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Archive for March, 2012

Generation Differences in Saudi Arabia

To find out more about generational differences in an Arab society where Muslim religious leaders and police are dominant, I talked with a young Saudi woman who I will call Aamina. She came to the US in 2006 to study English and computer science. She said things are changing although the religious police will come up and say it’s time for prayers and malls don’t allow single men to enter without their families as they’re afraid they’re just there to flirt with girls. Her cousin and her fiancé were holding hands in a mall and were stopped for proof they were married or engaged. Young men and women can away with meeting in coffee shops because there are many of them. Wedding parties separate men and women and some homes have separate living rooms. A woman doesn’t have the freedom to just go for a walk by herself, as people would talk.

Islam permeates every aspect of life, what you wear, what you say and do. Schools and colleges include courses on Islam and girls learn cooking, sewing and drawing in high school but no physical education. She didn’t learn to swim until she was in the US, as only little girls under age seven or so can swim in public waters. Women are prevented from taking some subjects such as engineering, journalism, and architecture. Although they are the majority of college students, they are only 14% of the workforce, DVDs are censored with sex scenes removed—but not violence. It’s not just women who lack freedom; her brother visited her for three months and upon returning home said it was like going from heaven to hell, from freedom to restrictions and concern about what people will think. Aamina feels like, “I was in a small world there, while here everyday I learn something new, like to swim or play the piano. To me America is another name for opportunity. I am learning so much about life, religions, how to be independent, and how to deal with men. It is a place for me to be who I am and act like how I think is right, without worrying about religion or culture.” This freedom makes her happy and relaxed, so that some friends commented when she went home that she looks ten years younger.

She likes King Abdullah who said that women will be allowed to drive, but first they need driving schools. This is a big deal for boys as well because they get tired of chauffeuring their female relatives. Here, her brother sat in the back seat in relief and said, “Drive me!” She says the king is also thinking about co-ed primary schools. He established scholarships for young people like her to study abroad and bring back new ideas. She’s worried though because Prince Nayef is in line to become king after Abdullah is a very strict religious conservative who said “Women will not drive cars as long as I am alive.” She’s afraid to go back because of the possibility of him becoming king.

Girls don’t cover up as much as in her mother’s generation; it’s not unusual to see hair under a loosely wrapped hijab in public. Although all women wear the abiayah robe, she has seen some with no head covering in public. Aamina wears shorts and sleeveless tops around her male relatives at home, although her mother always has her arms and legs covered. After several years in the US she stopped wearing hajib although her uncle wanted her to keep wearing it because people would talk badly about her at home.

Her mother, now age 45, married at 14 and had six children so she wasn’t well-educated except for reading on her own. She says she lives for her children. In Aamina’s grandmother’s day some families thought it was wrong to send girls to school, even though all the staff in girls’ schools is still female. A male teacher speaks on video and can’t see his students. When Aamina was a teen she thought about marriage and children, but teens now are focused on their education and know a lot more than she did. Aamina has turned down many suitors because they wanted her to be a housewife. Now that she’s a college student in the US, she has her own boyfriend, also a Saudi, who is supportive of decide to get more education, “unlike the typical Saudi man.” Whereas traditional Islam maintains that women are more emotional and men more rational—hence women’s testimony counts for half a man’s and she inherits half of what a man inherits—she believes that women are stronger inside.

What survives strongly is the emphasis on family, who get together at least once a week. Aamina phones her mother every day. Young adults live with their parents until marriage. She was shocked that some US teens leave home after high school graduation. Also, Islamic practices of prayer five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan are heart-felt.

A film about traditional and modern values in conflict

A useful illustration of traditional and modern values in conflict is an Iranian film called Leila (1998). At a gathering of wealthy families in Tehran, Leila and Reza meet. Three months later they’re happily married, in love, living in their own home, going on outings in their car. Other that always having her head covered, the couple seems modern, going out to eat Japanese food, laughing together. Traditional values come to the fore when they discover she is infertile. Because Reza is his parents’ only son, his matriarchal mother insists on him producing a son to carry on the family line. He says he is happy as they are and doesn’t want to marry a second wife, but his mother works on Leila to convince him to meet with her various candidates for second wife. The phone rings constantly from family members. Only his mother and her sister are in favor of this traditional solution to infertility, but they prevail, despite Reza’s father and three sisters telling him not to jeopardize his relationship with Leila. Their warning was accurate; Leila “turned to stone” and moved back to her parents’ house. The new wife in her own apartment does get pregnant, but gave birth to a girl. She and Reza divorce and his mother is stuck carrying for the baby. She doesn’t look happy about it when we see her stiffly holding the little girl. The story may have a happy ending when Leila sees the little girl for the first time and thinks about being her mother at the end of the film. What’s interesting for us is this urban family is controlled by the matriarch who prevails in her insistence on a second wife.

An Iranian award-winning film, A Separation (2011) portrays a bright 11-year old-girl who tries to get her separating parents back together. She confronts her father when she figures out he lied to the court, but also lies to the court to prevent him from going to jaiI. In the end, her parents leave it up her to chose which parent will get custody after she fails to get her stubborn parents to reconcile. The film contrasts lower- and middle-class sex roles; the working class family portrayed expects the husband to be the absolute boss of the family as in giving permission for his wife to work. However, she too defies her husband by refusing to swear on the Koran to something that might be a lie. Her little girl stands up for her mother, also assertive in her own way. Masoud Ferasati, an Iranian writer close to government said: “The image of our society that A Separation depicts is the dirty picture Westerners are wishing for.”

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