Posts Tagged ‘WOMEN’

Proof of Life

I met a young Saudi woman who is studying medicine. She is forbidden to drive in her country, but she is not forbidden to become a doctor. She is married, with two young children. Her desire for a life in which her talents are appreciated and utilized is coming to fruition. It is only possible because of the support of her husband and family.

Her husband is the primary caregiver for the children while she completes her studies. Not exactly a traditional role for Western men, let alone Saudi men. I am struck by the contradictions in Saudi culture. The stereotype of the domineering, backward brute that so many Westerners have of Middle Eastern men has been challenged once again.

So many of the Saudi girls I have met are being encouraged to excel in their studies and in their professional lives. By their fathers. Excuse me, but I must repeat this: by their fathers. I have a difficult time reconciling these husbands and fathers with the traditional picture of Muslim men who have multiple wives and wish to keep them veiled, both literally and figuratively.

Either Saudi Arabian culture is changing at warp speed or these men have never been oppressors. Perhaps the 14th century Islamic view of women is not shared by every Saudi man, after all. Perhaps the extremists do not represent the views of everyone. I am hopeful for the future of the kingdom.

I’m sure that my own background informs my bias. My sister and I were raised by a single dad who was born in 1918. He never assumed that, because we were girls, we wouldn’t and couldn’t succeed in our educational or professional lives. In fact, it was expected that we would. I came to realize, as an adult ,that my father wasn’t typical. He was an odd bird and his view of women was only one of his many quirks.

It makes me smile to think of the radical clerics who would prefer to keep women unseen and unheard. Even in a vast wasteland, life will not be denied. The desire to grow, to rise up and feel the sun upon your face is universal. Sprouts refuse to remain buried beneath the surface. The tiniest bit of green, struggling through the cracks on hot, black asphalt is proof of the will to live, to grow, to reach for the sky. Watch out, Saudi Arabia. There is life under those black veils.

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arabic wedding 2layers

“I cried for three days when I saw his picture.”

That is the reality for young women in this part of the world. Arranged marriages are the norm. Mothers and sisters are recruited to scout out potential brides for the men. Appearance is high on the list of priorities, with light skin being one of the desirable features. Young women, on the other hand, may hope for a handsome prince, but families are more concerned with character, family connections and financial stability.

A supervised meeting is arranged; the couple may or may not converse. Telephone numbers are usually exchanged and that is when the real courtship is launched. Thank you, technology. Couples get to know each other by phone. The man may or may not see his intended’s face uncovered before the wedding, depending upon how conservative the family is.

My student, an intelligent and pretty young woman, confided that her fiancé, whose photo she showed me, did not, in appearance, match her dreams. I told her I thought he was cute. She didn’t disagree. Her father told her she didn’t have to marry the young man, who was a family friend. In the end, she decided to accept her family’s choice.

I wasn’t sure whether her decision was brave or cowardly. I’m still not sure. In my culture, we choose our own marriage partners. But the divorce rate in America isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for that system.

Times are changing, though, for better or worse. The internet has allowed young people to meet and develop serious online relationships. One of my students has a secret boyfriend. The problem is how to introduce him to her family. Only trusted friends can endorse a potential husband.

“Will you do it, Teacher?” my student begs.

As her teacher, and as a foreigner, I can vouch for him and provide a plausible explanation for how we know one another. He is a doctor. Or is he? Is the internet here like the internet in America? If so, I have reason to be worried for my student. She is intelligent. But, she is like women everywhere, wanting to believe the best when an attractive man pursues her. She is also 28 years old, dangerously close to the age when women are considered ‘too old’ for marriage. Do I trust her judgement? Am I willing to participate in a deception that has such potentially serious consequences? My first impulse is romantic. I want to help. But, ultimately, I can’t. There is just too much I still don’t understand about the culture.

Two women, two different approaches to marriage. Love isn’t even a factor. That comes later, after practical matters are taken care of. After family connections are confirmed. Sometimes bank accounts and virginity must be verified. (Thus necessitating, for some, a secret trip to Bahrain or Dubai for surgical ‘restoration’ of one’s virginity) In this part of the world, marriage is a contract between families. The bride and groom are part of a larger picture. Marrying without family approval is impossible. And that part of the marriage process seems quite sensible, even to this stubborn romantic.


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My Abaya

Abaya fashions

Abaya fashions (Photo credit: Lars Plougmann)

When I tell people I’m going to Saudi Arabia to teach English, they all ask the same thing: “Are you going to have to wear one of those things?” The answer is yes. As the time draws near for me to go, my feelings about donning the abaya have changed. Initially, I accepted it as just another cultural quirk to which I would adapt. Hot and annoying, yes, but not offensive.

Then I went online to see about ordering an abaya so that I would have it with me when I arrive. I discovered a world I didn’t know existed! Of course I didn’t want just any old abaya. I found myself studying the various abayas, reading reviews and trying to decide which abaya would be most flattering on me.(which is kind of like asking which flannel nightgown is most flattering…if you’re wearing a flannel nightgown, does it really matter?)

