As students Ellen of Australia (and of the excellent blog Steadily Emerging with Grace) and M of Saudi (now a student in Australia) approach graduation and a new phase in their relationship, they have agreed to tell their personal stories in order to share their journey, and to gain some guidance from the expertise of readers. Here, in their own words, and with some questions for readers, are Ellen in Part I, and M in Part II.
I was born and raised in Western Australia until I was 8. Both of my parents were present until that age, then they separated and my mother moved us (my brother and I) over to NSW which is the other side of the country. It wasn’t difficult for me at the time (I don’t remember thinking about it that much at that age), but looking back I know that was only because my grandfather became like a father figure to me. He was also the one who gave the stamp of approval for M and I.
I suppose the ethnic and religious identity of my family would be WASPs, Protestant Christians, but none of them, save my grandmother, were practicing. My own religious evolution started when I was about 13 or 14, when I decided to be confirmed into the Anglican Church. This was first and foremost something for my grandmother and then I guess after that I started to really think about my new identity as a Christian. I was fine like that for about 3 years. I was about 17 when I started to study Islam. I never questioned Christianity - I still don't. While now I've come to terms with the fact that it might not be for me, I still don't doubt that it is a religion of truth for many people including some members of my family. I don't know what I'd call myself now. I’ve incorporated more Islamic practices and beliefs into my life so I don’t think I’ve completed my evolution.
I met M while he was in a home-stay that was run by my mother's friend. I remember trying to catch his eye and then not getting any “signals” so to speak! Then again, before M I had had no experience with guys whatsoever. My birthday was the week after that (he must have heard about it from the host mother) and he bought me some candles. That was probably how we both knew that something was “brewing”.
I'm not quite sure how our relationship developed to be honest. After we met, both of us spent time away from each other (I was visiting Western Aus and M was back in Saudi Arabia) so I guess it developed with a lot of phone conversations and MSN! Somehow it did evolve into a committed relationship and we have had an Islamic marriage for almost two years now. That was our only option at the time, as M is a Saudi government scholarship student. We still can’t make it fully legal yet as students on a scholarship, as M is, run the high risk of their scholarship being canceled if they marry legally.
I’m very happy we chose to have an Islamic form of marriage, without a full legalization because although the maternal half of my family accepts the idea that this man is my life partner, my father, and his side of the family still find it hard. So going into a legal marriage head on may have really damaged any chances M and I had at getting him and them on our side.
Gosh, hahah. I still have trouble believing that we actually got married. We just had two of M's friends as witnesses and it was in their apartment. I remember thinking “Was that it??”, but I checked with scholars and we did it the right way, and that’s what matters to me. It was in Sydney so we all went to dinner. My mahr was a ring that I always wear.
Our relationship didn't change at all after marriage to be honest. The only difference then was that I think it became more important for his family to know. Now, I’d say our relationship together has improved for the better. We know each other better.
As for future marriage plans, I know what I’d hope for – two weddings, one here in Australia, and one either in Saudi (insha’Allah) or Bahrain. That would be the ideal for us. Right now we’re waiting on the end of year results (as M is supposed to graduate this year) so we’ll only know for sure after that whether M will be finished with his studies and scholarship needs.
We are in Australia at the moment, and after I finish my degree (in another 2 years) we will probably move to wherever M gets the best job, whether that's somewhere here or in the Middle East. Seriously considering the option to live in Saudi was a massive decision. When we first entertained the idea, about a year ago, I remember being very optimistic about it. Then M told me about the persecution that Shia Muslims face in Saudi Arabia. That made it difficult to make the decision – if we had children, what would happen to them? Would they go through what M, for example, has been through? After that, I thought a lot more. I think that I really decided that living there was an option after meeting M’s family. That took away my doubts.
The meeting with M’s family was wonderful. I couldn't have hoped for it to turn out any better! I think M's mum summed it up when she said to a friend of mine: "I used to have two daughters and now I have three". I think that my family suddenly realized that moving to Saudi Arabia was actually a real possibility. Like me, they hadn't realized that that could actually happen. In terms of M and I, there has been a very positive impact. Alhamdulillah his family have accepted me and our relationship, so that has made things between us a lot easier in terms of not carrying any weight on our shoulders!
I guess my own challenges about living in Saudi would be what every woman faces there - getting a job and keeping some sense of independence. I think it would also be a challenge making friends, which is half the reason I visit sites like this blog: because going there thinking “Hey, at least there is a girl who runs a blog who’s getting through it” means that I’m not alone.
M and I have discussed various options regarding employment. I am studying Politics at the moment but will also take a certificate in TESOL after my degree so I will hopefully have more options. We have planned for me to begin working from home if I can’t find something straightaway. As for the independence, I think that will be okay. Bahrain was our trial run, in a sense, in terms of me taking in the sort of environment I’ll be in.
God Willing, we will have children! Raising them, though, that will definitely be a lot harder, as they will have two very different cultures around them. Insha’Allah we will raise them in a family environment, with them having lots of contact with M (as that wasn't something I had with my own father growing up). Insha’Allah they will be raised knowing that they are strong and independent human beings.
I would like to let other couples know that coping with the extended Saudi family won't be that hard if you have his immediate family with you. After all, when you meet the immediate family, they are the ones who will be talking about you to members of the extended family. Their opinion of you matters. BUT it is also not the end of the world if initially, it's a bit hard. Thank God I didn't have that problem when we physically met but I know that in the beginning, it was hard for them to accept us. So it's not abnormal for them to second guess you. I think the most important thing is to take it easy and not to stress. Think about how you’d feel in their situation, but don’t forget that you’re a good person. Be yourself. Don't pretend to be someone that you're not. If you're not religious, don't pretend to be. If you are, don't over-do it to get them to like you. Just be natural. It's easier said than done, but it's important that the struggles you might face don't take a toll on your relationship.
Questions for Readers
To respect our privacy, I won't say how old M and I are (got to keep some things secret) but neither of us is near the 35 years old "approval" age. We know that being younger than that will probably slow down the marriage permission process a lot, but we're trying to be optimistic. I guess I'd like to ask how old any of the readers were/are when their permission was granted, and how old they were/are when they applied?
Should we start with the Saudi Embassy in Australia?
What main differences can I expect between what I saw of life in Bahrain, and life in the nearby Eastern Province, or the rest of Saudi?
Any other recommendations for Ellen and M on how to best carry out the marriage permission process in their circumstances?
What can they do now to facilitate an eventual transition to life in Saudi Arabia?
Any other comments, thoughts, or similar experiences?
*Ellen and I share a passion for flowers and florals--as is evident on her beautiful blog Steadily Emerging With Grace--as well as an interest in history. I was happy to learn she shared my love of the prints of Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), painter and botanist, who is particularly well known for developing the stippling technique that makes these illustrations so nuanced in colour, and for his roses as reproduced here. Redouté was the illustrator for the Royal Gardens of Marie Antoinette; and, unlike her, survived the French Revolution to become a botanical illustrator for the République Française and the Empress Joséphine. He accompanied Napoléon on his expedition to Egypt, where it was Redouté’s delightful task to record exotic flora in his exquisite, and exquisitely accurate, style.
Coming next...Part II M's Story!