested that if you would like to see how the blog looks like, you can go to:

    salam alaykum

  21. saudiwoman

    Hi Umm Latifa
    Yes it is true many nontribals are descendants of slaves.
    I saw your website before and I like the layout 🙂
    BTW this is my Email Emanfahad at G mail dot com.

  22. ihudaif


    I am sorry but I’ve lived there for a while and I’ve seen that … I had a girlfriend where her family would call our relationship as interracial … so she would tell me that … I would reply … Does that change anything? … is it because that my skin is kinda dark 🙂

    Umma Latifa,

    110 are descendants of slaves… that statement is WRONG with respect to saudiwoman.

    these people who came from non-Arabian tribe or country. for example … Khan family can founded in Saudi but they are considered as 110. Even though, Khan family is a very huge tribe located in Pakistan and some in Afghanistan but still considered as 110. even these people still discriminate against others though! … Most likely I would be rejected if I try to marry one of their daughters! this is how life goes on… I don’t have to confront all the traditions

  23. saudiwoman

    I’m sorry Ihudaif but it is a fact that all descendants of slaves are 110. Nontribals (110s) are also non-Arabian tribes or people from other countries. The point of calling a group nontribal is exclusion. Everyone who does not fit the tradional Arab tribal bloodline and traditions is called 110.

  24. saudiwoman

    P.S. Ihudaif it is considered rude to use all capital case even if it is only one word.

  25. ihudaif

    Anyhow, my cousin phoned me yesterday from UK… things still the same over there. It is useful to remember the recent attack to the Saudi Student at some city I cannot recall now, but he was beaten up to almost death because they didn’t like the way he looks. 🙂

    Moreover, I would like to mention the discrimination against our brothers the Sunnies in Iran, while these Shiiats in Saudi are claiming that no rights for them in Saudi.

    My ex-boss was Shiia and he gets paid a very high salary … most of them works in the private companies in Saudi and get highly paid and live well etc…

    but Sunnies in Iran


    Thanks for the change of talk

  26. Hana


    Actually, I have to disagree with your statement that that kind of racism only took place in the South. I am an Oregonian and to my shock I learned a while ago that black people were not permitted to stay overnight in Portland until WWII, when many black people moved to the Kaiser shipyards in Portland and Vancouver. Many black people settled down in a community called VanPort, which was flooded suddenly in the 60s. It’s well known that bus drivers getting people out of the floods prioritized white evacuees. (The neighborhood many black people then settled in was razed a few years later to make room for Interstate 5.) My grandfather worked in a business there at this time and told me about it. Also, the KKK had an important political presence in many, many states including Oregon. Again, I did not know this myself until recently and don’t blame you at all for not knowing it. This is not taught in conventional curriculum and that fact itself is telling.

  27. Pingback: Saudi woman top five blog posts « Saudiwoman’s Weblog

  28. Mark

    HI there..

    The most famous Asharaff family today is the Jordanian royal family. But personally I think they have diluted their blood with too many British and American commoners.”

    You most certainly mean enriched???
    Hope your well.’

  29. Usman

    It is a very well written informative post on a very sad state of affair. I’m originally from Pakistan and we have our own share of such evil analogous to Arab Tribal system. It is called Cast. Cast system though not as rigid as Arab tribal system, but it has its negative impacts mainly on family relation and in politics. But thank god we don’t have any concept of being “disowned” from the cast.
    One thing I didn’t get. We adopted the Cast system from Hindu culture which actually did lost some of its strength among Muslim converts. But why Islam at even its revolutionary peak could not eliminate the evil of tribal system is beyond my understanding.

    Also, Is the Ashraff a branch of Banu Hashim?

  30. ziad


    Ashraff are Banu Hashim,

    ashraff is an adjective that means the honorable it is used as nickname

  31. annee

    i think the prophet said it was one the shortfalls of his ummah..they would alwys stay divided..and usman we in pakistan inherited the cast system from hindus but from whom did we inherit the sindhi punjabi baloch pakhtoon prejudice from…i think our political leaders

    • Usman

      The Punjabi, Baloch etc. prejudice is due to the linguistic diversity. The linguistic difference is a far stronger difference than the tribal one. Two Saudis of two different tribes speak same language and are of the same ethnic group. Why then there is such prejudice is beyond my understanding.

  32. Thanks for the informative post. I am confused though – is 110 and 220 actual terminology used in Saudi Arabian slang to differentiate between the two groups?

  33. Hey this is kinda of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors
    or if you have to manually code with HTML.
    I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding skills so I wanted to
    get advice from someone with experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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