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A feminist visits Saudi Arabia
Old 02-08-2009, 12:06 PM   #1
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A feminist visits Saudi Arabia

Recently I mentioned that I was going to visit the Kingdom (KSA) and had several expressions of curiosity from female forum members. I’m back, and have now had time to reflect on my experiences. This was a business trip and for confidentiality reasons I cannot share any details about the business, except that it was related to healthcare. So here goes:

Saudi Arabia is a very hot country and January is the best time to visit, as it’s “only” about 30 degrees Centigrade (86 Fahrenheit). In the summer, it can get dangerously hot (50 degrees Centigrade (122 Fahrenheit). I was in Jiddah, which, being the point of entry for pilgrims going to the Hajj in Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, is the most cosmopolitan city in the Kingdom. It’s on the Red Sea (red because of the coral) and is quite lovely. There are beautiful buildings and museums full of history to see, and the shopping is to die for. There are ~15 large malls that would rival the Mall of America in size and inventory. And no sales tax! There is a definite air of prosperity with good infrastructure and services. Water is sometimes in short supply and fire is a major danger in the heat of summer. Many Saudis have all the latest gadgets and the homes of people who would be middle class in north America can be quite palatial, with marble, gilt and several foreign domestic staff. Approximately 25% of workers in Saudi are foreigners and my impression is that they are treated well, in contrast to Kuwait, which has the worst reputation in this regard. There is a concentrated effort to “Saudiize” and reduce dependence on foreign workers.

Saudi is evolving from a tribal country. It’s a collectivist society and everything revolves around family. It’s normal to expect your relatives to intercede for you when jobhunting, for example. The state religion is Islam; there are mosques everywhere, but no other places of worship. You cannot miss the muezzin’s call to prayer from your local mosque, five times a day. Everything stops for 10 minutes or so; meetings will empty, and shops will temporarily close. I saw jewellery stores leaving their awnings open while the owners went round the corner to join in prayers….with no concerns about theft. People are very devout and liberally sprinkle their conversation with phrases referring to Allah (e.g. “Al humdoolillah” (“thanks be to God”) or “Insha’Allah” (may it please God). They are very fastidious about personal hygiene as Islam dictates specific washing rituals, and most bathrooms have hoses to facilitate this. I was told to expect that schedules needed to be very flexible, but in fact meetings were scheduled around Salah (prayers) and everything was pretty efficient. As in all hot countries, there is a siesta in the afternoon and people shop, dine and stroll till midnight or later. Hospitality is second to none.

The King (currently Abdullah) is an absolute ruler and essentially his government makes all the big decisions and many of the minor ones. Rather than having political debates, if the King decides it’s a good idea, you’ve got your program funded. It’s common to see on the news that he has granted $XXXX million to this, that or the other. At the same time, many things that would not be regulated by government in the West, are. That includes salary scales (different for Saudis and non-Saudis) and professional standards. Hospital care can be excellent and there are at least four parallel systems. Saudis associate high tech with excellence and are not keen about accessing primary care. There are plans to introduce a national healthcare insurance scheme, which should even out some of the inequities between systems.

Saudi Arabia is probably the most controlled society I have visited (much more than China). Women cannot vote or drive. Men get to vote, but only in municipal elections, and this is a recent development. There is a lot of security, especially since 9/11. You will see the National Guard watching cars at roundabouts and intersections, and there are regular checkpoints. Driving is pretty adventurous and those Lexuses and Mercedes have lots of fender benders, but at least they don’t have to worry about drunk drivers, since alcohol is totally forbidden. In fact, if you are caught trafficking drugs, it’s a capital offence. Human rights are few, although women’s right to own property has been in force for many centuries. Segregation of the sexes is practiced as far as possible. There is a current debate about whether there should be a minimum age for marriage. Daughters are sometimes married off as young as eight, but more commonly in their teens. Very large families (12-18 children) are the rule. I had expected to see women in hijab with the compulsory abaya (black floor length robe that even visitors must wear in public) but I had not anticipated that most women, even highly skilled professionals, would be wearing niquab (face veils). I met with many women whose faces I didn’t see, and would not be able to recognize them if I met them again. But when it’s a girls only group, the niquabs come off in a shot, and pop back on when a man arrives. There are women only shops (and even a mall in Riyadh) where women uncover and go casual. Women wear very colourful clothing in the privacy of their own homes, and designer labels are big sellers. Business wear for men is a long white thobe and a kaffiyeh on their head. They were always spotless (the maids must do a lot of laundry).

