Friday, 30 March 2012

A trip to Kuwait and Social Change in KSA

March Break Travels

Hello my lovely readers! While family and friends in Toronto, Canada have been enjoying a mild spring with temperatures going up to the high 20s (Celsius), it's been consistently 30-35 degrees C here in Jeddah. DH and I had this past week off work and while he continues to study for his GMAT (business school entrance exam that he'll be writing on April 12th), I had the chance to visit some close friends in Kuwait City for 5 days. It was wonderful to get away, but, since Kuwait is MUCH more liberal than Saudi, it was also a bit of a culture shock! It was warm and sunny all week, and we enjoyed checking out a local souk (my first time going to one!), walking along the Persian Gulf (sans abayas and hijab!) and soaking up some sun.
Map of Kuwait
Fun Kuwaiti coasters!
Kuwaiti woman driving.
When I first exited the airport, I was taken aback by the sight of a woman driving past. Yes--she was driving herself!!! Although Kuwait is only a 1.5 hour flight from Jeddah, and is on the north east border of Saudi Arabia, it's a much more "open" country where women can drive, people can dress pretty much as they please, and there is religious freedom. It was nice to walk around in ordinary clothes, and enjoy a Friday night Bible study with friends.
Long walkway along the Persian Gulf. So beautiful! 
The Persian Gulf and Kuwait City skyline
Colourful trinkets at the souk
The beautiful corniche in Salmyia, Kuwait

I'm about to be published!

I'm also writing today with some exciting news! A friend of mine, Shakira Abubakar, founder of Continental Rescue Africa ( is compiling a book on youth and social change, and, after being intrigued by reading my blog, she asked me to write an article for it! Before the book is officially published, I'm pleased to give you a sneak peak at my piece. Here it is:

The voices of “soft, gentle women”:
Contemplating social change in Saudi Arabia

Should women be permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia? Last week, I was standing in front of my class and posed this controversial question. Controversial not to those of us from Western cultures, of course, but for young Arab women, this is a highly contested topic. Among the voices that resounded strongly and adamantly in favour of women getting behind the wheel in this ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom, a single voice was heard, quietly affirming her “no.” The week previous, this college class I teach had engaged in an in-class debate about women driving. 

Upon reaching an agreement on the debate topic—the well-to-do 18-25 year old women in my class from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries had selected this topic themselves—nearly all the girls wanted to argue that women should drive. Those appointed to the counterargument were quite distressed, but managed to gather strong evidence (mostly from religious sources) for their case. Although there is no “law” against women taking the wheel, there are strong religious rulings, or fatwas, that oppose it. In June 2011, a woman was arrested in the capital city, Riyadh, for driving. The charge against her, one student demonstrated, was not for being a woman driving, but for “not having a license.” 

Knowing that many of my students did not argue in favour of what they truly thought on the issue, I began the next class with the above question, asking for personal opinions outside their appointed debate stances. Chaos ensued. “Of course women should drive!” the girls proclaimed with passion. In the background, a timid voice resisted the group. The class was shocked. “What?! Women shouldn’t be allowed to drive?” The poor girl who had gone against the crowd! I asked her to explain her feelings on this topic. “Well,” she began, repeating some of her words from the debate (it appeared that her arguments had, in fact, reflected her personal views), “women are soft and gentle. They shouldn’t drive. It’s dangerous. What if her car breaks down? How can she change a tire?” “True,” another piped in, “when we’re wearing our abayas and hijab, it would be difficult…” Now the class was rethinking its stance. No one changed her mind, but the conversation was intriguing. 
Women driving: a religious issue?
In a theocratic country where religion governs society—the Qur’an is the law here—there are voices of resistance. Resistance is complicated, however, by the millions of expatriates, mostly from neighbouring Arab countries, though many from the West, who want change. But Saudi Arabia is not their country—not our country—to transform. Many of the girls in my class, however, were born and raised here, and perhaps their sentiments and desire for change should be heard. In ways different from other countries in the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia is extremely complex. It is influenced by a vast number of foreign nationals, by various extremes in thinking, by tradition, and by a tight, closed society that seems, on first sight, impenetrable to influences from the outside world.

