Unfortunately the visit to the Prince Talal Charity Foundation was removed from our itinerary yesterday but we were still able to visit King Saud University and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center.
At 8:30 in the morning we left our hotel for King Saud University, the largest and oldest university in Saudi Arabia. The girls were dropped off at the all-female campus that was just built 4 months ago while the boys visited the main male campus. When we entered the main lobby we were immediately greeted by five or six students from a group called the Student Partnership Program (SPP). All of them were not wearing hijabs and abayas because it was an all-female campus and therefore unnecessary. About half way through the visit they laughed at us for keeping our hijabs on and encouraged us to take them off. They did really appreciate us respecting their culture, though. All of them were incredibly friendly and welcoming but I was taken aback at first because I didn't know the traditional Saudi greeting, two kisses on the cheek. I'm still not sure exactly what is the appropriate greeting because everyone we met did something slightly different. Hopefully by the end of our ten day trip I'll know what to do in each situation!
|The main entrance of the campus.|
Some general impressions of the look of the campus:
-All of the buildings are incredibly new looking and have very high ceilings and large entrance halls.
-A lot of the campus actually seemed empty and unused as not everyone had moved in yet from the old female campuses (the SPP girls said it was their first semester using the new facilities).
-All of the offices and rooms we walked into were lavishly decorated and incredibly nice.
|Straight ahead leads to the main Campus Library. On the sides of this giant hallway |
there are a grocery store, the student center, a campus cafeteria, coffee place, bookstore etc.
The most interesting part of the visit were the conversations we had about American misconceptions of Saudi women against how Saudi women actually see themselves. There was definitely a theme of sentiment for evolution not revolution and reform not revolt when it came to women's rights. They also mentioned multiple times that the problems in Saudi Arabia for women or otherwise are world problems that are not just present in their country but everywhere. Everyone said that they wanted to see progress for women but that "change that comes fast, fades fast". A lot of people said that it was Saudi women's duty to participate in society and help advance the country in partnership with men. Most said that Saudi women have made strides in improving their situations and that more and more of them are taking on and succeeding in leadership roles (like the SCC). One girl was careful to say that she didn't want to brag, but pointed out that the statistics say women are beating men in tertiary education enrollment and are out-acheiving them in academics as well.
All of the girls were very supportive of King Abdullah and optimistic for the monarchy's treatment of women in the future. One young student said that "there is a higher power working for us, King Abdullah". They made it very clear that driving, despite the American media's fixation, is not the thing that they are most concerned with. Despite the media's focus on abayas and driving, the rules in Saudi are more flexible for women than we may think. However, they have more pressing needs and concerns like fully integrating into the work force and taking on more leadership positions.
|Me with a member of the SPP who is a fellow economics major.|
Of course what we heard has to be taken with a grain of salt but if all girls in Saudi Arabia are like the ones we met, there is real hope for the country in the future. The media fixates on Muslim women's abayas, hijabs, burqas or lack thereof and not enough attention is paid to who they are and what they do. It's important to remember that not all Saudi women fit into the veiled and victimized stereotype that is perpetuated by the American media. I'm so blessed to have been able to speak to to Saudi women face-to-face and hear their own voices and opinions. I'm excited to return home with some legitimacy to be able to continue and challenge peoples misconceptions about Muslim and Arab women. It's amazing that I've only been in Saudi for a few days and I've already had such a life-changing, enlightening experience.
Later today I'll try to post about our visit to the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. I thought that our trip to King Saud University was so wonderful though that it deserved its own post.