Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Dangerous Cultural Extreme?

There are many unusual and sometimes bizarre cultural occurrences in Saudi Arabia that make the news here on a daily basis. Today I read about a medical emergency at an all-girls’ high school here in Jeddah. The incident involved a student who had an epileptic seizure which was witnessed by several other students who promptly fainted. Medical assistance was summoned.

Now let me just interject here that there are no co-ed Saudi schools here beyond about age 7. In girls’ schools, all teachers and administrators are also female, and in boys’ schools, the teachers are all male. This is because of the strict societal norms here of segregating the sexes in social situations.

Apparently four all-male paramedical teams from four different local hospitals rushed to the school, only to be turned away by the female principal because she wouldn’t allow men in her school. The principal demanded that an all-female team be dispatched.

About an hour later, an all-female rescue team did arrive at the school and was allowed access to treat the female students.

This incident reminded me of the girls’ school fire in Makkah in 2002 when fourteen girls perished after being locked into the burning building by religious police on the scene who refused to let the desperate girls out to safety because their hair wasn’t properly covered according to Islam.

Maybe this latest incident wasn’t a clear-cut matter of life-or-death, but it was a medical emergency involving several students. So at what point does this strict interpretation of cultural segregation of the sexes become too extreme, dangerous and senseless? What is more important – saving a life or enforcing a cultural rule that could result in the loss of life?


  1. All I can say is that this is a sad commentary on the value of human life.
    Why people put up with this is beyond me. Anyone living there who is from another culture must be horrified by some of the values and practices. I know that I would end up in jail for fighting this.

  2. A century ago, there may have been an excuse for this kind of behavior. There was no such thing as an modern ambulance with all the equipment. Today that is different. A rapid response can make a difference. Not allowing male ems workers to assist is just backwardness.

  3. This is nonsense !

    And as a western woman -I can not begin to understand the logic, in gender segregation during a medical emergency.
    The only thing revealed is the young woman's hair - she is not in a swim suit - more than likely she is in a conservative uniform.
    How would have her father reacted if it were life or death ?? Better for 4 strange men to see her hair and save her life ..... or 4 female medics who have arrived too late only to find her DEAD ??

    Gender segregation in Arab and Mid east countries is such an obsession - if men cannot control there urges amongst a womans arm or a string of her hair - more education needs to be in place regarding self control. After all isn't that a very big component of any faith, including Islam?

  4. Wow Susie that is a sad state that doesn't value human life. I would think even in Saudi that human life is something to value and not be wasted!

  5. sadly Susie they haven't learn from the makkah tragedy and there will always be those who are so narrow minded, that they distort our religion at the lives of innocents

  6. KSA needs to give its doctors the respect they deserve!
    if they went through medical school and are currently a doctor....they are their to help! GENDER SHOULDNT BE AN ISSUE!!!

    i know that the more important is to take care of the children...but it seems that in some siuations ...if youflip the consequence...maybe people will see how stupid it is.....and its stupid to to prevent care based on segregation.

  7. Unbelievable that they can justify letting a human being die because their heads were not covered properly. Who removed the bodies? If a man had to, did he go in with his eyes closed??? It’s a crazy country!

  8. Wow that is sad... What really gets me is that it was the female principle that enforced this.

  9. This particular situation you described seems to have more to do with a particular principal lacking in a sufficiently nuanced understanding of segregation even where it is practiced very conservatively, ie medical emergencies allow for leeway; and the health care providers intervene only to the extent necessary, eg. in an epileptic seize, first aid treatment doesn't require anyone's awrah to be shown to anyone.

  10. That is insane..Have people no common sense. I could not imagine having a daughter live that way.

  11. Astaghfirullah, this is absolutely, positively WRONG. It is despicable that this principal was more concerned about maintaining modesty than getting the treatment this girl needed. Please be assured that Islam does not in any way condone what she did. Saving a human life is always more important than modesty rules. Even the Salafis, the most conservative group of Muslims that are prevalent in Saudi Arabia, agree that saving a life trumps all rules, even if it means doing something ordinarily haram (forbidden), because it is being done out of necessity.

  12. Absurd and extreme bordering on stupid, ignorant fools.
    No where in the religion does it say to risk life over showing some hair for goodness sake. The thing about these religious police is that they are usually poorly educated fools and many ex prisoners, stupid breeds stupid.

