January 7, 2009

Adventurous Woman: Susie of Arabia (Part I)

Susie's Big Adventure is a must-read blog written by an American woman who moved with her Saudi-born husband and American-born son to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2007. Shifting gears from wearing shorts and living in Florida to wearing head-to-toe black robes and living under Islamic law gives Susie a perspective on life in the Middle East that few of us will ever know. Her writing is candid, entertaining, informative and...well...mesmerizing. Susie's life contrasts so sharply with my own that I often stop reading to reflect.

I asked Susie if she'd be willing to share some of her experiences with AWB readers and I'm thrilled to say she accepted. Here's part I of her thoughts on life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

AWB: Why did you move to Saudi Arabia?

A little background first … I met my husband more than 30 years ago when we were college students at the University of Arizona. I fell head over heels in love with him and always felt like I would follow him to the ends of the earth. Little did I know … Anyway, after more than a 12 year courtship, we finally married and moved from Arizona to Florida, where he was offered a tenured teaching position. Over the years I got the impression from my husband that moving to Saudi Arabia was not a possibility. In order for a Saudi to marry a foreigner, he must first have permission from the Saudi government, which is not a very easy thing to obtain. I had met nearly all of his immediate family at various points in time when they would come to the states to visit. After we got married, he began the process to become a US citizen and when our son was two, he got his citizenship.

Then, after 9/11 we had a really bad experience and my husband’s comfort zone in his adopted homeland began to dwindle. In early 2007 he told me of his desire to move back to Saudi Arabia. I was surprised, to say the least. We began to discuss moving here, and of course I had my concerns. This country is definitely a man’s world where women are viewed as oppressed. I believe it’s the only place on earth where women are not allowed to drive. Women also must be covered from head to toe when they are outside the home. And what about the language barrier? Would I be pressured to accept Islam? And one of my major concerns was our 14 year old son and how he would fit in and adjust to life in this strange land, and what about his education?

There were many factors involved in our decision to move here. Aside from the negative perceptions of Muslims in the US, my husband was burned out on teaching. Financially we never seemed to have any extra money after all the bills were paid, plus we had been badly screwed over by a former business partner who had turned out to be a crook. My husband had told many people if Bush were re-elected in 2004 that he would leave the country. I had heard other people say the same thing, but to my knowledge, my husband is the only one who made good on his promise! My husband was greatly disillusioned by the American dream and by the illusion of freedom in America. Add to all of this the fact that his mother so desperately wanted her oldest son back after a thirty year absence that she dangled temptations like a brand new car of his choice, a free new furnished flat for our family to live in, plus cash. I decided that I would give living in Saudi Arabia a fair chance. I have always had an adventurous spirit and I have always had an interest in other cultures and traveling. I felt that I knew what to expect and I was up for the challenge!

AWB: How do you feel about wearing the traditional Saudi coverings?

In truth, if it were up to me, I would not choose to cover. Since Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy, religious laws are strictly observed and enforced. The requirement for women is to dress modestly, which means that only the face and the hands can be exposed. A woman's hair, beauty, and figure are supposed to be viewed only by her husband, or other male family members that would not be marriageable to her, like father, brother, or son. Nowhere does it say that women here MUST wear a black abaya (long loose fitting cloak), but they all do. So if a woman was to wear another color, she would stick out like a sore thumb, and that is one thing I do not want to do here. I grew up in Arizona, and have lived in Texas and Florida – all HOT places – where I always wore shorts. And now here I am in an even hotter place, Saudi Arabia, where I have to dress like a nun when I am out in public. I hate having to wear the hijab (head and neck covering) because it makes me so much hotter. When I am in the presence of any man other than my husband or my son here, I must keep my hair covered. So even at our in-laws homes, I wear the hijab if my brothers-in-law or nephews are present. I do this out of respect for my husband, his family, and his culture, but if it weren’t that important to him, I would choose not to cover my hair and neck. After all, I went for over 50 years of my life with other men seeing my hair and never had any problems, so now it just seems a little silly to me at this point in my life that I should cover my hair/beauty from other men.

One advantage of wearing the abaya and hijab is that you don't have to worry about having a bad hair day or fret over what to wear underneath. I have even gone out with my pajamas on under the abaya and no one knew. I have heard that some women even wear just the abaya with nothing on underneath!

AWB: What misconceptions do Americans have about life in the Middle East?

I think that many Americans have the impression that the Saudis hate America and Americans. That is just not true. They do not like America’s foreign policies, like supporting and enabling Israel against the Palestinians, and how our government always seems to bully the rest of the world. But the Saudis love the American people and many of them love the American lifestyle. Another misconception that I think Americans have is that Saudi women are oppressed. While some women here definitely are, all the Saudi women I have met love their lives and would not trade places with American women. They have it made. They live better than most American women do, have huge fancy homes, maids, drivers, shop all they want, and they have very few worries since the men in this society carry all the burdens. What we see as oppression, they see as protection.

Click here to read Part II of my Q&A with Susie of Arabia. To read Susie's blog and to see what she looks like without the hijab, click here.

1 comment:

always in the kitchen said...

stologSusie's blog always makes me want to tour KSA one day!