Peeking Outside the Gambier Bubble and Peering Into Saudi Arabia

The Fall semester was full of new experiences and profound moments, but I would never have guessed that a homework assignment would top the list. Thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, my Cross-Cultural Psychology class established a global connection with Effat University, a women’s college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Professor Lopez and Professor Felmban worked together to create the syllabus for our class, so the connection made perfect sense.

The assignment did not feel real until I received my partner’s email and we started talking to one another, filling out the interview questions, and planning a time to video chat. I remember typing out this sentence in an email with a giddy sort of bubble in my stomach: “I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those experiences that changes the way we look at the world, you know?”

Reading H’s responses to the interview questions felt surreal. She had this rambling way of writing, as though her fingers followed her mouth as she told me about herself. H used all-caps when she called her cat a “DIVA,” and she told me about her dreams of traveling the world. I felt like she could have been any other friend or teammate of mine. The written answers were incredible enough, but then I found myself in front of my laptop, waiting for the video chat to connect.

Both of our screens blinked on, and Hamsa covered her smiling mouth with her hands. “Can you hear me?” I asked, unable to control my own smile. We had seen pictures of each other, but there’s something altogether more real about being able to speak face-to-face.

A bit of a digression: I am not one of those people who likes talking on the phone. Ask my mother—I’m a mumbler, I let long pauses hang in the air, and I have a horrible habit of saying hi to other people walking by. But H and I talked without stopping for three straight hours. We had to end our conversation at four because I had cross-country practice.

That conversation was definitely life-altering, and I ruminated on it for days afterward. It is so easy to “other” people who live so far away, to let the stereotypes and generalizations and media coverage create an image for us. I’ve always prided myself on being pretty open-minded—as an avid reader and a double major in English and Anthropology, I am infinitely curious about the lives and stories of people. But the limited information I had collected about young women in Saudi Arabia left me with a vague image of an oppressed woman with limited opportunities in life.

H shattered that idea. Well, she created a spider web of cracks in that image, which will hopefully shatter in the coming years. Women in Saudi Arabia do have limited opportunities—H told me that they aren’t allowed to drive, nor can they travel without a man’s permission and/or accompaniment. She told me that she covers up for herself and God, as well as to protect herself from other men. She understands that many of these laws are in place to protect women, but that doesn’t mean she completely agrees with them. The culture is changing, though. Women are running for political office, going to college, and gaining positions in fields once entirely dominated by men. They are learning to drive in secret and protesting the requirement of a man’s written consent in order to travel. H’s own grandmother was the first woman to graduate from a Saudi college, and her mother became a surgeon despite incessant hostility from her male classmates and professors. H herself plans to acquire a Ph.D. in psychology and open her own clinic someday.

She asked me questions, too. About bullying, for one: movies and television shows about American culture seem to feature a lot of bullying. “It’s different from the movies,” I told her with a grin. “It’s more bark than bite, more talking-behind-your-back than stealing-your-lunch-money.” When I told her about the beach, she told me that she actually knew what North Carolina beaches looked like from Nicholas Sparks movies. We talked about adopting children, which is nearly impossible in the Muslim religion, and tattoos. I told her about my first kiss, and she told me about the time a young man asked to marry her when she was a senior in high school. After some serious thought, she turned him down because she realized that she was not mature enough and wanted to continue her education and career without having to defer the decision-making to her husband.

The conversation flowed like we had known each other for years. H was enthusiastic, talkative, and incredibly curious. We got sidetracked often, spending at least a half hour talking about superheroes and Netflix. I gave her a tour of my dorm room and introduced her to my roommate when she walked in. She and I talked for a long time about our relationships with our mothers, and H taught me a great deal about being a modern Muslim woman. We were comfortable enough with one another that we even spoke about some topics I was pretty sure we would avoid.

“Do you know anyone who is gay?” she asked quietly two hours into the conversation, and I nodded.

“Some of my very good friends and teammates are gay,” I replied. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. After a moment, H leaned towards the screen and said this:

“I’m a human being. If this person is happy, then I shouldn’t care...It’s like racism, because people judge and fight you because of who you are.”

H has been to the United States once. She told me that her mother, an incredibly traditional woman, was terrified to come to New York as a Muslim woman after 9/11. But minutes after they arrived, H has a vivid memory of a man holding the door open for her. She remembered thinking, “He just thinks I’m a normal human.”

We talked a lot about the fact that we had so much more in common than we had originally thought. At the end of the day, we’re just people, with many of the same anxieties and passions and dreams. There are differences, but they don’t have to be walls between us. In fact, I believe that those differences are the things that will bring us together. Once we listen to one another and attempt to understand the perspectives and opinions of those “others” we are so quick to separate ourselves from, I believe that a realm of infinite possibilities for our future will appear.

As open-minded as I think I am, there aren’t often opportunities to connect with and learn from people with lifestyles and stories different from my own. If anything, this connection with H has shown me how much I don’t know. I discovered that the opening isn’t much wider than a keyhole. But it’s widening with every story I hear, so I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open. Perhaps we can all do the same.

 

Image credits: Taylor Hazan