Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Photography Can Be Hazardous ...

I  take many photos in Saudi Arabia, and I publish many of them on both of my blogs - this one and my photo blog which is called Jeddah Daily Photo. Many people, especially women in this country, are very private and come close to freaking out when they see a camera. Women here have been blackmailed by men who may have obtained a photo of a woman whose hair is not properly covered or if she is wearing normal clothing and some of her skin shows. In most normal societies, these innocent photos would not be cause for alarm and certainly not a reason for blackmail. But in a restrictive place like Saudi Arabia, regular photos like these of a woman, if landing in the wrong hands, could bring shame on the woman and her family, and her husband might even divorce her because of it. This cultural phenomenon gives great power to slimy bad guys, many of whom might usually demand sex, or sometimes money, as their blackmail payment.

The methods for how a man might obtain photos of this nature can vary. Modern technology such as camera phones and blue tooth are one way. Some men might deliberately prey on vulnerable women and sweet talk their way into getting the woman into a compromising position. Or perhaps the woman began to trust an individual and she may herself have emailed him a photo of herself. There have been cases where a woman was raped by a disgruntled acquaintance and even a case where it resulted in a woman being killed by her own male family members because of the shame brought upon the family. It is also not unusual for a woman to be sentenced to lashes as well for being guilty of putting herself in the position where photos of her got into the wrong hands.

I'm happy to report that in recent times the Saudi government responded by enacting stiff laws with severe penalties that have been put in place to protect women from blackmailing predators. The thing is, though, that these laws wouldn't be necessary if seeing a woman's hair or skin wasn't considered so taboo in the first place. Islamic law dictates that women must dress modestly. Dressing modestly in KSA is way more restrictive on women than in most other Islamic countries. There are many places where Muslim women do not cover their hair and where they are considered modestly dressed even if skin on their forearms or necks are showing. And what's even worse is that despite the laws that now protect women from blackmailers, many people still place the blame on the woman for allowing a photo of her showing her hair or some skin to get out in the first place. Naivete, foolishness, or a simple mistake can ruin a woman's reputation and possibly her life.

On a different note, it is believed that a blogger/photojournalist from Iran may be in jail. Amir may have been arrested as he took photos of the demonstrations in the streets of Iran that have been going on in protest of the questionable results of the presidential election that took place there on June 12. He has published some incredible photos of the demonstrations on his website called Tehran 24 and access to his blog has been blocked from viewing within Iran. For more photos of what has been going on in Iran, you can also check out this site.

Amir is not the first Iranian blogger to have simply disappeared without a trace. There have been several in recent years, and one even died in custody a few months ago. It is clear that the country of Iran does not have freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

In this part of the world, taking photos or simply having your photo taken can be hazardous to your well being ...

Monday, June 15, 2009

From Hugging to a Handshake to Hello

When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia in October of 2007, I met many of my husband's family for the first time. There were many nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles to meet, and honestly I still don't think I have met even half of my husband's extended family. I came from a fairly small family. My mom was an only child, so I have no cousins on her side of the family. My dad had one brother and one sister, and they had two children each, so in reality, I had only four first cousins. Because my mom was an only child, she wanted a large family, so I have four brothers. My brothers and I all have at least two kids each, so our kids have a healthy pool of first cousins. With my family spread out all over the US though, getting us all together takes quite a bit of planning and it's not something we are able to do even once a year. And that's one of the reasons why I was really looking forward to our move to Saudi Arabia, where we would be surrounded by my husband's large extended family.

Here in Saudi Arabia, we spend the most time with my hubby's sister and one of his brothers than with other members of the extended family. One of my nephews, Sultan, has become a favorite of mine. He was maybe 11 and a half when I first arrived. He and my son Capt. Kabob get along well together and they play video games and joke around with each other. We often play cards and he has even come over to our house to spend the night, which isn't really a common occurrence in this society.

The first year I was here in this country, whenever we would greet each other, Sultan and I would hug each other warmly. I also hug all of my nieces and my sisters-in-law when I see them, but I never hug my brothers-in-law or the older male nephews. We cordially say hello to one another but we don't even shake hands. Also I must keep my hair covered at all times when I am around them as well. All of a sudden one day several months ago, Sultan informed me that we could no longer hug when we greet each other because he had just turned thirteen. Thirteen is that magical number whereby he was now considered a man and was no longer allowed to hug women like me. So for several months Sultan and I shook hands when we greeted each other. Honestly this change in our relationship felt a bit awkward and felt like a loss to me.

Well, just recently now our dissipating relationship has evolved even further - now we can no longer even shake hands.

