Sunday, November 29, 2009

Interview: Susie of Arabia

As an American woman living in Saudi Arabia, have you ever dealt with any negative emotions towards American women?
Honestly I have personally never felt any negative emotions towards me in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes I can be somewhat oblivious to what is going on around me, but I have never noticed anyone being rude or nasty to me because of my nationality. If anything, I have always felt warmly received and have often felt that people have even gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. As a friendly American and the wife of a Saudi, at first it was especially difficult for me to realize that when my husband's friends would totally ignore me or not speak to me, that it was nothing personal against me, rather it was them affording my husband respect because this is what they do in their culture. It's still hard for me to get used to being ignored though...

Is there a general belief among Saudi men that Western women are easy?
Just as many Westerners have their own inaccurate assumptions about Saudis and Muslims, I would have to say that many Saudi men probably believe that Western women are easy. Many have never traveled outside their country, so they are basing their beliefs on what they have seen on Western television shows or in the movies. Unfortunately some of the more conservative religious clerics are also guilty of making broad and unflattering generalizations about Western women which may apply in fact to just a very small percentage of women. I know of Saudi men who have been surprised to learn that we are just normal and decent human beings and that we are not all sex pistols.

 Are American women forced to wear the niqab? If so, what would happen if one did not?
I don't have any first hand knowledge of any American women being forced to wear the niqab. The only person who might force this on her would be her husband. And if a husband is the kind who would force this on his wife, then one can only imagine what might happen if she refused to do so. My impression is that those Saudi men who marry Western women are more likely to be liberal, so I can't see that this would be an issue. So far I have only seen a handful of American women wearing the niqab and I believe it was their own choice to do so. Some younger attractive Western women might wear it so they won't be bothered or harassed by some of the sex obsessed men in this culture.

What is your typical day like in Saudi Arabia?
It's actually very boring, since I don't work. I get up in the morning and get my son off to school. Many days I go back to bed until noon or so. Unlike many Saudi women and Western wives that I know, I don't have a maid or a driver or other household help. So some days there is cleaning, laundry, or grocery shopping to do. I might do my hobby of making jewelry or go on the computer to check email or write a post on my blogs. I'm not much of a cook, but sometimes I'll cook something up for dinner - honestly I would enjoy cooking so much more if there were no heat involved! My son gets home in the afternoon so I'll visit with him a bit and nag him to do his homework. We'll have dinner and then my husband usually goes across the hall to visit his mom and sometimes I go with him. We usually watch TV in the evenings and that's about it. There are days on end when I sometimes don't see the light of day - it's sad really. Other times my husband will drive me out to his sister's country home about 20 minutes away where I can swim and enjoy being outside.

You once stated in your blog that you feel ugly wearing a scarf on your head in your blog, why is this?
I have never been a scarf or a hat person, but I like seeing them on other women. It bugs me to have something on my head/hair. I think that the way the women here in Saudi wear the hijab is not an attractive look for most of the women, and that is exactly why they wear it that way - so they won't appear attractive to other men. I get that, but personally, I like to feel good about my appearance. It makes me feel better about myself. I know this is totally contradictory to how many Muslim women think and feel, but this is how I feel. I feel that men should exercise self-control around women, and since they are not expected to in KSA, having to wear the hijab feels like a punishment to me because I do not like to wear it. The only reason I wear it is because my husband insists on it, so I wear it out of respect to him. That doesn't mean that I don't complain about it or that I don't try to convince him otherwise. So far it's a battle that I am losing, but I try not to place that much importance over wearing a piece of cloth on my head. I do get upset that he insists on my wearing the hijab in private settings in mixed company where other women like me do not have their hair covered. I think he is being unreasonable and unfair, especially since he knows how much I detest wearing the hijab in the first place. I'm hoping that one of these days he will come around.

Do you think Saudi men favor sons over daughters?
I know many Saudi men who are ga-ga over their daughters, who encourage them to pursue their education, careers, or to travel. Other men are very strict with their daughters and want to have control over every aspect of their lives. I don't know what goes on in everyone's homes here, so this is a hard question to answer because I don't want to make any generalizations. Some Saudi men probably do favor their sons over their daughters, but then many don't seem to do that either. Each family is different.

