Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Not "Lady-Like!"

n investigation is underway regarding a shocking and controversial sporting competition that was held recently here in Jeddah. Shocking? Yes - because the event was for females (for shame!) and the event organizers failed to obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Education. Which begs the question: Are male sporting events subject to the same restrictions? Somehow I doubt it. Female sports here in Saudi Arabia are practically non-existent because girls’ athletics are frowned upon by religious clerics and many old-fashioned Saudi men as being “unlady-like,” among other ridiculous reasons.

The illegal and contentious sporting event – thought to be the first of its kind in the Kingdom - was held on December 8th at Effat University and included competition in such unlady-like sports such as swimming, basketball, and badminton for some 200 young high school women representing six different Jeddah girls’ schools.

In the aftermath of the tournament, a member of the Board of Directors of one of the participating schools claims they had received more than 60 “anonymous” complaints about girls participating in sports.

All this commotion comes at the heels of another report out of Iran where a Muslim cleric condemned women’s sports and forbade Iranian females from participating in the Asian Games. He was quoted as saying that women’s sports are a product of the West’s “dirty” culture and should be shunned. I want to know, exactly what is “dirty” about women’s sports?

This is 2010, almost 2011. It is common knowledge in this day and age that regular exercise promotes good health, weight control, and a sense of well-being. Yet for the girls and women of the kingdom, these facts don’t matter and aren’t considered important.

Last year I wrote about how the government cracked down on women’s gyms across Saudi Arabia, closing down countless women’s facilities if they were not properly licensed and if they were not affiliated with a hospital, while there are no such restrictions placed on men’s gyms. The closing of these facilities drove up membership costs and made it impossible for many Saudi women to be able to afford going to a gym. And it’s already hard enough for women to try to exercise in this country as it is. Women here are forbidden from swimming (well they can, if they are fully covered), riding bicycles (too provocative as it reveals the female's behind), or playing sports in public. Saudi Arabia has been long criticized for denying Saudi women from particpating in the Olympics and other sporting events.

Physical Education classes in girls’ schools are a very low priority. You won’t believe some of the ludicrous reasons given for why girls shouldn’t be allowed to participate in sports or exercise in school: The female hymen might break during exercise so the girl wouldn’t be considered a virgin anymore. “Good girls” would never disrobe outside their own home, not even to change into gym clothes at school. If girls did disrobe in front of other girls at school, they might get turned on and have nasty thoughts that they may want to act upon. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

All this craziness aside, women’s obesity is becoming a major health crisis here in Saudi Arabia, evident in the dramatic increases in diabetes, hypertension, depression, and other weight-related health issues. For the most part, women here lead a very sedentary lifestyle – many don’t even do any physical household chores because they have maids.

This antiquated mindset of restricting women from exercise and sports places Saudi Arabia way behind the times in promoting women’s health and well-being.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trust in Business

The other evening, my husband and I went out just to walk around at a small local mall here in Jeddah. I like to look at the traditional long dresses that many women wear here, so we went into one of the small dress shops in the mall so I could take a look. Many of the traditional dresses are embroidered, or embellished with beading.

I found three that I liked - and you've heard me complain about this before - but generally there are no dressing rooms here for women to try on clothing.

I've been given many excuses for why there are no dressing rooms for women in clothing shops here in this country, ranging from the problem with women shoplifting clothing by just putting it on underneath their big black abayas, to the potential problem of men sales clerks molesting women who are undressed in the dressing rooms. FYI - there ARE no women sales clerks allowed in Saudi Arabia - don't get me started! Suffice it to say that this country is big on "prevention" when it comes to the matter of women and sex, no matter how remote the possibility of whatever it is that might occur.

Anyway, back to my story... I guess business was rather slow that night, so I figure that this shopkeeper was anxious to make a sale.

What he did next almost floored me.

He took the three dresses off the hangers, folded them nicely and put them in a bag for me. In Arabic he told my husband, "Take the dresses home and let your wife try them on. Keep what she likes and bring back what she doesn't want. Then you just pay me for what you keep."

He took no money.
He didn't ask for my husband's name or phone number.
He didn't make a note of the merchandise that we walked out of the store with.
He didn't request that we bring the money or the items back by any particular date.

I'm still shocked.

Would a scenario like this ever happen where YOU live?

(NOTE: The dresses shown in this post are from

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Life of a Camel Herder

Just a few minutes by car from the busy seaport city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, are many outposts where the native one-hump dromedary camels live, herded in by rickety barbed wire corrals. Fresh and frothy warm camel’s milk is available for sale (about $5 US per gallon), and for very special occasions, one can also buy whole camels for their lean meat as well (about $1000 US).

However some camels can fetch a much higher price for their great beauty – earlier this year at the famous King Abdul Aziz Festival, the camel beauty contest offered prizes totaling 70 million Saudi Riyals (that’s 14 million Euros).

But this story is about Hussan. He is from Sudan and he is a camel herder. He is a content man with simple needs, not many worries, and very limited means. His cheeks are freshly shaven and his graying mustache and beard are neatly trimmed. He has beautiful white teeth and a ready smile. I have to admit that not all the camel herders I have seen here are as clean and well kempt as Hussan.

Hussan and several other men from Sudan take care of a herd of probably more than a hundred camels altogether. They feed and water the camels every day and milk them on the spot when a customer comes by and requests fresh camel milk, which is arguably a healthier alternative to cow's milk. It is very nutritious, and compared to cow's milk, is higher is Vitamin C and is more easily digested, which makes it better for those who are lactose intolerant. Another interesting fact about camel's milk is that is doesn't curdle! It also has wonderful health benefits, such as controlling diabetes due to its high concentration of insulin and being great for one's skin because its content is so high in fatty acids like lanolin. Camel milk is an important dietary staple for many people in the world.

The camel herders live out in the scorching desert heat with the camels that they tend, in very primitive and simple living arrangements.

Not far from the stately luxurious palaces and the spacious tiled villas of Jeddah is where Hussan and the others live on the outskirts of the city. It is just a few feet from where the camels sleep in their barbed wire corrals. The camel herders’ shelter is built from odd and ends of discarded wood, plastic and canvas tarps, and several large old prayer rugs. If you look closely, you can just barely see part of an old Saudi style bed frame where he sleeps. I saw at least one more bed inside, and there might even be a third. The beds are elevated from the desert sand floor and are covered with old bedding.

The harsh climate of Hussan's humble desert abode must be brutal for him to tolerate especially in summer’s hottest months, yet his warm smile and polite demeanor always greet his customers unfailingly. I saw large water jugs about, but I'm not sure how or where he and the others bathe. I also noticed a large white tent nearby that might possibly be used for their toiletry needs, and there were buildings off in the distance, including a mosque, not too far of a walk away.

Several of these makeshift shaded bunks where the camel herders nap were here and there, crudely built of old pieces of wood and draped with various fabrics and bedding. You can click on the photos to enlarge them, and in this one you can see one of the guys actually napping inside the shaded bunk.

I also saw in the surrounding desert area several pieces of dusty old discarded furniture that the camel herders could use for resting. It's common to see old furniture outside apartment buildings and businesses in the city, where the building caretakers can sit.

The life of a camel herder must be very tough and physically grueling, but from all outward appearances, they all seem very happy to me. There is something to be said for their non-materialistic simple lifestyle without the pressures and trappings of a modern-day existence.