I had read quite a bit about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia before I arrived, and almost all of it was negative. I read about women being oppressed and having no rights, about the men who persisted in oppressing them, and about the fanatical Islam culture in which they live. Sometimes I would read about their romanticized Bedouin past, the beautiful women and princely men of that past, or how the Bedouin’s tribalistic, third world culture still persists – much to the detriment of the Saudi Arabian people.
I was warned that I would not be able to drive, that I should not marry a Saudi or I’d be trapped in the Kingdom forever, and that I would probably feel and be as oppressed as the Saudi Arabian women..
I began to mentally form a picture of an unhappy, unproductive, oppressed group of people who wandered aimlessly around lost in their archaic, outdated traditions.
When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at what I had not read. From the moment I off-boarded the plane, the men were respectful, pleasant and polite. When I met the women in my classes, they were like any other group of young women I’ve taught: eager to learn, curious about the world, and optimistically looking forward to a bright future. My students also spoke warmly of their affectionate and intact families.
I also discovered that when I go shopping, I am given assistance immediately. I exist. My nationality is unimportant. My skin color is unimportant, and I am spoken to in Arabic. When I respond in English, I am still treated respectfully and addressed as “Madame.” No one looks as me suspiciously. As I walk through the mall, no one acts as if they are afraid of me. On my job, my students, supervisors, and superiors assume that I am competent and qualified to do my job. I am asked to take on new projects. I am respected. I am human. I am whole.
Sometimes a man will slyly and quietly flirt with me, but never aggressively. His eyes cannot settle on my bust, my butt or my hair. I am looked in the eyes – directly, curiously, honestly. The smiles are genuine; the graciousness and good manners are plentiful.
Strange that I never read about these things, and wonderful is the complete feeling of freedom.