Even though driving has nothing to do with Islam, do you feel that The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is doing an injustice to women by not letting them learn how to drive? If a woman ever did drive in Saudi Arabia, what would happen?
When you consider that in every other country in the world, women driving is a non-issue, the fact that Saudi Arabia prohibits women from driving not only is an injustice to women, but also serves to make the rest of the world see Saudi Arabia in a bad light as far as basic human rights and women's rights. Every reason that I have ever heard for denying women the right to drive in KSA is absurd. It all boils down to men controlling women, and it's wrong. Women who have been caught driving have been arrested. Both the women and their male guardians can suffer longterm consequences because of it. When other men see a woman driving, they start following her in their own cars. More men then join in, and soon there is a whole parade going on. The men harass her, endanger her, and honk at her. She panics and maybe has an accident. Why should a woman driving here cause such an uproar? To me, it's just not normal and I really resent not being able to drive here.

What is one thing you miss about the States?
There are TOO many things that I miss! To name just one would be impossible. Of course I miss my family and my friends, but besides that, I miss just being able to go outside and enjoy a breeze blowing through my hair. I miss the rain. I miss not being able to grab the car keys and go out somewhere by myself. I miss social situations where both men and women can mingle together. I miss going to the movies. And I miss the ability to just make plans on my own without having to consider all the logistical problems involved in getting me there.

What is one thing you miss about Saudi Arabia when you are in the States?
Maybe I just haven't lived in Saudi Arabia long enough - it's only been two years - but there are not many things that I miss about it when I'm gone. I do miss my husband and my son when they are not traveling with me, and the rest of my Saudi family and my friends. And this will probably sound wierd, but I miss the spray hoses in the toilet!

Are you Muslim? If not, what religion do you follow and how does it sustain your life?
I was raised a Christian, but I have always considered myself more of a Deist. I know that Islam is a good and peaceful religion, but there are certain issues that I just can't accept wholeheatedly, like with all other religions I have looked into. I am spiritual and I believe in a higher being, but as far as organized religion, I am not a fan. I like to say that "My religion is kindness." I feel very frustrated with all the terrible things that people do all the time in the name of religion. I think that religions have good intentions, but that somewhere along the way, many men in religious power have lost sight of their real purpose and have complicated things and overstepped their bounds. I am quite comfortable with my feelings regarding religion and my relationship with my God.

Do you feel that Arab Muslim women are too quiet and never really speak their mind?
Not the ones I have met! But unfortunately as far as women's issues and rights go, this is such a male-dominated society that it is difficult for women to stand up together for change. To do so would threaten marriages and defy religious leaders and I don't think many Saudi women would take the risk. Many of the women I know say they are happy with their lives just the way they are, so they don't feel there is any need for change. But I also get the feeling that younger women want more for their lives. As things are now, it is very difficult for a Saudi woman to "have it all" - family, career, education, and social life. Only those with extremely forward thinking husbands are able to do so.

What would be your advice to other women who are thinking about marrying a man from one of the Gulf countries?
It is not easy being married to someone from a totally different culture, values, traditions and religion. Love only goes so far. The reality is that unless you and your partner are equally respectful of each others' cultures and backgrounds, it won't work. What will happen is that one culture will prevail, depending on where you are living. Be prepared to make sacrifices and compromises. And you must be sensitive to those issues that are really important to the other. Being flexible is also very important. Unless you are willing to do and be all these things, I would have to say, "Don't do it!"

Have you ever witnessed abuse among other American wives?
Fortunately I have not. Although once we were behind a car at a red light and the man got out of the car and went around to the other side and began punching his wife. I was shocked.

Are you happy?
I am not miserable, but I don't feel that Saudi Arabia is where I really want to live for the rest of my life. I think it's very difficult for anyone from another culture to truly adapt and feel comfortable in another place that is so different from where they are from. I'm sure that many Saudi women who have gone to live in other places feel the same way. They would much rather live in their own country because it's more familiar. That's what they are used to, their families are there, and I'm sure that there is much that they miss when they are gone. I would have to say that I would be happier here if there weren't so many restrictions on women, if transportation wasn't a problem for me, and if there were more things for families to do together.