Saudi Arabia’s collectivism and conformity is the greatest contrast I can imagine to the United States, which I consider to be the most individualist country on earth. When visiting Saudi Arabia you must be prepared to leave your prejudices at home. If you are a woman, you will be required to wear a black abaya in public. Just relax: they are very comfortable! Headscarves are optional but are appropriate in some settings. Women don’t shake hands with men, unless they offer. Eat with your right hand, because your left is for personal hygiene. Do not show the sole of your shoe, as this is unclean and highly disrespectful. If you follow the rules, and attempt to learn some Arabic phrases, you will find you are treated very respectfully and collegially. As a feminist who places a high value on independence, I would find it stifling to be so dependent on men. I would also be concerned about the lack of protection from abuse that is inherent in such a system. This applies particularly to young girls who are married off before they know how to speak up for themselves.

The Kingdom has undergone rapid change since oil was discovered in 1938. They are still discovering big oil wells every week. I think the strong Islamic faith is responsible for the fact that society has maintained its traditions in the face of wealth and consumerism. But at some point, the oil will run out and its current business model will no longer be sustainable. Saudis will have to start doing those jobs that they now delegate to foreigners, who have little influence on public life inside their compounds. But, in an effort to “Saudiize”, and become more self sufficient, the Kingdom has been sending its brightest and best young people abroad for key skills training. These young people will be the leaders of tomorrow and hold the best chance for the Kingdom to adapt to the 21st century.

All in all, a fascinating place to visit…..but I would not be able to live there.
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Old 02-08-2009, 12:18 PM   #2
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If you are a woman, you will be required to wear a black abaya in public. Just relax: they are very comfortable!
How can you say that they are very comfortable? I cannot see how wearing black all over your body can be comfortable when it's 120+ degrees out.

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Old 02-08-2009, 12:23 PM   #3
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Abaya, bra & panties. No pantihose, no constricting belts, no skirts riding up....no sweat! And it was "only" 32 degrees max. when I was there.
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Old 02-08-2009, 01:16 PM   #4
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I do enjoy the siesta idea. I don't know what's with Americans, but taking a nap in the middle of the day is not a sign of weakness. If you value maximum throughput from yourself, the best way to get 13-14 hours of work out of yourself everyday is to a) sleep 6-6.5 hours a night and b) take a 30-minute nap in the middle of the day. You can pull this type of schedule for a couple of years at a time. Try without the nap, you'll be sick within 2-3 months.
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Old 02-08-2009, 01:46 PM   #5
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How can you say that they are very comfortable? I cannot see how wearing black all over your body can be comfortable when it's 120+ degrees out.

tmm
The nights are relatively mild. As a matter of fact tonight it is suppose to be in the low 40s. Basically everything is inside and people do not walk that much outside. On the real hots days they just wait until after 7 or 8pm to go out and about. If you want to see a contrast you have to go to Bahrain hit a club, see the Saudi women coming in wearing a full abaya, run to the bathroom and come out of the bathroom wearing dental floss then hit the dance floor.
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Old 02-08-2009, 02:03 PM   #6
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Several years ago, the new next door neighbors were a just retired Army officer and his wife and 2 kids. He accepted a position as a contractor working directly for the KSA and went over by himself. Wife and 2 kids followed and lived there for about 1 year.
I remember her stories of feeling like a bird in a gilded cage. She and the kids lacked for nothing. They were living in a foreign compound. They were not allowed to venture out in public without the appropriate escort and of course proper attire for mother and daughter.
She told me of one rare public outing by car to the market. She witnessed the public beating and stomping of a young man, done by a very maddened crowd. It was not stopped by the policemen in close proximity. She was told later that he said something against somebody in power and was publicly beaten on purpose, to set an example.
It was not long after witnessing that beating scene that she decided to return to the States. She was frightened for herself and the 2 kids, both teenagers and going thru that mouthy stage. Husband moved back within 6 months when his contract expired.
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Old 02-08-2009, 02:15 PM   #7
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Meadbh,

Thanks so much for your post. Your perspective seems very objective and non-judgmental; I learned a lot. I'm curious if you were there alone, or in the company of other Westerners, and for how long you were in-country. Thanks again for sharing your impressions and information with us.

