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.