E ducation for women in Saudi Arabia has gained tremendous importance over the past three decades or so. Prior to that, many women quit school to marry in their teens and raise their families. A girl’s education used to be limited to those areas specifically tied to religion, educating the female in Islamic ways so she could become the perfect housewife and mother, and if she desired, to prepare herself for a career in the very limited areas of teaching, nursing or medicine, careers which “suited her nature.”
Consequently, one of the jobs that native English speaking women like myself here in Arabia are in demand for now is to tutor in English. I am currently tutoring for two families, three days a week for a couple hours each session. One of the families I have been tutoring for a few months now is headed by a wealthy gold and diamonds dealer that my husband has known for over 20 years. The mother manages their large home and takes college classes at a local women’s college. The family has a total of five daughters, but I only work with the middle three, who are 18, 15, and 12. I’ll call them Miriam, Laila, and Jasmin. All the girls have thick black wavy hair, like their mother, and large pretty brown eyes. The oldest daughter Shaza, who is 20 and deaf, goes to a special school. She always greets me with a smile and hugs and kisses, as all of the girls do. The rest of the family signs with her and I can see that they love her very much. The youngest daughter Janna, at two years of age, is quite the character and rules the roost. She is a force to be reckoned with. Most of the time she tries to dominate my time and attention before one of the maids whisks her away. Locked French doors then keep the little one out of our way, but many times she will bang on the doors and cry to be let in. Janna is already quite the clothes horse, frequently changing her outfit twice or three times during my two hour stay in their home.
When we arrive at the villa, the caretaker opens up a gate for me. Inside the gate is a huge tiled in courtyard. A freestanding basketball hoop stands at one end. There are three covered parking spots for family vehicles. So far I have counted at least eight vehicles owned by the family. There are four large SUVs, including a Range Rover, a Toyota Fortuner, and a big GMC, all of which are no more than two years old, plus an older model SUV. The fleet also includes at least two late model luxury sedans and two minivans. The family employs at least 6 full time live-in workers, including the three drivers and the caretaker, plus at least two maids. I haven’t seen the entire house, but it is rather large.
One night this week when I arrived, Miriam and Laila were on the phone in another room, so I sat and talked with Jasmin for a while. Miriam and Laila came in after a while and they were both visibly upset. They sat down on the couch and both of them started crying. I asked what was wrong, what happened? They hesitated to talk to me, but the tears kept flowing. Immediately I thought that someone had died … but when I heard what had happened, it almost seemed worse than that. Finally Miriam spoke up and simply said, “Our mother is gone.” I hugged the girls as they continued to sob. “What do you mean, she’s gone?” I asked. Miriam spoke again. “She left. She moved out.” My heart sank. Soon Jasmin and even the strong-willed little two year old were crying. I let them talk as I tried to console them.
I learned that their parents were cousins. But not only that, their dad’s sister is also married to their mom’s brother, so the problems this couple is having creates a big crisis for the whole family. Dad is always working, travels a lot on business, and makes an excellent income for the family, but he’s hardly ever there at the house with his own family. Indeed in the few months that I have been going to their home, not once had Dad ever been there.
Miriam at 18 has been designated by her dad to step up to the plate and fill in during Mom’s absence. She studies full-time at a girls college and is trying hard to improve her English skills so she can enroll in a university. Her dream is to become an architect. She’s upset with her dad and one of the first things she said was, “I hate all men!” Miriam feels she is unequipped to handle managing the home, caring for her sisters and her dad, and maintaining her schoolwork. I refrained from asking any questions and just let the girls talk and cry, while I tried to reassure them that things would somehow work out. I did not discover the reasons for their parents troubles, but I did find out that it does NOT involve anything like the dad taking on a second wife. Whew! The girls kept saying that they can’t live or manage without their mom, and the baby Janna especially misses her.
Shaza is the only sister who did not cry. She was aware of what was going on and she saw her sisters crying. Miriam told me that Shaza is so strong and rarely cries. She was reading the Quran while the girls cried and talked. Of all the girls, I think Shaza looks most like her mom. Eventually the tears stopped and they managed some smiles.
The girls had a wonderful time that evening. There were no tears. They each made at least three bracelets, including one that they each made for their mom too. I made a bracelet for two year old Janna out of pink beads and hearts. The mischievious little one managed to empty out several bags of beads all over the carpet before she was carried away kicking and screaming and then kept in solitary confinement by one of the maids. The young sisters were so proud of their creations. We giggled and joked around and the mood was a far cry (no pun intended) from the emotionally charged evening the day prior. We didn’t really discuss their mother, except for me asking them to tell her hello when they speak to her.
With the divorce rate a staggering 40 per cent here in Jeddah, I do sincerely wish that this couple with five lovely daughters can resolve their issues and work things out. That is my fervent hope.