To find out more about generational values in another traditional Arab society where Muslim religious leaders and police are dominant, I talked with a young Saudi woman who I will call Aamina, age 27. She came to the US in 2006 to study English and computer science. She said things are changing in Saudi Arabia although the religious police will approach shoppers to remind them it’s time for prayers. (Hamas also has modesty patrols to check on clothing on college campuses and limit contact between young unmarried men and women in the Gaza Strip. Its government approved a law in 2013 prohibiting co-education after age eight.) Malls–their social centers–don’t allow single men to enter without their families to prevent them from flirting with girls. Her cousin was holding hands with her fiancé in a mall and was stopped for proof they were married or engaged. Wedding parties separate men and women and some homes have separate living rooms for the two groups. (The Saudi film Wadja (2012) shows male guests meeting behind a closed door while the wife cooks and serves the food on trays outside the door.) She said young men and women can sometimes get away with meeting in coffee shops because there are so many of them. A woman doesn’t have the freedom to just go for a walk by herself, as people would talk.
Aamina reports that Islam permeates every aspect of Saudi life, what you wear, what you say and do. Schools and colleges include courses on Islam. Girls learn cooking, sewing and drawing in high school but receive no physical education. She didn’t learn to swim until she was in the US, as only little girls under age seven or so can swim in public waters. Women are prevented from taking college subjects such as engineering, journalism, and architecture. Although women make up the majority of college students, they account for only 14% of the workforce, the lowest in the Middle East. DVDs are censored–sex scenes are removed, but not violent scenes.
It’s not just women who lack freedom; her brother visited her in California for three months and upon returning home said it was like going from heaven to hell, from freedom to restrictions and concern about what people think about your family. An American who taught in a Saudi college for men was amazed at the walls along all the silent residential streets, never seeing children playing or people out for a walk, or hearing any noise on the other side of the fences.[i] He said many of his students hadn’t spoken with non-relative females and would like to leave the country. Aamina compares living in Saudi Arabia and the US.
I was in a small world there, while here everyday I learn something new, like to swim or play the piano. To me America is another name for opportunity. I am learning so much about life, religions, how to be independent, and how to deal with men. It is a place for me to be who I am and act like how I think is right, without worrying about religion or culture.
This freedom makes her happy and relaxed, so much so that friends commented when she went home to visit her family that she looked ten years younger.
She likes King Abdullah who promised that women will be allowed to drive, after driving schools become available with female instructors. This is a big deal for young men as well because they get tired of chauffeuring their female relatives. In California, her brother sat in the back seat in relief and said, “Drive me!” She says the king is also thinking about co-ed primary schools. He established scholarships for young people like her to study abroad and bring back new ideas. In a country ruled by Shariah law, the king has a record of dismissing religious leaders who are too critical of his “legalizing taboos” against men and women interacting, as one of those advisors said before he was fired. King Abdullah permitted women to work in stores selling to women, but groups of conservative sheikhs protested, demanding that such storefronts be covered and only women allowed to enter.
In 2013 the king added 30 women to the top advisory group of 150 members, the Shura Council, not just as advisors but for the first time giving them a vote. One of their first steps was to bring up the issue of women being permitted to drive. He also gave women the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections in 2015, without their husbands’ approval. The kingdom’s chief cleric warned against these changes; “It is necessary for women to be separated from men as much as possible, because this great religion protects the chastity of women against evil and corruption,” said Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik.
Aamina worried because Prince Naïf (born in 1933) was in line to become king after Abdullah (born in 1923). Naïf was a very strict religious conservative who said, “Women will not drive cars as long as I am alive.” He also opposed women voting. Aamina was afraid to go back to Saudi Arabia because of the possibility of him becoming king. He died shortly after our conversation, to be replaced as Crown Prince by his more moderate brother Defense Minister Prince Selman. He was born in 1935 to his father’s favorite wife, the 31st son of the founder of the monarchy.
Change happens slowly in Saudi Arabia, but girls don’t cover up as much as in her mother’s generation; it’s not unusual to see hair under a loosely wrapped scarf in public. Although all women wear the abaya robe, she has seen some with no head covering in public. Aamina wears shorts and sleeveless shirts around her male relatives at home, although her mother always has her arms and legs covered. After several years in the US she stopped wearing a hijab although her uncle (her father died when she was a girl so they live with her mother’s family) wanted her to keep wearing it so people wouldn’t talk badly about her at home.
Her mother, age 45, married at 14 and had six children so she wasn’t well educated except for reading on her own. She says she lives for her children. In Aamina’s grandmother’s day some families thought it was wrong to send girls to school, even though all the staff in girls’ schools are female. Even now, male teachers speak on video and can’t see their students. When Aamina was a teenager she thought about marriage and children, but she says teens nowadays are more focused on their education and know a lot more than she did. She turned down many suitors because they wanted her to be a housewife. Now that she’s a college student in the US, she has her own boyfriend, also a Saudi, who is supportive of her desire to pursue more education and have a career, “unlike the typical Saudi man.” Whereas traditional Islam maintains that women are more emotional and men more rational—hence a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s and she inherits half of what a man inherits—she believes that women are stronger emotionally.
Although her life has changed since coming to California, what survives strongly is the traditional emphasis on extended family that gets together at least once a week. Aamina phones her mother every day she’s in the US. Young Saudi adults live with their parents until marriage, so she was shocked that some US teens leave home after high school graduation. Also, Islamic practices of prayer five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan are heart-felt and followed. This all changed when I talked with her a year later and she told me, “I was looking for the truth and I was struggling to find the true loving God and I found Christ 🙂 I am saved by his grace and my boy friend was struggling too and he received Christ last night. I am so happy and content, the relationship with Jesus is amazing, full of love and hope.” Her life is certainly different than her mother’s.
[i] Joseph Marais, “Saudi Arabia Under Siege,” Sacramento News and Review, May 11, 2011. http://www.newsreview.com/chico/saudi-arabia-under-siege/content?oid=2040363