One of the main themes of the Saudi blogosphere is the Western, often American, wife of a Saudi and the challenges for her of living there, no matter what the stage of the marriage and whether there are children or not. The pattern is often that of a male Saudi student abroad who meets and charms a female Western student; they develop a relationship, which is then challenged by the end of his studies and the planned return home. Often at this point, as at all major transition periods, a number of highly divergent alternatives are contemplated--hopefully by both together, but sometimes each independently of the other.
Where the relationship breaks down, there is often a great deal of hurt for both, although at least superficially the man seems to move on faster than the woman--getting a job, and marrying a partner acceptable to the family, while the Western woman is still recovering from her shock and pain. She remains for a considerable time perplexed and hurt that what seems increasingly, in retrospect, like a perfect relationship is aborted because of family, Saudi law, finances, and marriage permission refusals--or worse, a new or newly discovered betrothed. Sometimes a third element of the couple dyad is involved--a child, or an interrupted pregnancy.
Where the relationship moves forward, there are the challenges of family approvals, marriage permission approvals, and visas (Iqamas) to sort out. There are further challenges of work and educational opportunities in Saudi for Western women, and general lifestyle considerations. Even where the family is and remains supportive, so much family, so close emotionally and physically, and so influential, is a major hurdle psychologically and socially. Where to live can be a dilemma; and whether to live geographically, emotionally, and physically in close relationship to the “in-laws”, can be another foreign concept to women expecting independent living arrangements and independent decision-making about the major and minor issues of their couple. Certainly most don’t expect that brothers, sisters, and cousins-in-law, that is, generational peers, will have so much influence on their life decisions and happiness. Also aunts, uncles, and grandparents may weigh in, in addition to parents.
Transportation becomes a major issue: women are not allowed to drive, but public transportation is poor as well; hiring a driver is not a financial option for all. Driving and walking conditions are both hazardous, in part due to road conditions, in part due to overzealous “admirers”. Being driven and wanting to be driven becomes a source of tension in a relationship where previously it was a non-issue. Transportation directly affects opportunities for study, work, and socialization, ultimately impacting on mental health and feelings of isolation, being devalued, and low self-esteem.
The abaya, the long cloak, which is socially enforced, and predominantly in black, is a source of stress, distress and complaint. Somehow Western women never seem to be able to find one that fits, is safe to wear, has a proper hem, is a proper weight and breathability for the weather, and isn’t loathed as “the black bag”, although the black is not required--or at least one sometimes gets this impression from reading posts in the Saudi blogosphere. Similarly, a headscarf, socially enforced in some places, even for Western non-Muslims, is much resented. Some husbands are more demanding about the degree of cover for their Western wives than others; and, more importantly, than their wives would be if left to choose what would be the minimum to keep them safe from the Muttawa.
Underpinning all is the need for a mahrem’s approval to do anything: study, work, go out, travel abroad, receive medical care; and the imbalance of power created by the presence of a lot of family for one, and none for the other, and by family law around child custody, divorce, widowhood, and inheritance. The Saudi husband might use these as leverage to impose his will, or as a background threat, one that even he may live under from family and society: make the Western wife conform--by all means necessary--or else suffer ostracism and shame.
Perhaps that is why it sometimes seems as if the Western wives of Saudi men are stuck in a perpetual recycling of 1970’s American feminism: the binary opposition of men and women’s interests, the insistence on the right to adult decision-making, the triumph in small clothing victories like going headscarf-less or abaya-less, or not in black. In fact, it may be the feminism that suits conditions for them in Saudi best.