What do you truly think about Muslim women? Do you think they are too submissive?
I respect and admire Muslim women. They are strong and caring. Most of them are living their lives as they were taught and brought up to do, and they do what is expected of them. This society here has certain ways of doing things and not too many people stray from that. From what I have seen, most women here are afforded great respect, however that doesn't necessarily translate to equality. As far as submissiveness, women here allow this male-dominated society to prevail because they really don't have a choice. Some women are very lucky and have husbands who treat them right, and others have ignorant controlling husbands - but this can happen anywhere in the world, not just here. I think until women in Saudi Arabia are given equal legal status with men - meaning that until the male guardianship issue is done away with - many women here have no choice but to be submissive because of the way the system is set up.

Do you think that the rights for women in Saudi Arabia are becoming stronger?
I've only been here for two years and I really haven't seen much change in that short time. Change here happens very slowly and the stricter religious faction is usually kicking and screaming every step of the way. I've been reading the book When Everything Changed by Gail Collins, about the women's lib movement in the USA from 1960 to the present, and it wasn't that long ago that American women weren't treated so equally as now. Unfortunately when all these big changes were occurring in America for women, changes were also occurring in Saudi Arabia for women too - but in the completely opposite direction. I think people here too often tend to use the excuse that change here has to happen very slowly so people have a chance to get used to it. I have seen the changes in the US come quickly. You just have to implement it and do it. This "change must come slowly" excuse doesn't sit right with me.

Do you think it is wrong that Muslim women cannot marry outside of their religion?
I think people should be allowed to marry whomever they want. Of course people make mistakes and circumstances change, and there are high divorce rates everywhere, even here in Saudi Arabia. There are definitely issues like this that I don't agree with about Islam - and practically all of the things I have issues with pertain to men being given more freedoms themselves and more control over others. As a woman, I want to be able to make decisions for myself, without limits or restrictions.

You can read Susie of Arabia's blog here: Susie's Big Adventure


Lawana said...

It would be impossible for me, an American women who ownes her own company, to live somewhere that I was not allowed to be who I am. It has been a long time since anyone has told me how to dress, what to wear or when to wear it, . . . that was part of growing up but I have accomplished that many years ago. This interview with Susie was spot on and very frank.

Nathalie said...

Susie, I just can't get over it.

The fact that your do's and dont's are dictated by your husband rather than yourself seems so unacceptable to me... I try to put myself in your shoes : how much of my freedom could I forgo in the name of love? Not much. I can't believe that a man who wants to overpower me really loves me. If that's his view of love well it's not good enough for me. I expect more from love, I expect more from life.

On another topic I fully concur with you when you say your religion is kindness. Too much damage has been made in the name of religions. In a world going global, it's about time that respect and care for others become our main concern.

Nathalie said...

Ghada, I'm concerned.

I left 2 comments before the one above and now they seem to have disappeared. What's going on?

Susie of Arabia said...

Ghada - Thanks so much for posting this interview. It was interesting for me because your questions really got me to think about things.

Lawana - It's hard to understand how for 30 years my husband had no problem with the way I dressed, but now that we have moved to his country, there are cultural differences that require me to compromise. I still don't agree with him about having to cover my hair in certain private settings around other people - hopefully he will be able to compromise at some point.

Nathalie - There are really very few areas where my husband imposes his control over me doing things here that I didn't do before because it is "the law of the land." That piece of cloth on my head is one of them. He really does try to accommodate my son and me the best he can, but some things are just not possible in this country.

Ghada Al-Amin said...

Nathalie -- I don't know what is going on with the comments. I do not ever delete comments made by people, because I believe all thoughts/comments/opinions have a right to be seen. It be something to do with the blog or the computer, I really don't know. I am not one to check my e-mail or my blog on a daily basis.

:0) I do like your name though!

Ghada Al-Amin said...

Nathalie, I found your two missing comments towards this interview with Susie of Arabia. They were under the Somewhere... post. :) So, I just went ahead and copied and pasted the other comments.

(1)What a fascinating interview! thanks to both Susie and yourself for this remarkable exercise.