Mind you, an abaya is just a long-sleeved, loose dress. But, oh, the variety of clothing I found! One retailer claimed that their parrot-green abaya was their best seller. Another abaya promised that I would receive ‘humble complements’ when I wore it. I found abayas in every price range and for every occasion, from plain cotton for everyday wear to elaborately embroidered wedding abayas. Who knew?

I finally settled upon a simple cotton abaya, just to get me started. I have to admit, I’m not excited about my new purchase. Turns out, the abaya is not just another cultural quirk. My abaya is weighty with ideas and beliefs. My abaya brings up emotions I’d rather not acknowledge. It is a reminder of the vast cultural gulf between the place I am traveling to and the place I am leaving behind. The gulf seems unbridgeable. Does a long black dress have the power to keep me from finding that bridge? I hope not.

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You thought YOUR shoes hurt!


1. Bamboo slivers driven under fingernails

2. Prolonged sleep deprivation

3. Rap music

4. Waterboarding

5. Women’s shoes

6. The Rack

7. Airline seats

8. Women’s shoes

9. Cattle prod

10. Women’s shoes

(did I mention women’s shoes?)

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Happy Secretary’s Day! Oops, I mean Happy Administrative Assistant’s Day. Shucks, just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? When did secretary become a dirty word? Long before television’s Madmen hit the airwaves, female clerical support staffers decided that secretary was a demeaning title. George Orwell wouldn’t have been surprised. When retail clerks and cashiers become ‘associates’, we know that Thinkspeak has overtaken English as the language of today. Maybe that explains why I can’t find ‘Gal Friday’ in the help wanted section of Craigslist.

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face value

Look, no wrinkles! Not at all scary, oh no.

“I’m invisible! I’ve never been invisible before!” So says Old Lodgeskins to Jack Crabb in the funniest movie ever made about cowboys and indians, Little Big Man. Old Lodgeskins is traipsing through a bloody battle between the United States  cavalry and the Oglala nation. Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman, desperately tries to shield the elderly chief. Old Lodgeskins ignores Jack’s pleas. He is convinced that powerful medicine makes him invisible to his enemies. Old Lodgeskins would be surprised to learn that in today’s culture, he would still be invisible, with or without powerful medicine. Why? Because he is old. In today’s culture, men and women pay top dollar for powerful medicine so that they won’t be invisible. Fragile skin that has survived more than half a century will be stretched, plumped and injected because of its inhabitant’s desperate desire to be seen, rather than ignored. Atomic breasts become missiles, aimed at the world, launch-ready and threatening, but definitely not invisible. Like overripe produce, bodies are laid out, examined for flaws, scraped and polished until their sell-by date is erased, hopefully forever. The culture that honored its elderly – the culture that Old Lodgeskins took for granted – is, today, as rare as a teepee.

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Stedman Graham

Pope-rah's Concubine?

In a stunning series of events this week, the Vatican announced its nomination of Oprah for sainthood. Amidst the excitement generated by Oprah’s last appearance on her long running talk show, the Pope was quoted as saying, “The woman has miraculous powers that can only be attributed to a divine source. No one but Oprah could have made Stedman Graham a household name.” Rumors abound that the Holy See was  inspired by the appearances of  Tom Hanks, Madonna and Dakota Fanning, among others. Beyonce sang a rousing tribute to Oprah, wearing fish net stockings and a skin-tight tuxedo jacket. “Women everywhere have graduated to a new level of understanding of who we are!” declared Beyonce, without irony, proving that bootyliciousness is no barrier to female empowerment. Scientologists Tom Cruise and Will Smith represented Oprah’s spiritual side, while Aretha Franklin and Usher offered rousing renditions of Amazing Grace and Oh, Happy Day, When Jesus Walked. A teary-eyed Oprah resisted the urge to announce an altar call, which could very well have created a stampede toward the stage. She proclaimed to her worldwide audience, “Your presence in front of your television honors me.” Fans everywhere have vowed to remain seated before their televisions for the foreseeable future. Harpo Studios acknowledges that Oprah’s unofficial title of ‘Pope-rah’ will not be officially adopted by Saint Oprah. “Don’t be silly,” said Gail, Oprah’s BFF. “There have been many, many popes, but there is only one Oprah. Why would she change her brand at this stage in her career?”

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I was buying a new toothbrush the other day and I got to thinking about how gender is so intrinsically woven into the way we think. See, the toothbrush bristle strength that I prefer is firm. Not soft, not medium. Firm. (the fact that I even have that choice is a topic for another day) After standing in front of the toothbrushes at Albertson’s for a ridiculously long time, I finally found a lavender, medium-bristle toothbrush.Apparently firm-bristle toothbrush users prefer bold colors, like royal blue and fire-engine red. So what? Well, I share a toothbrush holder with a man. In order to differentiate between our toothbrushes, I try to find a girl color. Since my husband buys his own toothbrushes, I can say, with confidence that his toothbrush will never be pink or lavender. Because those are girl colors, right? (why it is important that we don’t accidentally use one another’s toothbrushes is a topic for another day)  Believe it or not, amongst the THOUSAND toothbrushes on the rack, not one firm-bristle pink or lavender. Alas, (or woe, as the prophet Isaiah would have expressed it) I bought a medium-bristle, lavender toothbrush. I hate that color.

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