Not "Ladies", Women! Friedan's landmark book
Cesar Chavez (United Farm Workers) and Gloria Steinem (Ms Magazine), leftist social activists
Then there is the much dreaded “Saudi husband’s cultural reversion”. On returning to his home culture, a seemingly Westernized Saudi man will suddenly revert to cultural type, as if he had never been abroad--patriarchal, authoritarian, unhelpful, always out with the guys, obedient to mother first, family second, and considering the Western wife dead last. No amount of sacrifice seems sufficient to appease this demanding, imperious god of house and home. Depression, rebellion, and resignation make no impact on his silent austere demeanor. At some point he will either succumb to family pressure and callously divorce this difficult person his wife has become, or take a 2nd wife, formally or less formally, inside the country or out, as part of his right, or his mid-life crisis, or just because he can.
Yet, on the other hand, many insist that, despite all, “my Saudi” is different, trying his best, worth the suffering, the man loved above all others, who will eventually accommodate the wife. Sometimes “my Saudi” isn’t the problem, but the rest of the Saudis, and Saudi culture, laws, society, as well as the family--all of it or some members. Sometimes “my Saudi” is the only perfect man on earth, but happens to come from a lamentably backward place, which one must learn to observe in a bemused way, while seeking solace from fellow sufferers of life in the Kingdom--a place where wealth doesn’t buy happiness, but certainly helps it along, where inexplicable juxtapositions occur, where nothing makes sense except in a magic realism sort of way--rather vintage colonialism, come to think of it.
What is ultimately most striking is that this portrait is entirely drawn by the Western wives themselves. In the discussion of marriage to a Westerner and living in Saudi, the Saudi husbands are absent from the blogosphere, at least in posting and commenting directly. With the exception of the occasional comment from Nzingha’s husband Mr Man, on her blog Nzingha’s Soapbox, defending himself about some action or inaction that has the commentators all riled up, or M’s post here as a Saudi husband of a Western wife, Ellen, who might eventually live in Saudi, these Saudi men don’t speak up for themselves. They don’t say that they are being misinterpreted, or are justified, or are as challenged by the culture as their wives are, or feel caught between wife and family, or between their own bi-cultural formation, or between their own desires and duties to others; or that they are happy as clams, and the crabs can leave, without their crabettes.
Part of this is understandable due to the fact that the Saudi husbands are working to maintain their wives and children. Some of it may be explained by the greater tendency of women and Westerners to share this type of information with others, whether using a blogonym or not. Some of it may be genetically coded on the Y chromosome, as cross-culturally men are less likely than women to share these types of feelings and thoughts on an ongoing basis, rather than when in extremis; and some of it may reflect different Arab-Western cultural values about privacy.
Based on discussions with men, whether personal or professional, and with other Arab Muslim men as well as Saudis, it seems to me that it would be important for the benefit of all if these men were more willing to share their perspective, and give voice to their side of the story. To break the current deafening silence, I would like to share some related themes and examples, in the hopes that others will comment on their experiences or give their thoughts. Who knows, maybe some Saudi husband of a Western woman, home from work, and surfing the net, will drop in and comment.
In general, the type of difficulties I hear from men, whether successful professional men in therapy, or friends, includes a desire to do well by everyone in their lives; and a feeling that they are faced with a losing proposition, or at best a Sisyphean task. Like Sisyphus--the figure of Greek mythology condemned to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to have it roll down again, and have to start over--sometimes men feel that their life is one of sacrifice to their role as provider, and of role stress as the man between mother and wife, or family of origin (parents and siblings) and their wife and children.
“Don’t make me choose!” exploded one Asian-American (Catholic) man in therapy, dropping his MBA executive façade in an imaginary dialogue with his mother, who was in reality plaguing him from half way around the world about the social inferiority of his wife: right ethnicity and religion, wrong social class, and wrong lifestyle choice as a stay at home wife and mother, rather than a supermom specialist physician-mother like herself. It mattered little to mother that the husband and wife were very happy with the choices they had made together.
For someone who could handle international financial transactions worth mega-bucks while in a permanent state of high flying executive jet lag, he seemed to have a great deal of difficulty with a woman on email and the phone. Ah, but the woman was MOTHER, and he was trying to do the near impossible: keep mother and wife, who are direct opposites of each other, both happy with him, and even harder, with each other. On the other hand, an internal medicine subspecialist superwoman mother from a traditional culture and armed with modern communication technologies is a formidable force!