Susie's mixed feelings are expressed very finely. What I'd like to know is how YOU feel about what she said.

My perception is that it's (relatively) easy to be a Muslim woman in a free country. You can express your religious beliefs while enjoying the open and free life of Western women.

Unfortunately for many women living in countries ruled by Islam there is NO CHOICE of this or that. There's only ONE RULE that you must conform to. And that makes me very uncomfortable.

It really takes a conscious effort from me to avoid associating Islam with unacceptable control over women. I have spoken to really nice Muslim people and I know they can be open-minded and kind and caring - BUT the general condition of women in most Islamic countries makes me very angry.

(2)When reading your words Susie, I can't help but think that you will never be able to hold in Saudi Arabia for any extended period of time - or if you do, that will be at such an expense that I hope you won't. From what I read, staying in Saudi Arabia means slowly accepting to "die" i.e. forgoing everything that you are, your personality, initiative, drive. I hope you don't.

I wish you well Susie.

Your proably went down one post to many!

Susie! You are so very welcome! I love (love) doing interviews with people. :)

Anonymous said...

"Do you think it is wrong that Muslim women cannot marry outside of their religion?"

I'm just curious, what is your answer to that question?

Anonymous said...

Susie very interesting interview. You said that you have no home help then who does the cooking of the meals as you say that you "may cook sometimes.?

Anonymous said...

This is a very honest and interesting interview!

susia, though I am Saudi, I still find it hard to wear Hijab ...I always like to appear very eleagnat and attractive, but I wear hijab for the sake of is a form of (Jihad) i beleive...
you've said that kindness is your religion and that many disasters have happened in the name of religions...
when I think "religion", I don't think of people or acts; I think of Allah and Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him)... Faith comes before reasoning and love comes before logic...the rest comes to you by default...

I was very glad to read your interview and agree with you on most of what you've said.

Ghada, great questions!

P.s. I had to sign in as Anonymous because the comment wouldn't apprear otherwise.

Maha Noor Elahi

Logan Islamic said...

Basma Almolani
living in Saudi Arabia is hard even for me , a Kuwaity muslim woman. Then, i think it would be better if you ask about Saudi Muslims women rather than Muslims women, because the life in Saudi is different than other Arab Islamic one. Susie, if you decided not to live forever in that country , don't think that your husband will do this thing. he will not be able to live somewhere else forever too.

Renee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Renee said...

Hi Ghada and Susie,

I enjoyed the Interview and (Susie's) honest insights. Susie, I have 3 questions which hopefully you can honestly (and safely)answer. If you cannot - I will understand.

1. Before you moved to S.A. did you and your husband agree on how long you would live there before returning to the U.S.?

2. Do you believe that the longer you stay in S.A. that it will become much more difficult for you to leave? (with your husband and son as well)

3. Are you finding that the longer you stay the stronger your son is being indoctrinated into the Saudi Muslim culture to the point where he may not want to leave?

You obviously love and respect your husband very much - hopefully not to the point where you lose your own identity and sacrifice your happiness. I can't help but think about you and the movie "Not Without My Daughter" . Best Wishes for a Happy and fulfilling Life for both you and your family.

Susie of Arabia said...

To Nathalie - Thanks for your sincere concern. Like I said in the interview, I am not miserable here, but Saudi Arabia is not really where I want to live the rest of my life. So for now, we are here - How much longer that will remain the case, I don't know. I am trying to make the best of it and hoping that my son will get something positive out of it too.

Susie of Arabia said...

To Anonymous - My husband is a great cook, so he does a lot of the cooking even though it's not really considered a very manly thing for him to be doing here. I'm great at heating leftovers and making simple meals, but I leave the real cooking to him.

To Maha - Thanks for your comment. It makes me feel better to know that there are actually some Saudi women who don't really like wearing the hijab too. I totally appreciate your reasons for doing so. I am now 58 and to have to suddenly cover my "beauty" at this point in my life just seems absurd to me. BTW, I love the posts I have read on your blog - I like your perspective.

Susie of Arabia said...