Much of the younger generation before me in lecture each day, however, desperately wants change, freedom, and a voice. But what happens when their voices are dominated by those of more conservative women in the Kingdom (there are, indeed, many women who do not want to drive)? When they are overpowered by traditionalists in authority? No, women driving does not sound controversial to the Western ear, but here in Saudi Arabia, even the girls who argued in favour made careful note of the challenges and obstacles to this happening. They were all concerned for their safety. As modest, respectable Muslim women, every single one of them is taken aback when a man approaches her, makes an unwelcome advance, calls out to her when she is minding her own business, abaya on, hijab tightly wrapped around her head, not a strand of hair showing. No, they do not consider themselves all that conservative, but they do demand respect. Respect, but not submission. Respect, but not disempowerment. Respect, but most definitely not lack of freedom.
Just a dream...?
The challenge here, then, is how the girls—and others in Saudi Arabia—can attain the freedom they seek without sacrificing their deep desire for respect. In a country where, despite the strong tradition that governs every aspect of society, and where things are changing on a daily basis, women driving remains a complex issue, one that is marked by unique challenges, questions, and opposition. We can only watch, and wait to see what will happen when this generation of Saudi women has the chance to make their voices heard.

Julie is a Canadian currently living and working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She is interested in making changes and speaking to youth about global poverty, women’s rights, and social action. After completing her master’s degree in English with a special interest in women’s issues, she followed an opportunity to teach—and learn extensively from—Saudi and Arab female university students. When she is not teaching, she enjoys relaxing with a good book, or publishing her cultural observations about Saudi Arabia on her blog, Pink Jeddah Sunset. You can find her at:

Your turn to share YOUR thoughts!
So...what do YOU think, readers? Does Saudi Arabia sound like a place so unique and "dangerous" for women that they / we shouldn't be allowed to driver here? Or would it be better for women to challenge this rule, and take their chances against the crazy men on the roads, and risk having to change a tire in our abayas?

Comment below! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this complex topic.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Here comes the sun: summer, women's education, and social change

Warm, lovely sunshine!
As you can see from a recent weather update (below), the temperature is really starting to heat up here in Jeddah! I can still vividly recall getting off the plane at King Abdulaziz International Airport and stepping onto the tarmac back in December. It was about 2am and the air was hot, humid and sticky--a big change from the winter I'd left back in Toronto, Canada! Turns out that that night at about 18 degrees celcius was nothing compared to the heat coming our way!
Summer is approaching!
Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the heat, and summer is definitely one of my favourite seasons; however, it can be frustrating with all the lovely, beautiful sunshine and little chance to actually feel it on my skin!!! I used to love lying on the beach, or on the dock at our family cottage soaking up the sunshine. Here, it's sunny every single day (woo hoo!!!) but the downside is that, because every time I'm out I'm wearing an abaya covering nearly every inch of my skin, I'm whiter than I think I have EVER been!!!
Enjoying a patio by the Red Sea
Summer: a time for frozen yogurt!

In any case, I'm taking this with a positive attitude like Sheryl Crow says in "Soak up the Sun" (video below): "It's not having what you want / It's wanting what you've got." I think that's the most productive attitude for anyone who is living in a new country for the first time. It's been my philosophy while I get used to life in Jeddah and it's been working wonders!

In Canada we used to say "TGIF" (Thank Goodness it's Friday), but here in Saudi Arabia, weekends here are Thursday and Friday (Friday is the Islamic holy day). Since it's the weekend, DH and I spent the afternoon running errands. He was kind enough to drive for an extra 20 or so minutes--in the direction of the sun--so that I could get some sunshine on my arms (I was a rebel and rolled up the arms of my abaya haha). SO AMAZING!!!
We have a break coming up at the end of March, and I'm hoping to get out up to Obhur (a resort town 45 minutes north of Jeddah) and soak up the sun for real on one of the private beaches :) There, there's no dress code (because the beaches are "private") so I could wear even a bikini if I felt so inclined.
A new weekend!
Getting to know the locals...