His fear about being forced to choose was that he would be choosing his wife, and he didn’t want to hurt or lose his mother. After that one outburst, he put himself back together, and took a promotion to Singapore, marginally farther away from his mother in the US than Hong Kong was, but too far for us to continue his therapy, so I referred him to a colleague there. Since he was happy with his wife, I am hoping he figured out a way to handle his mother--short of blocking her communications.
In Canada, a man from a Middle Eastern country asked if I could see him and his new wife in therapy as she seemed depressed, and the marriage was in trouble within the first 6 months. For a number of reasons, I offered just to talk to him as a friend, and refer them to therapy if need be. He had lived in England with his family since age 15, then Canada since about aged 20, so his English was excellent, and he was well-acculturated. He was now 30ish and had recently had an arranged marriage with a woman from his home country. Although the arrangements were made beforehand, they met and married during his 1 month vacation there.
She was a doctor in their home country, and hoping to qualify in Canada. Ah, but she spoke no English or French. To qualify she had to do so in one of those 2 languages, ie French or English in Quebec, and English in the rest of Canada. So he was encouraging her to study English, and I encouraged him to have her volunteer at an ethnic medical centre where the language spoken was the one she had done her medical training in. He also wanted her to go to university for graduate studies, but again language was a problem, until she mastered English or French sufficiently.
He was extremely worried about her and the marriage, while recognizing she needed more time to adjust. He knew that her career, which was good in her own country, was important to her, and the process for licensing here would be long and difficult. Also, like many Middle Eastern and South Asian female general practitioners, in her home country she restricted herself to an obstetrics and gynecology practice--very hard to do in Canada without years of further training, as well as for insurance reasons.
Within the confines of a non-professional assessment it seemed to me that they had a number of challenges: a cultural mismatch even though they had the same culture of origin; language challenges for her impacting mainly on career; an unfortunate difference in professional standing as he had a low level management position whereas she was a professional--at least in her own country; she had given up the career she was enjoying to start over at the bottom, or at less than the bottom since she had to retrain; and, she had moved to a new country, culture, and climate. Those are in addition to not knowing each other overly well beforehand, and the usual first year marriage adjustment (AKA, WHAT HAVE I DONE!!!???).
Both of these men came from traditional cultures. Both were trying their best to be a good husband, and while not exactly succeeding brilliantly at it, their hearts and minds were in the right place, and generally things were on track. Still, they were both partly raised in the West, and were not living in their home country.
Of the Moroccan men I know who studied in France, most returned to Morocco and married a Moroccan (one disastrously the first time, with a 1-year-old son at the time of the divorce), and some stayed abroad. One married a French woman on the understanding that he couldn’t possibly live outside Morocco, so that to marry would be to live there permanently. They had a civil marriage in France and immediately moved to Morocco on graduation. She initially had an extremely difficult time, but then so did he.
She would plan for their month long vacations in France to address anything of importance so he would be culturally more like the man she met and married, and less like his Moroccan self, including less influenced by his family. She spent the full 2-month summer vacation, from the French school in Morocco that she worked at, in France, and couldn’t wait to leave North Africa. She saw no value in tourism within Morocco, even for short excursions. She was amazed at how much his family had to say about their daily lives, even though they lived apart.
Having a daughter changed things somewhat, in that she felt more stuck than ever--she married Islamically to make sure she was recognized legally as the girl’s mother, and registered with the French Embassy, just in case. However, she felt her safety valve had closed. She could no longer envisage just leaving and walking out on her marriage and her life there. Suddenly someone else was more important, someone she couldn’t part with, and someone her powerful in-laws would fight to keep in Morocco.
