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!


  1. Love it Julie. Keep your posts coming. I enjoy keeping up with your adventures. Aunt Mary.

  2. Will do! Thanks for reading and for your comment, Aunt Mary! :)