What's so far been most fascinating about my time here is all I've been learning from new friends, from experiences around the city, and  from people I've met in my line of work. I've had the opportunity to get to know many young women, many of whom are either Saudi citizens, or were born and have grown up here. All are young Arab women, and it's been intriguing getting to know them, their stories, and their experiences of a country that most of us in the West truly know so little about.

Here are some "notables" I've picked up from various sources.

(1) Friends:
S introduced me to a couple of her friends, and they're both fun, intelligent women. One is British and married to a Saudi, and the other, A, is Saudi, with an American mother and Saudi father (here, the child always takes, without exception, the father's nationality. If a Saudi woman married an American, for instance, their children would not be Saudi). So "A" and I were being dropped home by S's driver one evening and started talking about grocery shopping here in Jeddah. I mentioned that it feels weird to me that when the grocery guy and DH are bagging the food, they look at me funny when I attempt to help. Same goes for unloading the groceries into the trunk of the car. In Canada, I'm used to doing ALL my own groceries, carrying them home (even heavy bins of cat litter!), and unpacking them myself. Here, when I try to do the same, people look at me like I'm an alien (which I guess I kind of am here! lol) A couple weeks ago I took a driver to the grocery store, and when I went to check out, the bag guy wouldn't even let me put the groceries on the belt myself! Now, when DH and I make our weekly purchases, I head over to the nearby Body Shop and peruse their new items, rather than stand there merely watching the guys do all the work!

Before you stop and interject--but you're giving into the culture of male superiority--or, you're a Canadian woman; don't you think you're equally capable??--stop and hear me out! First, I'm living in a different culture. Yes, it's Saudi Arabia, but let's set our pre (mis) conceptions aside and imagine for a minute that this is any other country. Ladies, in Canada (or anywhere, for that matter), aren't you flattered when a guy still has the courtesy to hold the door for you? When he lets you on the escalator before he jumps on? When he (your boyfriend or guy friend, not a stranger; that'd be odd!) offers to hold your bag / purse when you look at things in the shops? In the West, many of us see this as good manners, gentle-manliness and RESPECT! (Of course, some of you academics might argue that this plays into the culture of male superiority...but I, for one, appreciate these gestures when I'm at home).
Independent...but carrying a heavy load!
SO...A and I are in the car getting dropped to our respective homes. At this moment, I'm still frustrated with the "it's not proper for a lady to help with the groceries" situation, and am explaining this to her. She replies with this: my family is pretty liberal for a Saudi family. My dad spent a many years in the States, and my mom is American. Growing up, my dad used to let me help with the groceries, but my husband insists on doing this work himself. I ask, Aren't you insulted at not being treated as an equal, as someone capable of helping? A responds, Not really. My husband says "women are delicate flowers who we should treat tenderly and with respect," so when I see it that way, it's easier for me to sit and be pampered. Hmm, I thought, there's a point. Are women in the West treated this way? With respect, with gentleness? Here in Saudi Arabia, the idea is that a man should go out of his way to care for his wife, to pamper her, and not to insist she does any heavy lifting (both literally and figuratively). While of course, in some families this is mixed in with the idea that a wife is to be a "housewife" who looks after the kids, cooks, cleans, and does everything in the home, it seems to me that--at least among the more educated--this idea is quickly evolving.

