Reading a novel about Saudi Arabian history, studying the Sunni Wahhabi beliefs, or watching the evening news doesn’t give Westerners true insight into Saudi Arabia culture. Indeed, a culture that is so foreign to the Western lifestyle may seem impenetrable – until you hear the account of a Western woman who lived the culture while nursing in Saudi.
Those in the medical profession have the kind of access to the inner workings of the Kingdom in a way that other Westerners simply don’t. After all, most contractors live in relative isolation, staying in compounds designed not to raise the ire of Wahhabists who view Westerners (and even other Muslims who don’t ascribe to Wahhabi beliefs) as infidels. But nurses and doctors have entry into the homes and lives of Saudis that is unparalleled.
From a Western woman’s perspective, Saudi Arabia culture is an eye-opener – to say the least. It’s hard to imagine two cultures that are more divergent in their attitudes toward women. While it’s true that women in the West still face pay inequity and the proverbial glass ceiling, the ceiling for Saudi women is seemingly made of concrete.
That’s not to say that Saudi women necessarily perceive any oppression. Indeed, the abaya – the black outer garment worn by Saudi women – is embraced as an expression of religious devotion. In Saudi Arabia culture, women’s attire must not be form fitting, must not attract attention, and must not be worn out of vanity. Moreover, although women must cover all but their hands and faces, some choose to (or are told to by their husbands) also wear veils and gloves.
Like a woman’s clothing, a woman’s role in Saudi Arabia culture is largely dictated by the prevailing religious beliefs. Unlike in the West, where a woman’s equal partnership with her husband is at least given lip service, a Saudi marriage is often arranged, with the woman becoming the man’s property after marriage. As such, she must be obedient and submissive; if she is not, her husband may punish her or beat hear. And, although it is less widespread than it once was, men can take more than one wife.
Saudi law generally dictates that a woman is valued as one-half of a man. For example, a woman receives half of the inheritance of her brother, and in court, a woman’s testimony is given half the weight of a man’s. Certain punishments, such as whipping, are dictated by law and through practice, often at the hands of what could be termed “morality police.” In Saudi Arabia culture, morality has many shades of meaning; prostitution, for example, can be a crime of being in the company of a man who is not a woman’s husband or male relative. Typically, a woman faces 90 lashes, although sometimes the punishment doled out is 200 lashes.
When you live in a culture so different from your own, the experience can’t help but open a floodgate of feelings. On the one hand, many of the practices you witness are abhorrent and rock the very foundation of your beliefs; on the other hand, within the context of Saudi Arabia culture and society, they are terribly consistent with Wahhabi beliefs.