    I have met many people who have gone the ultra extreme way, only when they have lived a life of committing sin, they over compensate and suddenly become powerful ones(in their own heads).

    Just because they cant control their desires and are weak of mind doesn't mean they have a right to shove their guilt and ignorant values onto other poor unsuspecting souls, risking their lives.

  13. Wow, thanks for posting this story. I hadn't heard about this. The covering and segregation is such an obsession, as one person already stated. I'm sure the male paramedics were professionals who wanted to provide care to the girls. I'm just guessing here that seeing the girls uncovered would probably not have sent the paramedics into an uncontrolled sexual frenzy. We should have a little more faith in ourselves (men and women). I doubt that there is anywhere in Islam that states separation must be maintained even in medical emergencies. I doubt any caring God would want these girls to suffer. The culture can be respected while also respecting human life.

  14. very sad. THe principal was probably afraid for herself too; what would the conseqences be later for her when the authorities find out she let in male paramedics into her all-girls school.

  15. Yet another absudity. And I suppose there are a very limited number of female paramedics as that would require getting an education and possibly mixing with men. Pretty twisted.

  16. it's so sad. hopefully this principle will be punished. another stroy about the stupidity here .

  17. Pretty scary.
    BTW, are those badges pictured for real?

  18. I don't understand. This sort of behavior isn't even in accordance with Islam. I'm not Muslim (I'm a Christian), but I believe that there is but one God. I refuse to believe that He wouldn't want innocent children to suffer. We are to all help each other, no matter the case. Covering is a social construct, derived from the male's need to (guess what?) feel more secure about paternity and inheritance issues (pre-DNA tests, etc.) Please understand, I have nothing against those who choose to cover. I view it as a respectful, and in most cases beautiful, alternative to what modern society offers to women. But this nonsense of denying medical care to an adolescent, because she isn't covered...EXTREMELY UNACCEPTABLE! I'd like to see someone draft some sort of law, preventing ANYONE from denying medical treatment/safety to any person based on gender.

  19. One of the problems in understanding how this society functions is that there is such a blur between what is cultural and what is religion-based behavior. People here tend to point to culture as the reason for this type of thing, however somehow it always seems to be partially attributed in some way to a twisted interpretation of the religion.

    To UmmOmar - There should be clearcut guidelines for medical emergencies and life-or-death situations so that the principal shouldn't have to worry about any backlash in the aftermath.

    To Dina - I found them on EBay! They are real medical badges that are also collectibles.

  20. Islamic medical ethics is very clear on this point of attending to the opposite gender in an emergency situation...even in Iran where medicine is more highly segregated than in Saudi. The problem is that the principal doesn't know it, or her higher ups don't. That much should be part of the "pamphlet to be a principal" or "checklist of emergency procedures".

    Susie--I would be surprised if such Orientalist badges, as intriguing and colourful as they are, are part of official Saudi medicine, which in other settings prides itself on up to date sophistication including in tertiary care. Let me know if you find out anything more. Thanks.

  21. It's utter insanity!
    I'm really grateful for your blog, it's a fascinating read for me here in Australia. A world away in so many ways.

  22. I think that this obsession actually alters the minds of young women and men today. For example, most of the locals here in Abu Dhabi are so desperate to communicate or be near a woman that they actually go to any public place, sit there and STAAAAAARE. Soooo creepy!!! I was at the beach with my son and I looked up and saw 2 locals standing there just STAAAAARING -- I was like "WTH?!" Then they run off as soon as I noticed them.

    My bro-in-law, who is a doctor, also believes that this type of segregation is unhealthy and can lead to mental problems.

  23. Hi Aalia - I totally agree with your bro-in-law. The segregation seems to make people dysfunctional and obsessed with sex - just based on my observations.

  24. I have to agree with Um Omar's comment about the principal being worried about the backlash had she let the male paramedics into the school. Would you be able to get an interview from the principal regarding her take on the story and her views? Just a thought...

    I never realized how far segregation went on there, but surely this is truly stretching it!

