Monday, December 30, 2013

Challenging Stereotypes About Saudi Women: A Visit to the King Saud University Female Campus

Unfortunately the visit to the Prince Talal Charity Foundation was removed from our itinerary yesterday but we were still able to visit King Saud University and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center.

At 8:30 in the morning we left our hotel for King Saud University, the largest and oldest university in Saudi Arabia. The girls were dropped off at the all-female campus that was just built 4 months ago while the boys visited the main male campus. When we entered the main lobby we were immediately greeted by five or six students from a group called the Student Partnership Program (SPP). All of them were not wearing hijabs and abayas because it was an all-female campus and therefore unnecessary. About half way through the visit they laughed at us for keeping our hijabs on and encouraged us to take them off. They did really appreciate us respecting their culture, though. All of them were incredibly friendly and welcoming but I was taken aback at first because I didn't know the traditional Saudi greeting, two kisses on the cheek. I'm still not sure exactly what is the appropriate greeting because everyone we met did something slightly different. Hopefully by the end of our ten day trip I'll know what to do in each situation!

The main entrance of the campus.

Some general impressions of the look of the campus:
-All of the buildings are incredibly new looking and have very high ceilings and large entrance halls. 
-A lot of the campus actually seemed empty and unused as not everyone had moved in yet from the old female campuses (the SPP girls said it was their first semester using the new facilities).
-All of the offices and rooms we walked into were lavishly decorated and incredibly nice. 

Straight ahead leads to the main Campus Library. On the sides of this giant hallway
there are a grocery store, the student center, a campus cafeteria, coffee place, bookstore etc. 
The SPP students took us to a reception meeting with the Dean of Female Student Affairs and the PR Manager along with some other administrative members. They were very keen to make a good impression, constantly saying that they hoped that our visit would clear up some of the misconceptions about Saudi women. Everyone also said that they were very open to any questions we may have about the University or about Saudi society in general. After the meeting we visited the Vice Rectorate for Scientific Research and representatives who dealt with encouraging innovation and research, and with nanotechnology. Then we were taken to the new Auditorium and the Central Library of the campus. Finally we were jumped from room to room of student clubs including the translator's club, french club, reading club, photography club, and something that seemed like the Saudi historical appreciation club. At each room we were given Arabic coffee, a gift bag, and some candies or small pieces of food. Everyone was very friendly and enthusiastic to meet us and it was unfortunate that we only had time to spend a few minutes in each room.  The last thing we did was have a dialogue session with the SPP. Everyone was so sad to leave each other after such a sort visit with some amazing discussions (descriptions below) but I hope that we can keep in touch with who we've met in the future and foster some more exchanges!

The most interesting part of the visit were the conversations we had about American misconceptions of Saudi women against how Saudi women actually see themselves. There was definitely a theme of sentiment for evolution not revolution and reform not revolt when it came to women's rights. They also mentioned multiple times that the problems in Saudi Arabia for women or otherwise are world problems that are not just present in their country but everywhere. Everyone said that they wanted to see progress for women but that "change that comes fast, fades fast". A lot of people said that it was Saudi women's duty to participate in society and help advance the country in partnership with men. Most said that Saudi women have made strides in improving their situations and that more and more of them are taking on and succeeding in leadership roles (like the SCC). One girl  was careful to say that she didn't want to brag, but pointed out that the statistics say women are beating men in tertiary education enrollment and are out-acheiving them in academics as well.

All of the girls were very supportive of King Abdullah and optimistic for the monarchy's treatment of women in the future. One young student said that "there is a higher power working for us, King Abdullah". They made it very clear that driving, despite the American media's fixation, is not the thing that they are most concerned with. Despite the media's focus on abayas and driving, the rules in Saudi are more flexible for women than we may think. However, they have more pressing needs and concerns like fully integrating into the work force and taking on more leadership positions.

Me with a member of the SPP who is a fellow economics major. 
Even knowing about the inaccurate representations of Saudi women in the media, I was incredibly impressed and somewhat surprised to see how confident, intelligent, outgoing, and talkative the students we met actually were. At one point someone mentioned the American conception that Muslim women need saving, and one girl joked to the president of the SCC that people needed saving from her talkativeness.  It would be interesting to see if the girls acted the same way in front of their family members, but everyone I met challenged all of the American stereotypes about Muslim and Arab women.

Of course what we heard has to be taken with a grain of salt but if all girls in Saudi Arabia are like the ones we met, there is real hope for the country in the future. The media fixates on Muslim women's abayas, hijabs, burqas or lack thereof and not enough attention is paid to who they are and what they do. It's important to remember that not all Saudi women fit into the veiled and victimized stereotype that is perpetuated by the American media. I'm so blessed to have been able to speak to to Saudi women face-to-face and hear their own voices and opinions. I'm excited to return home with some legitimacy to be able to continue and challenge peoples misconceptions about Muslim and Arab women. It's amazing that I've only been in Saudi for a few days and I've already had such a life-changing, enlightening experience.

Later today I'll try to post about our visit to the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. I thought that our trip to King Saud University was so wonderful though that it deserved its own post.

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