I realize that this is part of the culture and I understand that. But I'm 57 years old and Sultan is 13. To me, he is still a boy and I would never ever think of him in an inappropriate way. The culture here dictates that there should be no physical contact, like hugging or even shaking hands, between any "marriageable" persons of the opposite sex. To think that my nephew or I would ever ... or could ever ... It just seems so tawdry and distasteful, doesn't it? Maybe I'm just really naive, but are there really that many desperate older aunts who take on their ridiculously much younger teen nephews? Does this really happen?

So anyway, now Sultan and I must keep our physical distance from one another and just wave and say hello to each other. So far I don't have to cover my hair in front of him, but I have a feeling that might be the next thing to go. Which is something that I don't really understand because he already knows what my hair looks like. The situation just feels so uncomfortable to me now... I can tell by the look in his eyes that Sultan feels the same way about it too. It almost feels like we're being punished for something. Saudi women must experience this same chipping away of their relationships with their nephews as they grow up - I wonder if they feel the same way I do? Is hugging my nephew really indecent and inappropriate? Sometimes I think there are things that this culture carries way too far and turns completely innocent and pure affection into something dirty. At least I still get to hug my nephews in the states - and maybe I'll just hang onto them a little bit longer next time I see them!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Telemarketing in Saudi Arabia?

I   recently received a request for some information about a possible business venture here in KSA that I'm not really sure how to address, so I thought I would open this up to the readers to answer. A young woman from Thailand needs information about the possibility of marketing cosmetics to Saudi women over the phone. My instincts tell me that this type of business venture wouldn't fly here, but maybe I'm wrong.

She has some questions that I have no idea how to answer. Here's her request:

"The Managing Director I work for is very eager to start his business in a Middle Eastern country and I'm responsible for doing some research on those countries. KSA happened to be the first place I picked up from the lucky draw.

After reading a lot of articles and of course, your blog, I'm not so sure now if my business model can be run in KSA, as it relates to cosmetics and skin care for both men and mostly for women.

Since women there are not supposed to be beautiful because it leads to men's attention, they do not have to apply any skin care to keep themselves beautiful anyway, although Saudi men take beauty as the most important thing to live a life with one woman... what a conflict!

My business requires girls to sell these products via telephones. Under the religious rules, I don't think any girls can be employed for this position - or is selling through telephones exceptional?

Can you let me know if Saudi women can spend money of their own free will? Or do they need to have permission from their husbands? In general, do most Saudi women possess a Credit Card or ATM card to use freely?

It would be really nice to have your advice about this as it would be difficult to get this kind of info from the internet."

First of all, the assumption that Saudi women don't need or want cosmetics or skin care products is totally wrong. Outer beauty and skin care is as important to women here as it is to women everywhere. Because Saudi women don't expose their skin to the harsh elements here, most Saudi women have beautiful and flawless skin. They use products to keep their skin soft and supple. They use cosmetics for private affairs like weddings. I know that cosmetics is a big business here.

Saudi women generally have their own money and if they want to spend it on cosmetics, that is their business. I cannot vouch for whether they have credit cards or ATM cards to make purchases with, however.

Whether or not women would be inclined to purchase cosmetics over the phone is a completely different issue. Not being able to see the product would be a factor. Personally I would rather purchase cosmetics in person rather than over the phone, sight unseen.

As far as telemarketing itself here in KSA, I honestly have no clue. I know that we don't receive sales calls at home here in Saudi Arabia. The difference between the states and here is like night and day. We used to get so many telemarketing calls in the states that it was quite annoying. Although I have noticed that I receive many pesky text messages here in KSA that are sales oriented. I do know that I've heard many women here say that if they don't recognize the phone number on their caller ID, they do not answer the phone, so would this be a problem? And could women be employed doing telemarketing here? A good question to which I have no answer. If anyone out there has any information to contribute, please be my guest.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On Being Normal

S ince I moved here to Saudi Arabia from America in October 2007, my life has changed dramatically. There are so many things about day to day life that just don't seem normal to me any more. What is normal? Normal is what you are used to, what feels natural and looks right, the constants in life.

