Saturday, May 3, 2008

Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an historic groundbreaking event here in Jeddah. In all likelihood, it was the first of its kind – a play called “Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia,” written, directed, and performed live by “MS,” a woman professor at a local girls’ school, Effat College. Of course only women were allowed to attend, and women also ran the whole show, including lights, sound, stage, tickets, advertising, filming, etc. I was invited to go by my two new American friends (from the lovely beach). Effat College is all the way down in south Jeddah, on the road to Mecca. It must be a good hour plus drive from where I live, but to be able to attend such an innovative and revolutionary function in this country was well worth the drive.

The play was billed as "a fun light-hearted play that touches on a variation of topics concerning women in Saudi Arabia. This performance addresses many of the questions made about Saudi women. It is both informative and entertaining and will provide a live portrait of Saudi Arabia, never before depicted."

Because traffic was so heavy (it was the equivalent of a busy Saturday night in the states), we actually arrived about 10 minutes late for the 8:45pm show. But luckily for us, the show started late (as many functions here do!) and we had time to get to our seats and chat for a few minutes. I turned around and introduced myself to the two women seated directly behind me. One woman was Danish, married to a Saudi and living here in Arabia for over 40 years! The other woman was British and has lived here for about 30 years. I found these women extremely charming, intriguing, and fascinating – I cannot imagine coming to a foreign land such as this as a young bride in the 1960s, before the internet, before AC was readily available, and all those other modern day conveniences we now take for granted.

The audience consisted of mostly Western expatriate women and a spattering of young Saudi women, mostly students of the professor from the college. It was not a sold out show but a nice intimate crowd of at least 150 extremely excited and enthusiastic women, who quieted down immediately as the curtain opened. There stood the broadly smiling, elegant, impressive, and exotic looking professor, alone in the middle of the warmly decorated stage. She wore jeans topped with a plain white collared blouse over which hung a long open purple robe which was trimmed with printed accents, plus a matching scarf covering her hair and a matching long loose tie around her neck. She is quite a striking woman with large doe-like eyes, an animated on stage presence, depth of soul and impish comedic wit.

She began her performance by declaring that she had fallen in love in Saudi Arabia! The play dealt with women’s lives and loves in Saudi Arabia. The performer was born in Mecca to Saudi parents, but was raised in California, and later returned to live her life in Arabia. Somewhere along the line, she married and divorced. The elegantly furnished stage was divided into three distinct sections. Center Stage housed a lovely modern comfy living room warmed with many candles and throws. Stage Left bore a traditional relaxed living room complete with seating on floor cushions and a hookah pipe. And Stage Right was the bedroom of a young modern day Saudi woman who is doomed and duped in a relationship with a deceitful Saudi man.

Sidebar - POLYGYNY IN ISLAM: Even though Islam allows a man four wives, most Arabian women, if faced with this situation, are not too happy about it. Unfortunately, usually finances or her children affect a woman’s ability to dissolve her marriage if she is that unhappy about it. Many people don’t realize the reasons for a man being allowed to take multiple wives according to Islam. First of all, if a man has more than one wife, each wife must be treated and provided for the same. Clearly the understanding in Islam is that it is permitted to help solve social and domestic problems. For reasons such as homosexuality, women’s longevity, wars and work accidents where more men die than women, Islam allows polygyny because there are more adult women in the world than men. If a woman is widowed and left with children to raise, Islam sees a man taking the widow as his wife and providing for her and her children as an honorable action. Also if a man’s wife is unable to bear children, a man would be allowed to take a second wife. These are the main reasons for why Islam allows men up to four wives. Unfortunately, most Muslim men who DO take on a second wife do not do it for any of these reasons. For all outward appearances, it seems that they take a new younger purely for sex.

