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Archive for the ‘Saudi Culture’ Category

Driving Miss Saudi.

This week there was an interesting development in the case for Saudi women driving in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi woman, Manal al-Sharif, made a daring statement to the country and to the world by videoing herself driving around her city of Dhahran and posting it on YouTube (in Arabic).

The Al Jazeera news report in English provides a good summary of the story.

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I guess some people are probably wondering what it is like living in the Middle East right now. As you all know, there has been a bit of a change in the environment over here as of late. First Tunisia, then Egypt and now rumours of protests in almost every Middle Eastern and Northern African country, the current frontier being Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. Each nation choosing their own method of demonstration and each leadership responding in very different ways. I don’t know how much these events are now being discussed in the media outside the Middle East as I am sure the rest of the world got their revolution fix from the Egyptian uprising. Although I am sure that the amusing and also horrifying antics of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya are bringing people back in. Over here it fills approximately 80% of the news hour and has been since that first day the Tunisians decided to stand up to their leader.

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One can be forgiven, having never been to Saudi Arabia before, to not fully understand the extent of construction that is occurring at this point in time in the country. In fact the first thing a new arrival will see when leaving King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh is the phenomenal amount of construction taking place to develop Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Women. To create some kind of comparison, many people will have either seen or at least be aware of the amount of construction that is occurring in the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. In Riyadh the construction effort is of a similar nature, except that instead of building up they are building out. In fact Riyadh only has two notable skyscrapers in the city, Kingdom Tower and Faisaliah Tower, separated by about four city blocks from each other in downtown Olaya. These two towers form a prominent part of the Riyadh sky line, which actually makes navigating quite simple as one can always tell which part of the city they are in in relation to where they see the towers.

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An interesting idea was bought up by my Mum while I was back in Australia. After having suffered a fairly nasty infection a few months earlier, I decided to pay a visit to my doctor in Australia, while on vacation, to get some standard tests to ensure that I didn’t have any residual side effects from my sickness. When I returned from the doctor my Mum asked me whether I had gotten my Vitamin D levels checked. It seems like a strange request given I live in probably one of the sunniest countries in the world but in reality its quite a valid suggestion.

Due to the rules of modesty here in Saudi Arabia it is not considered appropriate for a woman to show any part of her body in public. This can go so far as to include the face, hands and feet. Therefore, unless in the privacy of her own home a woman would never be showing a large enough amount of skin to reap the benefits of UV exposure, resulting in healthy Vitamin D synthesis. The other option is to eat lots of oily fish, milk and eggs, which have Vitamin D in much smaller amounts and while milk and eggs are definitely staples in Arabic cuisine, I’ve seen very little fish on the menu.

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As an Australian in Saudi Arabia there is one thing I continue to struggle with and that is the statement: “This is our culture. That’s just the way it is.”

That’s not to say that Australians don’t have culture. To list a few things I think are part of our culture as a whole: Having a laugh (often at our own expense), backing the underdog, cutting down tall poppies, and sometimes drinking a little too much and getting a bit rowdy. That’s just the way we are. Now it’s also not surprising that many Aussies would ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ for a minute when posed with the question of our culture. With such a big country at our disposal there’s even mini-cultural differences between each of the states. Brisbane locals are different to those in Adelaide or Perth and when it comes to Melbourne and Sydney, well don’t even get me started. However, us Australians, whether we came to Australia voluntarily or not, have only been able to call our patch of soil home for just over 200 years. Historically, we’ve barely even had the time to settle in, let alone develop a national identity. (I don’t include the Aboriginal community in these generalisations as they have been around for a lot longer and do have their own distinct culture.)

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I thought I would continue on the topic of clothing and write a little about the one piece of clothing that us women in Saudi Arabia do not have the option of going without, the abaya. I expect for most of the non-Saudi residents who read this the idea of wearing a black robe every time that you are outside turns your stomach. Sure, its cumbersome, restrictive and not in the least way flattering (that’s kind of the point) but its the way of life here and a tradition that’s impossible to get around. However, instead of focusing on the negatives, because they’re pretty obvious and a little boring to write about, I thought that I would highlight some of the positives about our mandatory dress code.

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In response to some very concerning reports of Western women being attacked at malls in Riyadh, women are being cautioned against appearing too conspicuous in these areas. This begs the question, should Western women start wearing a head scarf (or hijab) while out at this time?

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