Meanwhile, he was suffering in his own way. Although he went along with his family invitations and demands, he was unhappy, and drinking to excess. He could also be verbally quite belligerent, which is one of the reasons his wife didn’t want to set him off while they were in Morocco. He felt responsible to make sure she was well looked upon by the family, which meant he had to Moroccanize her enough, without alienating her or in fact losing the woman he loved and married. He had a great deal of difficulty setting boundaries with his parents.
Eventually they did well, partly because she relaxed her attitudes about some things to make her life easier. She hired a grandmotherly Moroccan woman with excellent French language and cultural skills (having been a live-in nanny to French families in Morocco) to be her day helper, French style. She let the woman dress her daughter, so she avoided hemline fights with her in-laws. She never stopped working, and found a middle-aged German woman married to a Moroccan, also a career woman, with whom she formed a friendship and a business partnership. This eventually led her to a successful career path. She also did smaller things, like park her car anywhere in the city instead of stressing herself, and have her brother-in-law fix the tickets for her. In short, she learned to take advantage of the opportunities she had.
His life was easier the happier she was, and the longer he stayed and readjusted to living in Morocco. He also had to learn to live there for the first time as an executive, the husband of a Frenchwoman, a father, and no longer a child in his parents’ home. Fatherhood gave him new responsibilities, but also new status, and new motivation to assert himself with his family and his workplace.
Another Moroccan I studied with in France went to the US, and married an American who had never lived anywhere but two South Western states and one North Eastern one. They got on well, but she had a great deal of difficulty when his family visited. Partly it was because she was well intended but culturally unaware, including about how American her own behaviour was. This did not sit well with her parents-in-law but they were more forgiving than her sister-in-law, who had a special bond with her brother; and, although married herself and living in Europe, was very difficult with someone she felt needed to be put in her place pre-emptively.
That marriage ended, partly because of the initial strains on their marriage--her family opposed and tried to block it, and on their student incomes they had to hire a marriage and immigration lawyer; and, partly over when to have children. He married another American, a well-travelled army brat, and moved with her to Morocco to set up a business together. As they are self-employed, some of the challenges of integrating are obviated. They also live in a city which is a weekend jaunt rather than a day trip away from his family.
As for “my Saudis” they all seem happy fathers and husbands of Saudis. Their time in Canada is spent studying medicine, and so far I have only been asked practical type questions like how to survive the winter, and about bilingual education for children. Their wives either work and put the children in daycare, or stay home. The working ones expect not to work in Saudi, which I expect will be more of an adjustment for them than they think it will be. Hopefully I am wrong on that; and on how much more challenging it is going to be for their children in straight English language programs to catch up on academic Arabic, than they think it will be.
I have given one impression of the discourse in the Saudi blogosphere about the Saudi husbands of Western wives, which is necessarily simplified, but intending no offense to either the husbands or the wives. Rather it was my intention to open up the discussion to include the Saudi husbands' voices, or, if not their voices, at least to postulate on their perspectives, by outlining some common patterns and giving some analogous examples.
I do look forward to the comments and thoughts of all on this topic, and if there are Saudi men in this situation I hope you will break your silence and comment here on your perspective in your own voices. If anyone would like to go further, and do a post on their personal story I would be happy to help you with it. Confidentiality is guaranteed and you would have final say on all text and pics. If you are interested, please contact me at chiaraazlinquestion AT yahoo.com
Meanwhile to all:
How accurate is this portrait of themes discussed in the Saudi blogosphere?
How true is the portrait to the reality?
If you are a married man, or in a stable relationship, how caught have you felt between wife and mother, conjugal family and family of origin?
If you are bi-cultural or in a bi-cultural relationship how comfortable or uncomfortable does this feel when living in your home country?
How easy is it for your family to accept?
How easy is it for you/Saudi men to comment on Western women in Saudi blogs?
What type of reception do you/they get? Why?
If you are a Western woman in Saudi, how accurate are blogs you read on this marital theme to reality?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?