Back to the play: MS relayed the stories of three of her girlfriends in different life circumstances. The first story dealt with Miriam, a woman who is faced with a husband who decides to take a second wife. When the husband gave Miriam the typical line of bull about how it was his ”social responsibility,” she tells him, “So what’s wrong with launching a clean-up campaign down on the Corniche?” The divorce rate in Jeddah now stands at a whopping 40 per cent. Miriam finagles an invitation to a wedding where the new second wife will be and wants MS to go and get the whole inside scoop on the new wife. MS describes the typical Saudi wedding (much like I did in a prior post), where the music is played so loud that there is no way you can talk to the person sitting next to you, so her mission to uncover all the dirt on the new wife fails. At one point, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes begins to play in the auditorium and MS comes down from the stage and engages three audience members to join her in dance while the rest of the crowd claps to the beat, singing along and enjoying the music. Miriam’s story ends with her staying in the marriage, but in name only, and demanding 10 million riyals from her husband plus the house in her name - and getting it!

The second friend’s story is about how women have to cope with not be able to drive and the various problems it presents. MS goes into a hilarious dialogue, mostly in English with splashes of Arabic tossed in, about how the rest of the world has this idea that women here are chauffeured around in limos by drivers in the official looking tidy visor cap and the uniform suit. Wrong! Her friend’s driver has a borderline-toxic body odor problem, and she tried to give him all kinds of hints, going so far as to present him with a can of spray deodorant, which he thought was air freshener for the car! She can’t put up with his disagreeable scent any longer and fires him and then sets about trying to hire a new driver, making it clear to the applicants that they must shower every day, wear deodorant, and smell good.

The third friend’s tale dealt with another controversial Islamic topic concerning women called Misyaar. Basically this is a temporary marriage allowed in Islam whereby a man can screw around without guilt, with a woman who gets none of the normal advantages of marriage, like being provided for financially or with housing, and such, and, for all outward appearances, is simply used for sex. The man may bestow gifts on her for a while, and then usually abandons her once he tires of her. All this is, as far as I’m concerned, is a way for a Muslim man to basically have an affair, free of any responsibility toward the woman. Needless to say, MS’s friend winds up deeply hurt in the end.

And MS? What about her “falling in love in Saudi Arabia?” Turns out she fell in love with tennis, but has faced great obstacles being allowed to play freely here since she is a woman. Although there are private courts where she can play, she was told by the staff at a local hotel on the Corniche where she had been playing that she would no longer be allowed to play there anymore!

The evening was delightful and cause for hope in the respect that women in Saudi Arabia are making some progress, by producing a show such as this, little by little.


  1. Again, what a wonderful experience! Thanks for all of your information!

  2. Keep up the great job on your blog. I think about you guys all the time.

  3. The polygamist version of Islam sounds like the Mormon fundamentalist group over here. I agree it sounds like an excuse for more sex with a different woman. I am glad to hear that the Saudi women are not happy with it. Who would be?

  4. Very interesting, what an amazing opportunity. So, who drove you for an hour to see the play? I have really enjoyed your blog.
    Are gas prices high over there too? They are $3.70 to $4.09 a gallon over here. I wondered if they would be cheaper there?

  5. To Linda - You're welcome!

    To Gary - Thanks!

    To Anonymous - The women of Arabia are like women everywhere. We are all sisters and basically want the same things in life.

    To Angela - Most of the women here have drivers at their disposal, so I was driven there by the driver of a new friend.
    My husband drives a Toyota SUV that seats 7-8 people. If he is almost on empty, he can fill up the vehicle for about 40 riyals, which converts to about $10 US. Oh - and there are plenty of attendants to pump for you, plus you get a free box of tissues with a fill-up! Smaller cars of course are cheaper to fill up with gas. They do liters here, not gallons, so I'm not sure how much per gallon the gas is, but this gives you an idea.

  6. Salaam,
    I am a secret blurker and admirer of your blog...dont tell anyone lol... this post was wonderful like all of your others...great for other people to learn about Saudi....

  7. Susie,

    This blog is great!! I have learned so much from reading what you write about your life over in Saudi Arabia. It is so wonderful that you are making this such an incredible experience!!!