  25. That's so disgusting what's happening in Saudi-Arabia. :(
    I wonder how you can live there having a good conscience, adapting to those anti-humanic, anti-social "rules".
    I could never live there: here in Germany whether I wear a mini-skirt, a hijab or just jeans and t-shirt, I was never harassed, disturbed or molested by any man, neither as a child nor as a young woman nor as now being fully grown.
    Besides just ONE situation which involved - oh, how surprising - some MUSLIM men, who were not born in Germany, who grabbed my behind when I was just 12 years old, still playing with child's games, not even a little bit grown to being a woman as I was very late and didn't have my menstruation or anything at all at that time. Basically I was a little child that was molested by MUSLIMS.
    Never in my now 38-years here on earth did that ever happen to me with western or christian men.
    Sad but true.

  26. Oh for heaven's sake, Susie. Doesn't stuff like this just make you crazy? It sounds so absurb. I believe in respecting religious differences but this is going too far.

  27. Dear Susie, how useful it is for us to have you as a reporter! We get to learn so much, I'm really grateful for the work you do.

    Yet I find extremely difficult to understand how you can live there. This is so disheartening and bloody stupid. I'm trying to find a way to say it that wouldn't sound too judgemental but I can't.

  28. I don't think that God would want a woman to die because there are no female paramedics etc. I don't think he cares who comes to the rescue of a woman in need of medical help and would applaud whom ever man or woman who come to the aid of someone in need. This girl could have died and I just don't believe that god would condone the decision of this principal.

  29. Is it just me or does no one else find odd that some of girls that witnessed the seizure fainted. If I had seen this as school girl I most certainly would have been frightened, I may have even cried but I'm certain that I would not have fainted. Are young girls trained to be hysterics, dramatics or overly reactive. Just curious.

  30. How sad, just a question, if the female principle was to let the male paramedic team in, would she have been punished.

    I am still in amazement that the girls died because they didnt have their hair covered properly I hope one day that these rules can be changed.

  31. Humanitarianism is suppose to out weigh stupidity, right?

    This scares me....

    Makes me sad....

    Very sad....

    What can be done to change this?


  32. Susie - This is a very bold article you wrote thank you. I discussed this article with many of my Saudi friends and we all condemn what some of our people carry out in our society. It is not you who was surprised about the culture that is making one of the richest nations in the world to be the most backward culturally, it was also us Saudis that were astonished because this is something we do not see every day. Our media focuses on things that do not occur constantly, just as you pointed in this article. There are many cases when male medics had to help schoolgirls, but this incident was unusual therefore it was mentioned in the newspaper just like the horrific incident in Makka. My aunt is a principal at a public school and she told me what that principal did was subhuman.

  33. Hi AnnMarie - I could try to speak to the principal, but I don't know that she would be willing...

    Hi Anon @10:49AM - Going back to Aalia's comment, I really think that segregating the sexes to such an extreme as is done here in the KSA is unhealthy and unnatural and causes more problems than what it is intended to prevent.

    Hi Kay & Nathalie - I have to say that I am treated very well here and have it pretty good, despite my not being totally thrilled about certain aspects of life here.

    Hi Anon @4:35PM - I too thought it strange that so many girls fainted. It makes me wonder if somehow it goes back to the religion which repeatedly reinforces how emotional and childish women are and that they need to be sheltered due to their weaknesses - and fainting like that is just the girls buying into that theory.

  34. Hi N-Peace - I think continuing to bring these cases to light will help so that hopefully it will help to bring about change.

    Hi Majed - Thank you for your input as a Saudi man - I know that there are many forward thinking Saudis whose views are overshadowed when something like this happens, so thanks for speaking up.

  35. Totally unfair! Foul and wrong.

  36. ME (ANON) again. If women and the powers that be seem to accept that women are childish, hysterical etc., is there any wonder why it is illegal for them to drive?? I live here, I'm American, I hate being so isolated, but truly the lawlessness of the highways does not make me want to drive here. But If the women here are that silly (I don't know a better word than that), I don't want them on the road. For reals.

  37. Unbelievable. I can't believe you choose to live in that country.

  38. Majed--excellent points. Thank you for sharing them and your aunt's far more intelligent, compassionate and Islamic response.

  39. Pretty sad situation....just a thought the paramedic rescue team was all female but what about the driver (a man of course)...the principal demamded an all female team but this team shared a tiny space (the ambulance) with an unrelated mam!!!!!

    Here in Europe there are several muslims that pretend that a female doctor attend their wives and sadly sometimes they became violent because there's no female doctor around...