Tom
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Old 02-08-2009, 02:22 PM   #8
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I was there for a week, with other westerners, but working closely with Saudis and meeting with Saudi friends.
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Old 02-08-2009, 04:44 PM   #9
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Thanks Mead for the fascinating story. Are there many women doctors? Are most of the nurses women? Do they treat men and women separately?
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Old 02-08-2009, 04:56 PM   #10
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Thanks Mead for the fascinating story. Are there many women doctors? Are most of the nurses women? Do they treat men and women separately?
Thanks Martha!
Yes, there are lots of female doctors, most of whom work in "family friendly" specialties such as ob/gyn, pediatrics, and family medicine. Since it is a no-no to expose one's body to a member of the opposite gender, there are quite a few male nurses. For the same reason, nursing is NOT a popular profession in KSA, and most nurses are recruited from other countries. Yes, they most certainly do treat men and women separately. They even have separate waiting rooms where spouses wait while the healthcare provider sees their loved one in the inner sanctum. Chaperones are required when the doctor/nurse is not of the same gender as the patient.
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Old 02-08-2009, 05:19 PM   #11
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I have a friend who has spent nearly his whole life in academia as a sociologist. He shared the perspective of many in his department--that it is improper to "judge" other societies from a Western perspective, that each society exists to meet the cultural requirements of its members.

Then he spent some time in the KSA. Saw the limits put on very talented women. Saw what happens when religious faith trumps reason. Saw the treatment of young girls. This changed his perspective a lot. Now he believes there are bedrock principles and criteria that can be used to evaluate various cultures, and that they aren't truly all equally "good."

Some folks have to see it. I give him credit for gaining this insight after a relatively short period--some people keep the "enlightened, objective, non-judgmental" blinders on even after living in (but really "beside") the culture for years.

I have many American friends who settled permanently in foreign countries. In much of Asia or Latin America you can gradually assimilate and become accepted as "nearly native" by the locals after many years. You could live in Saudi Arabia for decades and it would never happen, even if you converted to Islam.

Thanks for the post!
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Old 02-08-2009, 10:36 PM   #12
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Meadbh,

That was a fantastic post.

Thank you!
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Old 02-08-2009, 10:53 PM   #13
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So interesting--thanks, Mead!
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Old 02-08-2009, 10:58 PM   #14
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So interesting--thanks, Mead!
Agree,very interesting. How about a photo?

Ha
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Old 02-09-2009, 12:14 AM   #15
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Thanks for the interesting description Meadbh.

I have had the opportunity to work closely with folks who are devout muslims here in the US and have found interesting some of the things I have learned through their friendship. One time, when I was welcomed to an event, the genders were separated, men on one side, women on the other.

As a western feminist my first reaction was to question this. And of course there are some things that result that are negative about the situation. But the thing that startled me was the closeness and supportiveness of the women in the group to each other - something I had never experienced myself even with my fellow feminist friends. It was really eye opening - it was tender, immediate and affectionate. Also, I have noticed the men are much more affectionate with each other then men here. We all learned each others boundaries, I learned not to stick my hand out to shake a male's hand, when we were in a group, the men and women would automatically order themselves into a male-female or male male-female arrangement according to whether or not the male-females were engaged to be married or not. And nobody thought much about it.

Not that I think the whole situation is rosy, but I learned some interesting things from the experience.
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Old 02-09-2009, 01:49 AM   #16
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Abaya, bra & panties.
You just single-handedly turned the Abaya into something sexy. I'll never view a woman wearing one the same way again. Thanks for that!
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Old 02-09-2009, 07:32 AM   #17
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Thanks for a great post !
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Old 02-09-2009, 09:14 AM   #18
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I had expected to see women in hijab with the compulsory abaya (black floor length robe that even visitors must wear in public) but I had not anticipated that most women, even highly skilled professionals, would be wearing niquab (face veils). I met with many women whose faces I didn’t see, and would not be able to recognize them if I met them again.
Tales like these make me glad every day that I was born in the USA. Sorry to be so sappy about it, but to me this is the face of oppression and I cherish my freedoms here.

"I'm glad to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.
And I won't forget the men who died and gave that right to me!"

I might wear a mask for Mardi Gras if I WANT to, but you won't ever finding me choosing to wear the clothing and veil you describe because I am free not to, and so many others must, or bear consequences. Visiting such a country as a tourist is somewhere after drowning in a cistern in my list of desired activities, though most here know me - - I am not really a travel buff and I am very independent. Still, it was fascinating to read about your experiences on this business trip, Meadbh!
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Old 02-09-2009, 09:29 AM   #19
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Does the Abaya have to be all black? Did you cover your hair?

How do women get to work? Are they driven? Bused? How do women end up on a professional track? Are they unmarried? Or do married women work too?

(Sorry for the third degree. )
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Old 02-09-2009, 11:18 AM   #20
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How can you say that they are very comfortable? I cannot see how wearing black all over your body can be comfortable when it's 120+ degrees out.

tmm
I remember reading about the difference between black and white robes etc. in the middle east... they said there was no difference to the wearer as they are designed to allow airflow to the body... do not know if it was the mens robes or the womens... and it was awhile back... so, take it or leave it...
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