Monday, December 28, 2009

Western Wife, Saudi Husband

As a result of my last post “Dear Susie…” another Western woman married to a Saudi has given me permission to share her recent emails to me with you. I found it distressing to know that after close to two decades in the Kingdom, she is still not happy living in KSA, and yet at the same time I found it comforting to know that I am not alone in feeling this way. Here is what she has to say…

Iwas so naive when I made the decision to follow my husband here. I had no idea of how life would be for me as a woman, how dependent I would be on my husband, how I wouldn't be able to leave the country without my husband's permission, etc., etc. And my husband did not volunteer any information either. I think he knew I would be hesitant to move to Saudi if I knew too much. My parents have always let me make my own decisions, and I appreciate their trust and confidence in me. But boy oh boy, do I wish they had put up more of a stink with regard to me going off to Saudi Arabia. Back in 1993, there wasn't a lot of info out there about foreign women married to Saudis. I wished I had had access to all that is available now. My eldest daughter has asked me on more than one occasion, "How could you move to a country you knew nothing about?" I tell her it was because I was young, fearless and looking for an adventure. I believe my faith is what has pulled me through all of these years, and perhaps, I'm a lot stronger than I give myself credit for.

I came here, too, with the bare minimum. I gave up so much, and I put my all into building a life here. But the small things that have bothered me over the years have built up into a mountain; and I'm feeling smothered and simply worn out. I'm just taking it one day at a time. Life here isn't intolerable (most days), but I'm itching to find out if there is a possibility it could be better elsewhere.

I may feel happier if my husband would take the children’s and my security a lot more seriously should something happen to him. We don't even own our own home! I do not have Saudi citizenship; but we have filed all the necessary paperwork and my file is pending in Riyadh. I will never leave KSA without having that first. I, too, think I would be happier if we had a driver. But my husband does not want to get one, which is kind of funny because he is absolutely miserable taking us everywhere we need to go. I want to help out, but I can't. I'm tired of having to schedule my outings around his mood or his schedule. Things got a little better when our eldest son got his license, but he's away at college now; and our second son, who can drive, will be leaving at the end of the school year for college as well. I just want to do some things for myself. I'm tired of feeling like a child.

My husband has no interest in living elsewhere. It wouldn't be practical anyway. He can be a much better breadwinner for the family here in his own country than anywhere else. He has no desire to even visit the US anymore. The last time he was there was more than 10 years ago. He does not write, call, email, or do anything to keep in touch with my family which, needless to say, isn't sitting right with me. They are so good to him. My father sends him a birthday package every year, and my husband doesn't even thank him via phone or email. I don't know if he thinks he doesn't have to keep in touch because they aren't Muslim; but I know that their lives just aren't that important to him.

I've tried working (teaching English), but I just didn't like it that much. Besides, juggling a job and family responsibilities was a bit stressful for me. I don't have a maid because that's another thing that my husband doesn't feel is necessary. As long as I'm not working, I don't mind.

Like you, I think spending more time with my family in the States would make me happier. The norm for me has been a trip home in the summer every other year. My husband says he can't afford it more often. We are a one-income family, and I understand. The total time I've spent with my family over the past 17 years comes to 18 months - yes, 1.5 years out of 17. That's not much is it? I've missed out on so much over the years. I'm not even very close to my niece and nephews because of the distance. I thought I would get less homesick the longer I was away, but the total opposite has happened. I went home this past summer, and it was the best visit ever. I reconnected with long-lost high school friends, traveled out West with my parents, visited relation, and just felt so refreshed and alive while there. Every time I step on a plane heading out of Saudi Arabia, I have passive thoughts of not returning; but I always do. And when I get back, it never fails . . . I always feel down. I eventually get over it; but this last time it took a while.

There are a lot of things going on with me. I'm literally caught in between a rock and a hard place. I'm not going to make a rash decision about my future. I'm taking my time . . . trying to think things through carefully. I am definitely going through a midlife crisis. In early 2009, I had a stark awakening. I decided that I deserve to be happy and fulfilled after 21 years of marriage. I have repressed my needs and wants for so long, that they have come out in a fury of rage and anger. My husband is shocked. He's worried he's going to lose me. I just want to climb up on one of the mountains around here and yell out: WHAT ABOUT ME?