To Logan - I know and appreciate the sacrifices my husband made living in the states for 30 years, away from his family and his culture. But somehow when I make a list of the sacrifices he made and compare it to a list of the sacrifices my son and I are making to live here in KSA - well, there is a tremendous discrepancy!

To Renee - I agreed to come here indefinitely. My husband has always said that if we are not happy here, my son and I are free to return to the states, but the problem now is that my hubby wants to stay. I've talked to other women who have remained here for decades, and they have told me what I am feeling is normal. If I can get past this hump, then life here becomes more "normal." I don't know if that will happen for me or whether I will last long enough for it to happen. My son is now 16 and is very resistant to the cultural indoctrination. He's a rebellious teen! He has made it clear that he doesn't want to remain here any longer than he has to. I was hoping that he would complete high school here and go to university in the states, but he may actually go back sooner at this point.
Thanks for your best wishes.

Ghada Al-Amin said...

I really enjoyed doing this interview with Susie. And I will answer the question posed by Anon in a future post. That is one that I am going to have to think about.

أبو سنان said...


It was pretty interesting to read your interview. I have a question. Why does your husband insist that you wear the hijab even at home?

Usually this is a requirement done by a practicing Muslim man who is religious. You stated that you are not Muslim. Most Saudi/Muslim guys that I have met who married non Muslims tended to not be religious themselves. If they were they would have married a Muslim.

Is it just a cultural thing for him?

As for your son, as you might be aware, we have a 18 year old son who went back to Saudi to live with his family for awhile. He cannot wait to get back either. I know your son and him are now friends on Facebook.

If I remember correctly, your son doesnt speak Arabic that well. Like my stepson, it will be almost impossible to finish schooling in Saudi. Is your son a citizen? If so I think it is very hard for a Saudi citizen to get into international schools there.

Without the Arabic going to a Saudi school isnt an option. My stepson speaks good conversational Arabic, but that is the extent of it. He will be coming back soon, get his GED and go to community college.

You also mentioned:

"My husband has always said that if we are not happy here, my son and I are free to return to the states, but the problem now is that my hubby wants to stay."

So you two are free to leave, but if you do so and he stays.....then what? Seems that later in life he is kind of putting an ultimatum out there that was never there before.

As to life being "more normal" humans can get used to almost anything, doesnt make it a good situation however.

In the near future it will not be possible for a Western woman to live a full and free life in Saudi. Hopefully that changes, but not any time soon.

I'd never move to Saudi with my Saudi spouse because of the restrictions I'd have to face, even as man. I cannot imagine moving there as a woman with even less rights.

Modia Batterjee said...

Dear Ghada,
I loved this interview!I am a daughter from a mixed marriage,my father is Saudi ( an amazing saudi man)and my mother is American. My mother has been here for forty years. Susie is my mother's friend. The sacrificies these women have made, just make me cry.Thankfully my father never imposed the hijjab or the niqab, we are free to do what we please, but the community is very judgemental... My mother did everything in her power to give us (her children) a normal balanced life. However, I am about to be 37, I am married with 3 kids, and living here in Saudi.. I am on the brink of insanity. The comments made by your readers made me realize the source of my misery. I have a doctorate degree in Health Administration, I am a lactation consultant, I am an artist (oil paints), and I love nature. I find that I am being burried alive, because I am unappreciated, unaccepted, and disregarded by this country. It is not so much Islam as it is the practices that are impoesd in the name of a Muslimah I am appauled!!
Susie, thank you for inviting me. Your responses brought tears to my eyes, and my heart cried really really hard.

Anonymous said...

wow.. this is just wow.. I never thought that an American woman would survive with a Saudi husband in Saudia Arabia.. I am a Syrian girl.. and to tell u the truth.. I would never never think of living in KSA.. it's no fun not being able to drive.. and it's no fun having this crazy crazy seperation between men and women in everything.. it is no fun not being able to go out and have a decent dinner in a decent restaurant... and it is no fun being forced to cover.. even though I am covered now.. but back in the days when I wasn't, if anyone would even tell me to do so.. they would tick me off!!! I am not sure how long r u going to tolerate this life.. I feel for you.. and God be with u.. but I think that u should get outta here.!!!! coz one day u might explode..