  40. 'Are young girls trained to be hysterics, dramatics or overly reactive'

    I agree with Anon that the fainting was almost more disturbing to me than the medics being turned away. I mean seriously, what the heck? The Arab/Muslim world seems to be full of a bunch of Aunt Pittypats! I can't imagine that it is real. Thank God the mother's have nannies to take care of their kids, I mean what if something happened to one of them, are they going to care for them or faint? PUH-leeze!

  41. Maybe a half men-women will be useful, haha

  42. Nice story Susie.

    But logic is seldom a winning argument in Saudi, is it?

    I liked the point made by Gaelyn on how does one get female paramedics and Doctors in the first place... You've gotta laugh. Did Kafka ever spend time in the Middle East?

  43. @aalia,
    segregation of the sexes is important but there is another aspect which is crucial to it working and that is the lowering of the gaze.
    people who think imposing gender mixing will create a more balanced situation are wrong. The men will stay exactly the same and will just have more opportunities to undress women with their eyes.

  44. As a retired NYC paramedic, I am dumbfounded by this, but had an incident once back in the mid 90's, which was my first exposure to something similar.

    We had a woman, apparently Muslim, who was in cardiac arrest. Her husband was trying to block us from starting treatment, as we had to remove her blouse, bra, and any other clothing necessary in order to get IV access, and perform CPR. He tried to stop us, and we literally had to throw him out of the way in order to start resuscitating the woman. He was restrained by cops and relatives, all the time yelling at us, saying he only wanted a female paramedic to touch his wife. Before anyone asks, no, there was no time to wait.

    Even his relatives could not make him understand that this was a matter of life and death, and that modesty was hardly the issue. He finally calmed down, but I don't think he ever quite grasped the fact that his wife's heart stopped beating, and any delay in treating her was only making the situation worse.

  45. A Canadian ReaderJan 22, 2010, 1:18:00 AM

    Backward, misogynistic, inhuman, unthinkable, just plain ridiculous.

    But you know, I don't blame the principal. I'm sure she was more terrified of what could happen to her than seeing that child die.

    Truly a twisted, insane place.

  46. Mr Nighttime--An interesting case. I wonder if at some level he did realize that his wife's heart had stopped, and that this was the only thing he felt he could do for her in his misguided desperation to be helpful. Rather like the Canadian woman who kept feeding her husband her home cooking even though it had been explained to her many times that he was to take nothing by mouth and that he had TPN instead. Social work was finally called, but obviously it was the only way she thought as a loving wife that she could do something to help him and ease her own anxiety/grief.

  47. These same hysterical drama Mamas will gut a lamb and clean parts of it that I can't even look at - like it's nothing. The society has two faces.

  48. You get your kids out of those clothes! That line of thinking may be contagious, I suggest you enroll them in the co-ed school in Jeddah. They'll have a chance at having a somewhat normal life, they even have choir practice!

  49. this is SICK!

    our society is always spinning around SEX!




    soon to come MALE TOWN, FEMALE TOWN!

    this is cuz most people them SELF don't and can't trust or should i say control their own ANIMAL Instincts. and thats always the excuse! the person might get crazy when been alone with the opposite sex!

    I been sick and tired if hearing and seeing such things in my own country.

    things need to be changed and changed FAST!

    it's changing but not as we hope it to be.

    me saying this might make people target ME and anti-islam, or i don't have pride,
    man whats good is my pride if i can't even help, or at least do my JOB! or a snob won't let a paramedic help my mother or sister cuz of her SEX!

    it make me think with high penalty on adultery and anything sexual nature, people will do whats right, we should have faith in people.

    so let the girl DIE!!! cuz there is no FEMALE paramedic!!! this is SAD.

    you know whats the sad part, the solution, the amount of money will be spent to ensure this would never happen again, hiring doctors or nurses in schools, which will take years.... since we are already short handed in that sector >.<

    clear a room, make a way and let the men do what the were trained to do.

  50. Why would you say, "...refused to let the desperate girls out to safety because their hair wasn’t properly covered according to Islam" when what you really mean is, "...refused to let the desperate girls out to safety because their hair wasn’t properly covered according to the Wahhabi government of Saudia"?

    KSA doesn't represent Islam, it represents a twisted political ideology that most of the rest of the world's Muslims do NOT want to have any part of. So please, don't lump Saudi madness in with Islam, because these people do not represent us. Maybe of you knew more non-Saudi Muslims, you'd be aware that KSA is the most despised of all the Arab states.