Female retail workers
The rapidity of this social "change" became quickly apparent to me as soon as I arrived in Jeddah. Indeed, on our first trip to the grocery store not long after I landed, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of female grocery cashiers at the checkout. Maybe 1/3 of the cashiers at Danube (our store) are female. Moreover, it's now the law (as of last month) that ONLY women can be employed in lingerie shops. (Previous to this, women had to awkwardly purchase their intimate apparel from men! Yes, another of many paradoxes in this complex kingdom!)
Saudi female cashier
Women in universities
Since Saudi Arabia struck "gold" (oil) fairly recently in the 1970s, it is still a "developing nation." It's an inherently tribal nation, and it seems that the value (and availability) of higher education is a fairly recent phenomenon, too. This is particularly the case for women's education. Female colleges and universities continue to spring up, and I've had the chance to get to know some students at one in particular.
Educated Saudi women
Here, the female students are in their late teens and early twenties--typical college / university age back home. When I first met these students, I wasn't sure what to expect. What would be appropriate to discuss with them? Were "social issues" including divorce, poverty, obesity, alcoholism (yes, it does exist here despite the law forbidding alcohol), domestic violence, and women driving (it is, if you don't know, illegal here) up for discussion?
Saudi women studying
It turns out that when given the opportunity they had a lot--A LOT!--to say! Divorce, domestic violence, and women driving were hot topics. Divorce, for one, is legal here, and though it's Islamically discouraged, it is permissible. The girls pointed out that after a divorce, many women here face poverty, lack of social and financial support, and isolation. While for men there is no "stigma" against being a divorcee, for a woman in Saudi Arabia, it makes her "unmarriable" to many potential suitors. The majority of women still do not work, and so a divorced woman has little means of supporting herself and her children. On another note, the apparent pervasiveness of domestic violence in Saudi Arabia is, of course, is a hot topic among Westerners. I asked the girls whether it is really the issue "we" make it out to be. Is violence against women (in particular) as ubiquitous as we might be inclined to believe? One girl suggested, yes, probably 75% of families experience violence in the home. BUT the others soon convinced her that, yes, it happens, but NOT more than in other parts of the world. Maybe in 20% of homes, another suggested. The rest agreed this was a reasonable number.

Realistically, can we know how common such acts are? Even in Canada, I have no idea what the "real" number of cases of domestic violence might be. I'd guess that 20% is a LOW estimate. The difference, it seems, is how Canada deals with women who need social support (the government has established women's shelters, the welfare system, social services, etc) and how Saudi Arabia intervenes with women in similar situations. There seems to be very, very little "official" support for victims of family violence here. Although with our Western biases we might be quick to suppose this indicates that women are inferior, and that the government does not prioritize their welfare, it is also quite likely that this is the nature of a developing country. There ARE non-government organizations here, groups of kind-hearted volunteers who help widows, single mothers, and the poor.
Domestic violence: not just in Saudi
In the bigger picture, look at the very context of the discussion I've recorded above. There are the words of Arab women in a post-secondary classroom! They are being educated, many have work experience, and they are not all 18 year olds who have been "married off to old men" as the Western media likes to make the situation here sound. In reality, a couple girls might be married--by choice, just as many young Western girls are--but the majority plan to educate themselves and become career women. They are studying law, graphic and interior design, business, history, fashion, political science, and everything else women in the West have the opportunity to study.

Indeed, the Saudi King's Scholarship Fund is not limited to boys / men who want to study abroad. It's based on academic merit, and many of the girls I've met want to study in England, the States or Canada. And--brace yourself for the shock!--their government will provide them with the means for doing so.
The King's Scholarship Program
Maybe women in Saudi Arabia don't have what we in the West would see as fully "equal" status as men. In many ways they have more than equality: they have real, genuine respect! Furthermore, in context, women here have opportunities, choices, and chances at creating their futures. Yes, social issues exist, but is there a place in the world that is free from violence and challenges? In a developing country such as this, it is only natural that the evolution of the education system, the workforce, and social systems will take time. I have seen with my own eyes the ways in which, alongside these changes, women's roles are also rapidly evolving. And I have no doubt that the future will only bring more evidence of this progression.

Until next time...enjoy some glimpses of Jeddah, chez moi!
By the Jeddah Corniche...King Fahd Fountain in the distance
The mall at prayer time.

Jeddah has everything we have at home...and more!
As you might imagine, ice cream is VERY popular in a hot climate like Saudi.

Gas...cheaper than WATER!
We can completely fill our SUV (70L) for about $12CDN here...pennies!!!
A decorative entrance to an apartment building.
I love the doors here! Everything is so ornate!