All I want to do is think about myself for a change; and because of that everyone thinks I'm being mean and ungrateful. Ahhh, the word "ungrateful" . . . women are so ungrateful, aren't they? I've been told that most of the inhabitants of the hell fire will be women because they are ungrateful to their husbands. But where do you draw the line between being ungrateful and just finally getting fed up with being taken advantage of? When a woman is too complacent, she gets walked all over and her sacrifices are never appreciated. I do not feel like I've achieved much over the past 17 years; and I'm very disappointed in my husband's level of success, especially career-wise. I'm full of anger . . . I'm angry at myself, my husband, my in-laws, the children, my Creator, and especially the Saudi society.

I'm angry at the Saudi society for not providing me opportunities to further my education or work in my field of specialty, for not allowing me to drive, for making me severely dependent on my husband, for making me lose my self-confidence, for placing such high expectations upon me that I now deal with severe anxiety. Do I have the right to blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness? Why can't I just make peace with what Allah has bestowed upon me? My older kids always tell me: "Mom, you just have to make peace with the way things are." Is it because I feel like I've been used and taken advantage of for so long that I don't know what to believe? I truly feel my humble and complacent personality has led me to where I am at the moment. If I had stood up for my needs and wants over the years perhaps my current situation would be better.

So, what I'm getting at is . . . If I'm so unhappy, shouldn't I remove and/or distance myself from the things I feel are making me unhappy? Why do I feel so guilty for wanting to pack up and leave . . . for wanting to try and see if I could find happiness once again? All I know is that I need to resolve the above-issues soon or I'm never going to feel good about myself or others.

I ask myself, "What would I do if I left?" And I can't answer the question. I feel like I'm not capable of finding a job, finding new love, or continuing my education. I have a total lack of self-esteem. It's so frustrating to want to try to start over again but at the same time you don't have the confidence. I blame my husband for my current state because he has not been able to fulfill my needs nor convince me that life in Saudi Arabia is the best for me. Somewhere, somehow . . . I've lost track of how to do and experience the things that make me happy. I know I need to work on my own happiness because if I could be happy and have more self-respect perhaps my marriage would be stronger. I do want to create the happy-go-lucky, light hearted version of myself that my husband first fell in love with.

I've put little thought into what I want out of life and more thought into taking care of others. I've spent most of my days taking care of the children, cooking, cleaning and putting the needs of my family before me. I have no outside interests, no career and nothing to fulfill dreams I have. I also feel guilty for wanting to leave this place, as many Muslims would die for the opportunity to live here. I've been told that I have to be thankful and that living in Saudi Arabia is a blessing no matter how difficult it may be. So I'm torn. It just seems so complicated, especially with children in the picture. We have five, ranging from 20 down to 6.

I just can't believe I'm talking about leaving. I never thought it would come to this. For the longest time, I hid my discontentment from our children, but they know now. I would feel incredible guilt for leaving, but it may be the best for all concerned because my unhappiness is just making everyone else miserable. My family back home doesn't know how unhappy I am. I've sugar-coated everything, and they believe I'm content with life here. Maybe I shouldn't have done that, but I don't want them to worry. I think that if I were to approach them about my desire to come home, they would be supportive of me until I could get my feet on the ground.

I have made some small changes over the past year. They may not seem significant to others; but they are making me feel a little better. One, I started taking care of myself better. I joined a gym and started exercising. I've continued to exercise and watch my diet; and I've lost 17 pounds over the past year. It's really lifted my spirits. I've also stopped running around like a chicken with its head cut off, thinking that I have to have everything perfect for my husband and children and that I have to be at their beck and call. I do things when I feel like doing them, how I like doing them, and I have accepted that it won't be the end of the world if they don't get done. When the kids are off to school and DH is at work, I use my mornings however I please. I've just recently started reading novels again and writing poetry. I have a few good friends that I try to see more often.

