Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Making Women's History Today

cross-posted at Feminist Mormon Housewives

Young women who live in Saudi Arabia today are increasingly being exposed to the influence of the outside world. There are those who are sheltered from television, music, and the media, but most college-aged girls now own ipods, cell phones, and jeans. Many of these young women are pursuing their education to the university level at institutions which have opened up separate and close-to-equal college programs for females. These are the girls with whom I have had the pleasure of associating during my stay here in the Kingdom. When DH accepted a job at a university in Riyadh, I was fortunate to find employment with the same institution in their women’s college as a health and physical education instructor.

When I arrived here in August, I discovered that the program was dismal. In the public schools, physical education is strictly forbidden for girls, and in the private schools the PE programs are rudimentary. At the university level, the girls attended 4 semesters of HPE. The classes consisted of one hour per week of theory (health & nutrition, first aid, anatomy, and pregnancy & childbirth) and one hour of practical exercise. I was placed over the prac courses. At the time I arrived these were one hour of aerobic exercise given to classes of 30-40 girls in a small dance studio--without music. There I was, jumping up and down, trying to get these beautiful veiled princesses to put on pants, move around during their periods, and elevate the heart rate with no space and no beat other than me singing out, “1-2-3-4!” The first month I was there, I attempted to get approval for music with no success. I then focused my efforts on facilities.

I learned from the girls themselves that it was counterproductive to fight against the local culture. I must work within the system if I wanted to see change. In particular, our student body president is a young woman who believes that Arabic women can accomplish much within the limitations that are imposed. She began to work toward the possibility of a women’s basketball team. Our HPE faculty began to point out to our supervisors how much better the facilities were at other colleges. We were lagging behind those schools which had full gymnasiums for their women’s programs! Soon, we were given the use of 2 outdoor basketball courts formerly used by the men’s side. We had to wait until the courts were completely walled in so that the girls could not be seen while exercising. These courts were finished in January, and we quickly added basketball, volleyball, badminton and soccer to our program. The first day that we went out on the courts, one of the girls confessed to me that she had never in her life exercised out of doors.

Some of the young women at our university had received education in the US, in other countries, or in private schools, and were excited about the changes. Early in February, I read that the Arab News had published an article about the first-ever women’s football (soccer) match in Saudi Arabia. It was held Jan. 22, 2008 in Dammam between Prince Muhammad ibn Fahd University and the Al-Yamamah Women’s College of Riyadh. Though the match was open to women spectators only, the team members broke social expectations that women must be lady-like and demure at all times. I knew the time was right for our basketball team.

I am not a basketball coach, nor do I have much experience with the game. In my Nike Air Max I barely stand five feet tall. But our student body president collected more than 150 names of girls interested in coming out for our team. Someone had to step up. I am thankful that I live in the day of the internet so I was able to go online for rules, training techniques, fun drills and other aspects of coaching basketball. For weeks now, I’ve been dribbling a ball around and practicing my shooting so I won’t be too embarrassed in front of the girls. And I can now report that in this Women’s History Month of 2008 I am a little part of making history in this area of the world as our girls start their practices! We plan to compete with Al-Yamamah later in the semester. The interior design department is hard at work designing outfits for our team in which we will be able to move, yet which fit the stringent standards for women’s wear. Our games won’t be filmed by camera crews, and the spectators will be only a few of the mothers and sisters who wish us well. But to me, this semester in Riyadh has been as important as walking on the moon. One small step for womankind.


Rich said...


Zillah said...

Hooray! You're changing the world, one basketball game at a time!

ixoj said...

Fantastic! This brings a glow to my heart!

ldahospud said...

You are my hero!

Doc said...

That is so very cool. Congratulations BiV.

Anonymous said...

I respect your blog and I admire your writing and intellect but, frankly, I don't understand this impetus to go into someone else's culture and try to change it.

Having our own experience, we may compare and evaluate and even hold the conclusion that ours is superior. We may express opinions, when asked, and be examples of what we think are preferable values and behaviors. We may encourage and assist people who want to understand or choose to adopt new ways and I suspect that's what you've done. But this example is also a reminder of the mania for trying to make other people just like us. ...as though we can't learn from them.

I don't understand having a positive value for exporting our values and culture to places that already have their own.

I am NOT advocating or defending second class citizenship for women or justifying restrictive rules imposed on them. Not in the least! I am speaking in general about a larger question.

I know it's an American thing. I wonder how the LDS thing exacerbates it.

(I'm sorry this is coming up as an anonymous comment. I'm not hiding I just don't have a Blogger identity.)

Anonymous said...

Well let me add an anonymous response to the previous anonymous commenter: Having lived a good chunk of my life in Saudi and other places in the Mideast, it's pretty safe to say she was feeding an impetus that was already there NOT imposing a foreign culture. Nothing she did would have worked otherwise, it wasn't coincidental she got so many volunteers for her team. Good on you BiV, you don't need commenters to tell you your initiative helped fulfill a wish that was already there.

Bored in Vernal said...

I am flabbergasted, and don't even know how to answer your comment. Would you suggest we ignore slavery in other countries, though we have overcome it here? Shall we let female genital mutilation continue, since it is part of another nation's "culture????" We are called to make value judgments every day, and we are part of a world community of Heavenly Father's children.

The only point I can possibly concede is that we should value others' cultures and be able to learn from them as well. You will notice that in my efforts I have been able to work within the system. I am not agitating that men be allowed to come and view the basketball games, or that anyone wear athletic clothing that flaunts their religious tradition. Here in Saudi women are struggling for basic human rights. A Saudi princess is leading the initiative to allow women to drive. There is interest in sports and education for women. I am honored to be able to provide a program which is needed and wanted here.

Update on the basketball team: we had so much interest here at the school that we have decided to add an intermural basketball activity. I asked the girls to form their own teams of 8 and we would have a tournament within the college in April. So far 13 teams have been submitted, (that's over 100 girls, almost 1/5 of our student body!) and I'm trying to get a faculty team going, too. Last week the outdoor courts were being used every hour of the day by teams practicing! I don't know how you can equate this with imposing an unwanted foreign culture.

Bored in Vernal said...

btw, commenters, if you don't have blogger ID's, leave your initials or monikers in your comment, so we can tell all the anonymous commenters apart!

Anonymous said...

anonymous alice, here, with the comment about how appropriate it may or may not be when we export our culture aggressively or automatically.

Let me begin by saying I did NOT mean that my question applied to what you did. I hoped I had made that point and I would say those girls look willing and happy and proud of what they are doing. I realize too that a Saudi class that has easy contact with the rest of the world will, necessarily, have to evolve from the expectations of their own young women. I intended merely to suggest a larger question that it presented. And it continues to for me.

Naturally, I don't advocate slavery, female circumcision or submission in the least. But those things need to change within the context of whole cultures to change in fact and permanently. In the process there will, most likely, be dys-equalibrium and, potentially, harsher and more restrictive consequences. For that risk to be fairly assumed it can't be incurred by people who will, at some point, leave that culture.

I recognize that the journey along that path is long, difficult and extremely painful. I concede that it's also painful to sit on the sidelines. And I think there may be a part in it for Americans. But, personally, I think it's a limited, support role that is a very different thing than what frequently happens if we, as we Americans often do, assume whatever is familiar and comfortable for us or even "superior" is a better alternative for people with other ways of life.

Let's not forget that many analysts believe that 9/11 had a great deal to do with female American service members being stationed in Saudi Arabia and grave cultural offense accruing from it. I don't mean to insert politics into this but it's the example that occurs to me at this moment.

NonArab-Arab said...

BiV, you might be interested in this little story from across the Red Sea as well: