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Lessons From Saudi Arabia

Lessons From Saudi Arabia

I am sitting inside the private rooms of Effat University, the first private college for women in Saudi Arabia. The external walls avoid any contact with the outside world; most girls are wearing the abaya (the black overcoat) because some professors are men... although they have been relegated behind blue curtains in the area furthest from the campus' centre.
Two very distinctive differences to where I live are evident: separation and segmentation.
Women and men are separated. Women were the abaya and head cover in public, they enter public places and restaurants through the back door, the "family entry". Banks have exclusive areas for women, also through a back entry, and no man is allowed in. Extreme care is taken to restrict the view of "private" or "family" areas from the outside. Doors to the outside world are designed in zig zag, so there is no clear view from the outside. Walls are very high and com completely shut out, the windows are facing internal gardens, inwards. Men can wonder around in areas designated for 'single people' in the public areas, that do not have that sense of inwardness. If they are not in the company of a female relative, they cannot enter the "family" area. No doubt there is a strong gender separation.
The second difference relates to praying time. I decided to call this 'segmentation.' Muslims pray 5 times a day. The shops are closed, everything sit stills whilst praying takes place. I get the impression that the rules are a bit more relaxed for women, but they do not work in stores or in public areas, at least I have not seen, except for the few in the market by selling water, spices and foods. When we went to a café in the evening, all seemed to stop for about 20-30 minutes, the lights were turned off, the window blinds closed, the doors locked, and the waiters' disappeared '... Shops that had clients closed their doors, sometimes leaving them inside. The world seemed to stop at praying times... early in the morning, at noon, mid-afternoon, just before sunset and an hour or so after sunset. There is no fixed schedule for the praying times, as they are regulated by photoperiod (daylight period) and change a little every day.
These differences surprised me and made me think about how different we are. I used to think about differences between the tropics and temperate climates, or so many other smaller cultural differences, yet I can only imagine how hard it must be for a person raised in Saudi Arabia. In Jeddah, we found a small café by the 'corniche', a beautiful walk by the ocean -by the way, almost across from Somalia.
Jeddah has a stunning cornice, with date palms, giant sculptures, and a beautiful view of the sea. On a Friday night families linger in large crowds, dressed in black (women) or white (men), with children trotting along. And the market (entry below), a market that has been here for ages, where the pilgrims to Mecca and Medina can come to sell their products.... it is a magical place.
I met with a group of women and was pleasantly surprised by the liveliness, the humour, and the interesting conversation. Actually I felt internally embarrassed by my own ignorance, what was I expecting? I don't know.
These women have been meeting for years, they are active, intellectually astute and very funny. Something poetic and inspiring pops up here and there, one of them makes a statement that I love: rights are taken, not given. Ta da... the highlight of the visit to Jeddah. My conference takes place in an open area, and the young women fill the space. I am surprised by their participation; once again a hint of poetry and inspiration, yet their questions and answers are so clear and assertive. Where is the chauvinism?
I note that behind the black robe there is something many westerner women lack: assertiveness. In my few days here I have noticed the spontaneity and ability to speak freely and fluently. Very authentic. Perhaps because I am the foreigner, there is no need to conform.
I cherish the energy of the Saudis I've met so far. It is not the restrictive culture I expected. People are vibrant, appreciative of their culture and the 'other' culture, curious -after all not many Venezuelans living in Australia come to visit.
The role of women seems to me a mystery, the Arabic mystery. Their rights taken not given. It makes me think about MY rights, something I have never thought about. How many of us or how many times have we waited for our rights?
Special note: I have done my best to describe my short experience in Jeddah, I also went to Dammam and Al Khobar. Any faults in this description are based solely on my perceptions.

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