My new year’s resolution is to find peace of mind. I pray that all of the women in our situation will find happiness and peace of mind.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dear Susie ...

I hope you don’t mind me emailing you, but I wanted your opinion about my situation. I am a 28-year-old American woman and I met a Saudi guy I really like. The problem is he wants to go back to Jeddah once he's done studying here in the US and he wants me to go back with him. I want to know from your experience if I would survive in his different culture and community. Also, how hard is it to adapt to this new type of culture and living situation? I am also used to working a lot of hours and focusing on my career and my concern is if I did go to Saudi Arabia, I would not be able to find a job since I do not speak Arabic and would lose all the skills I have worked so hard for. Also my other fear is if he was working all the time and gets back into the swing of his normal life there, I will be lonely and just get lost in the shuffle and not be able to find my own thing like I have in America. By the way, I am Catholic and this is obviously a concern for him as he would like to have Muslim children, which I am not opposed to. What would be your suggestion regarding the difference in religions? I would truly appreciate your opinion and answers to my questions. My boyfriend and I are at the point in our relationship that if we break up it is going to be very difficult or impossible for both of us so now we have to deal with the reality of the differences in our cultures and the best way to make it work. Also I didn't mention that him staying here is not an option at all.

Thanks - M

Dear M -

I don't mind at all that you emailed me to ask questions - I wish that years ago there would have been someone I could have asked many of the same questions you have. I'll try to answer as best I can, but my situation may be different from yours and from other women who are in relationships with Saudi men.

I cannot tell you whether or not you will be able to survive in this culture and environment. Many women that I have met have been here for 20, 30 or, incredibly, even more than 40 years. Most of those women have converted to Islam, live in villas where they can spend some time outdoors if they choose, have maids and drivers, have raised their children here, and are able to travel freely. Many of them also work, usually in education or the medical field. As far as not speaking Arabic, I haven’t encountered much a problem with it since just about everyone here speaks some English. In fact if you are a native speaker of English, you would have no problem finding work in a school or tutoring English. Some women have carved out their own niche, in art or photography or such. Obviously I cannot speak for all Western women who married Saudis, but I get the distinct feeling that most of these women would actually prefer to live somewhere else if given the choice - but they have tolerated this place out of love for their spouses and children and have tried to make the best of it. And looking back, if asked if they had a chance to do it over again, would they? I truly think that the majority of women who have married Saudis and moved here would likely say "NO!" - if they were being perfectly honest.

The expat wives of Saudis all have different situations and circumstances. My husband and I lived for thirty years in the states, and the thought that he would ever want to move back to his homeland was far-fetched because that's what he had always led me to believe. The first decade or so of our relationship, my hubby wasn't particularly religious, but that eventually started changing. Even living in the states, there were times when I found it difficult to be married to someone from such a different culture and religion. This was especially noticeable after our son started school. If there was a school function, parent-teacher conference, a band concert, or a sporting event my son was participating in that interfered with prayer times - and almost inevitably they did - I usually ended up going alone and often felt like I was a single parent. Honestly I began to resent it and wasn't happy about it, and I felt cheated for myself and my son. I felt that God shouldn't mind if you did your prayers later if you were attending a function where you were showing support for your own child. But my husband didn't see it that way, and his prayer times almost always won out.

There were other times when I felt cheated, like around holidays that I was used to celebrating. Never being a deeply religious person myself - I consider myself spiritual but shy away from manmade interpretations of religions - what I always enjoyed most about, for example, Christmas, was the fluff and the spirit of the season - the lights, the music, the decorations, the smells, the foods and special treats, hearing from old friends, the generosity toward those less fortunate, the sentimentality of remembering Christmases past, the joy of giving, the smiles on people's faces, the children's excitement in anticipation of the big day. As years went by, my husband withdrew from participating in any of the preparation or the festivities. This applied to other typical holidays too, like Easter, Halloween, or the 4th of July. When we were invited over to friends' homes, if they had a pet dog, my husband would either refuse to go or insist that the dog be locked away. Muslims are taught that dogs are filthy animals, and my husband has been deathly afraid of even the smallest puppy since I have known him. I know that in America some women call themselves "Football Widows," when it's football season, the wives feel like widows because the husbands are totally focused on football games. Well, I started feeling at times like a "Muslim Widow,” for lack of a better term.

Adapting to this new life and new culture has definitely been an exciting learning experience, which is not to say that it has been easy. I honestly think that moving here is much easier for Western women who are NOT married to Saudis and who come here to work for a specific time frame, live in compounds where activities abound, and have very busy and full lives, with many more opportunities to enjoy all that this place has to offer than I have had. Life inside the compound walls is much like life in the West. There are parties, sports, classes, more freedom for women to participate in sports and to form friendships, and a sense of community that you just don't automatically get outside those walls. But on the flip side, many of them have never been inside a Saudi home and they don't develop friendships with Saudis, so even though they are living in Saudi Arabia, they are in reality living in this little protected bubble and not really experiencing living in "the real Saudi Arabia." Being married to a Saudi and living in an apartment building or a villa is a whole different story. I haven't really been able to join clubs and develop friendships with many ex-pats whether they live in compounds or not because of my transportation limitations. I have to rely on my husband to take me where and when I want to go, and you can imagine what a problem that can be. And everything revolves around prayer times - everything comes to a halt then and every business shuts down for prayer times. When you live out among Saudi society, it is so very different from the Western way of life because the Saudis are so very private and men and women do not mix socially. This is one of the worst things for me that I dislike about being here. To come from an open society like America, and then suddenly you are expected not to speak to men, to dress like a nun and cover your hair, and where you can socialize only with women, and you are not free to come and go as you please... it almost feels at times like you are in a prison of sorts.

For me, there are very few activities, few friends, and lots of boredom. I have described my life now as just an empty shell of what it was before moving here. There are days on end when I don't see the light of day because I am stuck in this flat with nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one to take me anyway. Not being able to just go outside for a walk or to get some fresh air or to work in the garden is a big problem for me because of where we live. Doing things here on the spur of the moment is not an option any more. Fortunately I have a friend who invites me to do things with her once in a while, and she usually is able to send her driver to pick me up and take me back, so I don't have to ask my husband for transportation. One of my hobbies is photography - I would love to be able to just go out when I want to and take photos, but I can't. Usually I have to settle for trying to capture photos from a car zooming by, so for every one good shot I get, there are at least 50 that are just too blurry to use. Thank God for digital technology! In the more than two years that I have been here, my husband has taken me out specifically to take photos on maybe three or four occasions, not nearly enough to satisfy my desires. Even then though, I always feel rushed because of the bad traffic or because it will soon be prayer time, and there are many areas of the city I have not had the chance to photograph yet.

The first few months after arriving here, my husband went out quite frequently in the evenings several times a week, often until 2 or 3 am. That has tapered off to where now he might only go out like that once or twice a month. I don't really mind, as long as I am able to spend time with my own friends also maybe once or twice a month too. We are both older and not into partying like we used to when we were younger. I do feel lonely many times and I do feel that I am lost in the shuffle and left out. When I first arrived here, I guess I was somewhat of a new novelty and I was constantly invited by various family members or other women to do things with them. But now I guess the novelty has worn off and life has become a humdrum routine with far fewer invitations. I don't feel sorry for myself and I am glad that I have hobbies and interests that I can keep myself busy with, but for me there is just not that much to do outside or inside these walls and it gets old. If I were younger, I would probably be demanding more and having hissy fits over the general lack of activities and boredom. I love my husband's family here and they have been very good to my son and me, but when the only outings we go on just about are to visit family all the time, that too gets old.

As far as my son being raised as a Muslim, I am not opposed to my son being a Muslim, as my husband wishes. But this is his department and his responsibility. My husband started taking Adam to Islamic classes in the states when he was younger, but that didn't last long. Consequently my son doesn't embrace the faith wholeheartedly like my husband would prefer. The Saudi schools here indoctrinate the students into Islam. So from an early age, the kids learn about the religion and are totally receptive to it. But taking an American teenager who has no real understanding of the religion and plopping him down in Saudi Arabia and expecting him to just swim with the fishes doesn't work. If you're planning on embracing Islam and giving up your religion, I'm sure that will make your husband and his family happy. Good luck with that. But I would recommend doing it before coming to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis' version of Islam is not how Islam is practiced in most other Muslim countries.

Many of the Saudi men who take Western women as their wives change once they get back to the Kingdom. My husband has gotten much more jealous and protective of me since we moved here. And he has gotten much more conservative and thinks that the way things are done here is the law of the land and should not be questioned or challenged - a far cry from his rebellious youth when we first met. Despite having spent thirty years in America, now he seems to be even more conservative than many men who have been in Arabia all their lives! I don’t know if he is just trying to overcompensate for being away for so long, to prove to his family and friends that he is still just as Saudi as he ever was or what. I was a very independent woman in the states and now he often makes me feel like I cannot do anything on my own without his approval or direction. This is not the same man I married.

I remember what it was like to be that young and idealistic, madly in love and feeling that I would follow him to the ends of the earth, if need be, just so we could be together. That no matter where we were, we were in love and we would be happy and nothing else mattered. But the reality is that it takes a whole lot more than love for a relationship to survive, especially in this country. And now, I find myself asking, “Why couldn’t he have been from almost any other country in the world besides Saudi Arabia? Why not Morocco, or Italy, or Australia?” Things would have been so much easier…

I think one of the hardest things to do is to maintain who you are and to be true to yourself once you move here. You will be expected to change and adapt to life here, but losing your identity - those things that make you YOU - is a mistake that I think many Western women who come here make. The way I feel is, if my husband had wanted a Saudi wife, he could have easily married one. Instead he fell in love with me, and just because I am now living on another continent, doesn't change me inside as to who I am. It is very difficult to maintain respect and appreciation for this totally different culture and way of life when there are things you may not agree with or understand. And sometimes it's hard to find the right words so you don't sound like you're complaining or criticizing or offending. I try my best to understand the way they do things here, but it is not easy because it doesn't always make sense.

I hope this has helped. I have tried to be as open and honest as I possibly can. It's no bed of roses coming here. I don't know that there is any one perfect place to live - there are pros and cons to everyplace I guess. It took me a long time to adjust to life in South Florida too - and many people consider that place paradise!

Good Luck to you in whatever the future holds for you.
Best Wishes and Warmest Regards -

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Plea From the Heart

A lthough I may not be a huge fan of organized religion per se, I DO believe in the power of prayer and in miracles. This post is a personal plea from my heart for your prayers for a very special person I greatly admire. The world of my friend and fellow blogger, Carol, who is known in blogging circles as American Bedu, has been turned upside down by illness. But ironically enough, not only is Carol now fighting her second battle with breast cancer in so many years, her husband Abdullah is also in the fight of his life against leukemia.

Carol traveled all over the world in her profession as a foreign diplomat for more than 20 years – an occupation she gave up when she decided to marry Abdullah, who was also a career diplomat. It was the second marriage for both of them. They each have grown children. A few short years ago, the newlyweds settled happily in Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh with their cats, and Carol took a job with a big university hospital. Through her informative, objective, and popular blog, Carol has admirably led the way in sharing the wonders and secrets of Saudi Arabia with the rest of the world.

Carol’s health crisis began less than two years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer after detecting a lump herself through self-examination. She underwent a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and took a regimen of aggressive cancer-fighting drugs here in Saudi Arabia. Carol wrote in depth about this intimately personal experience in a candid post on her blog back in July of 2008.

It was while she was in remission that her husband himself was diagnosed with acute myloid leukemia, a form of cancer that affects the blood. Currently they are both receiving aggressive medical treatments in the United States. Due to the nature of their illnesses and the prescribed chemotherapy treatments, Carol and Abdullah are now being treated in separate cities and staying with family members who have lovingly stepped up to assist with their care. The couple does talk to each other daily on Skype, but imagine how difficult it must be for them to not be physically together during this time and to try to be supportive from afar as their individual treatment regimens ravage their own immune systems. Carol’s pretty blond hair is now gone. She is bald from the chemotherapy – a common side effect.

