Monday, March 4, 2013

Brief Moments Lead to Life-Long Impressions

I wrote this piece for a local newsletter several months ago. However, the piece didn't quite fit with the intent of the newsletter. I've saved this for awhile and now wish to share it. Many of my friends were very generous in their time and shared their comments and critiques. Any errors or mistakes are solely mine and should not reflect on those generous friends who offered their wisdom and editorial skills.
I grew up in a small, insular town in the rugged mountains of Wyoming. Our town was remarkable for its homogeny in religion, politics, and race.  While my hometown was a lovely, peaceful place to grow up, my adult life has been filled with greater diversity. My husband and I enjoyed living in both Sweden for a long time, and in Israel for a brief period. Culture shock hit me terribly hard when our family moved back to the United States and settled in New York. My experiences abroad changed me enough that I felt like a stranger in my own country. When my husband was asked if he would consider an international assignment in Saudi Arabia two years after resettling back in the United States, neither of us hesitated to accept the opportunity.

We prepared for two years for the assignment. My husband worked intensively with Saudi colleagues while I planned. I read about the country, prepared our five children for the big move, and reviewed skills I would need to survive in the Middle East. Despite all of this preparation, and knowing, intellectually at least, how life would play out for me as a woman in Riyadh, stepping off the plane in Saudi Arabia was still a shock.

As a fairly well-traveled woman, I still wasn't prepared for the stark visual contrast of seeing women completely covered by black abayas. At first I felt terribly insecure. Would I offend a muttawa and risk an unpleasant encounter? Would I smile or behave in a culturally inappropriate way to a man? That first trip to Riyadh, I felt afraid to step away from my husband even for a second. Eventually, I was able to relax, and we were able to find a villa and proceed with our move.

I find it fascinating to learn more about different cultures and their local food customs, languages, and social rules. While living and traveling abroad, I have worked hard to learn about different cultures while trying to avoid arrogant judgment. Diversity is invigorating and differences can be interesting. I find different social rules, while at times complex and confusing, interesting to consider. Seeing  different political systems through the lens of a Caucasian American woman have given me greater insight into my own political beliefs. Observing the differences has allowed me to better understand myself and my place in the world. While trying to process all these differences, it helps me to focus on commonalities. With few exceptions, I have found most cultures deeply value families and relationships. I have met many interesting, well-read people with a similar passion to understand different cultures. With these thoughts in mind, I’ve tried to approach my adventures in Saudi Arabia with open-mindedness.

In many ways, I’m well-suited to live in Saudi Arabia. I’ve been home raising my five children for the last thirteen years and living on a limited budget. While we love traveling, we save for those big trips, meaning that we lead a quiet lifestyle. I’m quite adept at entertaining children and myself without a lot of extra help from others. So living in a compound with swimming pools, a bowling alley, lots of freedom for my kids, and with many luxuries is a treat. It is a tremendous privilege for our family to live abroad. I’m so grateful that my children are experiencing remarkable things as they interact with children from all over the world, explore different cultures, and broaden their horizons. Despite all this luxury, fun, and privilege, I still struggle with aspects of living in the Kingdom.

It has puzzled me that as a fairly conservative woman, and as a member of a conservative religion, I would feel so frustrated with the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia while living in the U.S. as I have always felt that I shouldn’t impose my own cultural standards on another culture. After all, I’m a guest here, and I do not want to be the stereotypical arrogant American, proclaiming that our way is the ONLY way. But still, I’m troubled by what I read, what I observe, and the frustrating barriers which separate western women from Saudi women.

I want to respect the veils, head scarves, and abayas, but I feel that all the cloth serves as an effective impediment to communication and interaction. In my opinion all the coverings Saudi women don symbolize the stark differences between a women’s role in society, religion, and culture in Saudi Arabia as opposed to the United States. In trying to bridge the two cultures, I have been studying Islamic tracts for religious context, and reading books about Saudi culture and history. It’s a bit of a struggle trying to understand and accept the role of women in Saudi Arabia.

I treasure moments of interaction with Saudi women at the grocery stores, malls, or amusement parks. Our conversations may be brief, but in those moments of shared thoughts, I feel like humanity can transcend the artificial barriers of cultural differences. Perhaps my frustration with the situation of Saudi women has less to do with what I perceive as unequal and more to do with how it creates barriers between women from different cultures. If we can’t, or won’t, talk with one another, we can’t achieve understanding. If we can’t achieve understanding, we can never hope to make the world a better place. I think that understanding through communication leads to less strife, more tolerance, and opportunities for friendship across cultural barriers.

I want my time in Saudi Arabia to continue to be a period where I gain a better understanding of one of  the most misunderstood regions of the world. I hope to learn more about what drives people in this country, how the women live and perceive their lives, and what gives Saudi women meaning and purpose. I will continue trying to cross those forbidding cultural barriers in an effort to gain understanding.

How do you deal with the cultural differences between Saudi and ex-pat women? Have you connected with Saudi women? Do you find more commonalities than differences?

No comments:

Post a Comment