  8. Hey Susie, nice post! The three women's stories sound interesting and unfortunately not too uncommon these days. Mmmm but I just wanted to point out something: "Misyaar" and "mut'a" are two different things. Temporary marriage (mut'a) is absolutely forbidden in Islam, whereas misyaar is when a woman gives up her rights for financial help etc. Never heard of a woman having a misyaar marriage, and even only a small portion of scholars say it is legal.

    As to the anonymous person above, who compared Islam's permissiblity of a man taking up to 4 wives (as long as they are all treated equally) to the FLDS fundamentalists, you are sadly mistaken. I know because my mom used to be with the FLDS until she ran away, and also I am a Muslim woman who knows the hukum (wisdom) and guidelines behind the Islamic version of polgyny.

    Anyways I am off to bed because tomorrow is my son's `aqiqa.

    Later, Susie:-D

  9. Hi

    Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading your review..

    and guess what! I was there too, on Thursday!

    I was just wondering why didn't you mention her name? I think she wouldn't mind!

    Thanks again

  10. Hey susie I have been enjoying your blog quietly but I need to speak out now! Whats up with this play I didnt hear anything about it. I am also an american living here and I didnt hear about it. Do you know if they are going to make a second showing?

  11. Hi!
    Yes, it was a wonderful night. MS did a fantastic job with all three parts. I hope that more Saudi women will be brave enough to perform on stage for us in the future.
    Mary Ann

  12. To Angry M -
    Thanks so much for the nice compliments. I see that you're really sweet underneath that "angry" exterior!!!

    To Cheela -
    Thank you too! It makes me feel so good to know that I am doing some good by sharing my experiences here.

    To Aalia -
    Thanks so much for your input. I had read somewhere that "misyaar" often has a set time limit on it, like a weekend or a month, etc. I have a hard time understanding why a woman would want this type of arrangement (giving up her rights) in the first place. Wierd. I never knew about it until I heard it in this play and then we talked about it in the car on the way home. I was shocked.

    To Anonymous -
    I know the advertising for the event had printed her name, but I felt like I shouldn't use her name since I hadn't asked her about it. I am trying to be especially cautious where others are concerned due to the big uproar about my previous post "Pajama Party."

    To MaryAnn -
    Well, I am a big ham and I love to perform, but I'm not Saudi!

  13. I find your observations about men, sex, women, etc in Saudi society to be fascinating especially since that mirrors what I believe. I thought the manner in which Saudi women are required to live is more a commentary on men's inability to control impulses and men's interest in having multiple sex partners with religious blessings than on any higher calling from above. Not to be outdone, our religions have their own sets of rules that are more designed to accommodate the times and the rule makers. The difference is that violation of a man-made Western rule allowing or prohibiting polygamy or one prohibiting under-age sex doesn't result in stoning, beheading, or making permanent social outcasts, etc. We saw an interesting movie recently called Water, about Indian widow women in the 1930's being forced to live a monastic life for the rest of their life, including an 8 year old who married a man who soon died, all in the name of religion. Women seem to take the brunt of rules that benefit the impulses, needs, desires, cravings of men. I'll jump off my soapbox now and wish you well!

  14. I've always wanted to see a one women show,mostly I've just read reviews in the NYT.Sounds like some really interesting social commentary.Great post!

  15. Another interesting post Susie!
    Made me wish I had seen it :)

    anonymous: Widows in india are still treated like filth.

  16. To Umm Zubair -
    I heard about it through my new friends here. Sorry you didn't - I don't know that there are any plans for future shows, but if I find out, I will let you know! And thanks for visiting my blog.

    To Anonymous -
    I totally agree with you - unequivocably! The men in this society have just taken such an extreme approach to their inability to control themselves regarding sexual urges, at the expense of women's rights, comforts, and freedoms. The rules they impose on women are suffocating, to say the least! Great commentary - thanks!

    To Always... & Aafke -
    Thanks - you both made my day!

  17. A very entertaining story, I enjoyed reading and totally agree women should be empower to stand and fight for their rights even if the law allows men to marry until 4 wives....for the best interest and welfare of ourselves as women and our children...