The lack of social interaction between men and women is one of the hardest things for me to get used to. When we go to the market and I say thank you or hello to the salesclerk or even just nod my head with a smile, my husband always tells me that I am not obliged to speak to them. Now, he's not demanding that I not to speak to them, just reminding me that women in this society don't interact that way with men. At many doctor's offices or health clinics, there are even separate waiting rooms for men and women, so no inappropriate behavior will occur. Now, I've been in many doctor's waiting rooms in my lifetime, and I must admit that I have never seen or experienced anything untoward happening in a doctor's waiting room, so I really don't get this separation of the sexes. Anyway, I hate going because I'm stuck sitting there all by myself while at least my son and husband have each other. There are separate women's banks and single men sections at restaurants. Even at many family functions, the men and women sit and eat separately. Sometimes we arrive together, and I'm instantly directed one way while my son and husband go another, and I don't see them for hours until someone comes to tell me that my husband is ready to go. I don't know if I will ever be able to consider this as normal. I haven't been to a mixed wedding here yet - only women have been at the weddings I've attended. And you should see the sexy gowns and the wild make-up and the glitzy shoes worn by all the women attendees - who are all dolled up so other women can see them and they can size each other up.

When I'm in the privacy of my own home, and a workman or my brother-in-law comes over, I am expected to run out of the room so he doesn't see my hair, my legs, or my arms. Unless I'm just out of the shower and standing there dripping with a towel wrapped around me, my mind just doesn't think that way. So I can either stay hidden away in my bedroom, or I can come back out, as long as I have made sure that I have clothing covering every part of me except my hands and face. I've been places where my nieces freak out in such a situation that they grab a pillow to hide their heads or duck for cover under whatever they can find. All because a man enters the room. To me, it's just no big deal for a man to see my hair, but here, freaking out over it is normal.

Not allowing women to drive here is another thing that is just so abnormal to me. I've got forty years of driving experience, an excellent driving record, and I cannot drive in this country. I have to be driven by a man to go anywhere here. I always drove my son to and from school every day, drove myself to work, or to the movies or to the mall, but here I cannot drive. First thing in the morning when my husband drives our son to school, it's a very rare day when I even see another woman walking out on the street or riding in another car. Usually all I ever see are just men everywhere out and about. Makes me feel like an endangered species!

In stores, restaurants, malls, and most other businesses, there are no female employees at all. Well, I take that back - there are some women janitors who clean the ladies restrooms in some of the malls. But there are no women saleclerks, or waitresses, or women chefs, or women store managers. None. And I'm used to stores, elevators and restaurants having piped-in music - but not here. I just can't get beyond the fact that these things strike me as odd. It's not normal to me. But here, it's perfectly normal. Will I ever get used to this kind of normal?

Of course, having to don the long black cloak (called abaya) in this brutal heat feels very abnormal to me too. And making sure not one hair on my head peeks out from under the scarf I have to wrap around my head and neck before I step out the door to go anywhere will never feel normal to me. After all, I didn't move here until I was in my mid-50s, having lived scarfless in the US all my life. I've always liked the look of the colorful scarves I sometimes saw ladies wearing back home, but personally I just always found them stifling, so I never wore them. But here, I have to wear scarves, even though I hate them. Let me think: in my previous life, did I ever wear things that I hated to wear? Well, I can think of two bridesmaids dresses that I wasn't particularly fond of, but those were just a one day deal... so I don't think those should count if they were only a one day deal.

Another thing that strikes me as not normal is how the vast majority of the men always wear white when out in public and most of the women always wear black. It is literally a black and white society. Is there any other society on earth that is so conformist in what its people wear, with so few alternatives, so little room for being different or expressing individuality, and so lacking in color variations? Ok, sure - the abayas come with different fancy trims, and maybe some have pleated sleeves or lace, or other subtle distinctions. But even at that, the fact remains that the abayas are mostly all black. I come from a place where people could basically wear whatever they want, full of colors and choices, and dress suitably for the weather. Of course there are those few who push the envelope on bad taste. But for the most part, people in the West dress responsibly, and while maybe not as modest as the dress here, most people dress decently, comfortably and appropriately. I don't find the abaya or the scarf comfortable to wear, especially in the hot months - which is most of the year here. So I don't think I'll ever feel that dressing this way is normal.

I'm not saying that this country is wrong or bad for these things that I don't consider normal to me. I'm just saying that these things don't feel normal to me because I am used to things being a different way, that's all. What's considered normal here isn't what's normal for me. And it feels weird. These are just some of the things that make me wonder if I will ever consider these things normal. There are some days now when I secretly wish that my husband was from almost any other country in the world besides here - because life here just doesn't feel normal to me. I miss feeling normal...


Several friends told me yesterday that they could access my blog here in the Kingdom, but I could not access it until this morning. It was probably something to do with my cache not being cleared (an internal computer problem).

I am officially up and running now. Whew! I still don't have any answers as to why, but the important thing is that it has been unblocked.

My sincere thanks to everyone for your support!