You can read a very detailed account of the health crisis Carol and her husband are facing right now on a recent post she wrote on American Bedu.

I would like to ask you all to please keep Carol and Abdullah in your thoughts and prayers.

For those of you who would like to take it a step further, I know that receiving your comments, cards, or emails of support and best wishes would make a world of difference in Carol’s life right now.

And to any of you who feel compelled to do even more for this courageous woman, a pretty scarf or a unique hat to keep her now bald head warm, or a good book (she LOVES to read!) would definitely brighten her day and lift her spirits! Be creative!

You can email Carol at:
to get her mailing address if you wish to physically send flowers, scarves, hats, books, or other goodies to her.

Thank you for showing Carol that you care.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Divorce Saudi-Style

Divorce is one of those things, like many in Saudi Arabia, which is exceedingly easy for men to obtain, but quite difficult for women to achieve. When a Saudi man wants a divorce, all he is required to do is to simply say “I divorce you” three times in front of a couple of witnesses (male, of course). However when a woman initiates the divorce in this country, she is required to go through the legal process in court before a male judge, and prove her case, which may or may not result in her desired outcome. Also, for the divorce to be granted, the woman is almost always required to repay the full amount of the dowry paid to her or her family when she was originally married, which could be a considerable amount, and even though she may have been married for many years.

A recent case which made the news here involved a 20-something-year-old young woman who was pressured by her family into marrying an old man in his 80s who already had three wives. The old man had offered to pay a dowry of 50,000 Saudi Riyals (about $13,000 US) to help out her financially strapped family, plus he promised to provide her with her own home – a promise he failed to keep. She had even withdrawn from her educational pursuits at a university in order to get married. So even though the octogenarian lied to his young wife by making empty promises, she cannot get a divorce from him until she repays the dowry, which her family has already spent. In the meantime, the young woman is miserable being married to a dirty old man and has no legal recourse.

A bizarre Saudi divorce case came to light in the spring of 2009 when a Saudi court upheld the divorce of a man who actually texted his wife on her mobile phone that he was divorcing her. Because the darling man had immediately notified two of his friends who were at his wedding as to how he had just divorced his wife via text messaging, the court accepted the manner in which the man chose to divorce his wife and found it perfectly legal and adequate.

Earlier this year a Saudi cleric came out and said that it’s perfectly acceptable, according to Islam, that girls as young as ten can be married, and even added that “those who think she's too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.” Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh’s comments came in the wake of the ensuing uproar caused when a Saudi judge failed to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man. The marriage was arranged by the girl’s father as a way of settling a debt, a fairly common practice among less educated tribes in Saudi Arabia. The outrage sparked by this decision eventually helped get the case assigned to another judge who granted the annulment, but only after the father admitted that perhaps the marriage wasn’t legal in the first place.

So, if Islam says that a woman’s permission is legally required for marriage, how can a father here basically sell his underage daughter into marriage and this act still be considered acceptable according to Islam?

Years ago typical arranged Saudi marriages had a fairly low divorce rate - although this doesn’t necessarily mean happy marriages, since Saudi men are legally allowed up to four wives, and Saudi women have a much more difficult time obtaining divorces than men. Nowadays the divorce rate in Saudi Arabia has increased so alarmingly that it is not all that far behind that of the United States. Some of the possible reasons for this upsurge include polygamy, abuse, age differences, family interference, not religious enough, not responsible enough, or not generous enough, when in fact it could have everything to do with men who are unable to deal with the now educated women of Saudi Arabia.

To read more on this topic, a recent post by Achelois - Raw and Uncut called "The Virgin Bride's New Tricks" discusses a new phenomenon sweeping the Arab world, and Eman over at the SaudiWoman blog posted her excellent take on the realities of Saudi divorce a few months ago.