Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sport And The Olympics: Socialization/ Acculturation/ Endorphins/ Peace-Making

AIRBORNE: A snowboarder flies through the Olympic rings at the start of the opening ceremony at BC Place in Vancouver, Canada.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Most of Canada is aware of the current Winter Olympics Games being celebrated on our far west coast, in Vancouver BC, and nearby Whistler Mountain. Although there have been violent protests of the Games, the general spirit is positive, proud, and progressively more convinced of the value of the efforts that went into these games.  The "Own the Podium" programme of developing elite athletes, has shown results in the medal count, but also had a trickle down/up effect in other areas of sport, providing developmental programs with better trained coaches, and new role models in our athletes.

The coverage of these sports events, and the accompanying social activities, has reminded me of the importance of sports and sports participation generally, and particularly as a way to socialize children into positive patterns of personal health maintenance, physical and mental, and good interpersonal relations--win, lose or draw. Sports are also an excellent entry into a culture for expats, or immigrants. Unlike other activities often little language or cross-cultural skill is required, there are opportunities to join clubs and groups with a shared focus, and usually a healthy attitude towards life in general; and, there is motivation to get more involved in the host culture via a loved sport, and to try new activities.

Taking up a sport can also change one's attitude toward the climate or weather. Snow can block you in, be shoveled, or skied on. Heat can be enervating or a reason to take up a water sport. Spring rains muddy everything or herald warmer days for jogging, while the crispness of fall  provides relief from heat and humidity for cycling, hiking, or other outdoor pursuits.

The Olympics are the pinnacle for many amateur athletics, and represent both the challenge and joy of elite competition for participants and spectators. Many are inspired to take up a sport or perfect one by the quadrennial international competition which never fails to draw attention away from everyday concerns, and international strife. Initially a peaceful athletic interlude between Greek wars, the Olympics have returned as friendly competition among nations, one that refocuses energy from negativity and war. However, the games are highly politicized, even when one considers only the sports included, the countries allowed to be hosts, the difficulties in certain sports especially of having an honest competition free of drugs, judge tampering, and re-enactments of political alliances.

The Olympics are also a time to showcase the host country's society, culture, and savoir faire, as shown here in pictures from the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics:

LIGHT AND MOTION: A rollerblading entertainer creates a blur of light along with dozens of others during the opening ceremony.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

AWASH IN COLOR: BC Place Stadium, the first indoor venue to host a Winter Olympics opening or closing ceremony, is awash in color on Friday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

INTO THE LIGHT: Performers enter the stadium during the opening ceremony.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

ILLUMINATED: A 65-foot polar bear appears during the performance of "Landscape of a Dream: Hymn to the North."
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A NATIVE DAUGHTER: Canada's own k.d. Lang sings during the opening ceremony.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

LIGHTS FANTASTIC: A woman and thousands of other spectators hold electric candles during the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony at BC Place in Vancouver.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Although I have watched little of these Olympics, mostly because I keep counting on re-runs that never happen, or that I sleep through, and most live events are pre-empted in-house, en famille, by hockey or a kiddie show, some highlights stand out for me in particular.

Quebec (l-r) Catherine Ward, Marie-Philip Poulin, Caroline Ouellette and Charline Labonte have their photo taken with their gold medals following their victory over the USA in the gold medal game in women's hockey
Photograph by: John Mahoney, Canwest News Service

They include, most recently as of the writing of this post, the Canadian women's hockey team's three-peat for Olympic Gold, especially sweet as they shut out traditional rivals, USA, 2-0. Hopefully other countries will continue to discover and support women's hockey and make the match-ups more balanced. Canada's initial record-breaking victory over Slovakia 18-0 was more of a cause for consternation about the unfairness of such a routing, speculations about mercy limits on scoring disparities, and even suspending women's hockey from the Olympics until there is a genuine playing field, let alone a more even one.

Jacques Rogge has been accused of sexism in immediately placing the women's ice hockey federation on notice that there would be no further Olympic competition in the sport after 2014 unless the results were more balanced than the 86-4 combined scores of the US and Canadian teams vs all the others. The debate involves the developmental stages of any sport, the role of a sport's tradition in a country, the organization and funding for the sport. It shows the Olympics as at least in part a competition of demographics and dollars. Still, Canada 2, USA 0!

In breaking news, the cigars, beer, and champagne celebrations by the women's team have caused a scandal. Sexism? Appropriate disapproval of bad behaviour by role models? The masculinization of women's sports?

And in other on ice activities, this was a definite highlight:

GOLDEN: Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir complete their free skate in triumphant fashion, earning the gold medal in ice dance Monday night at Pacific Coliseum.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Indeed, more happily for all, or at least less controversial (for once) were the results in figure skating, definitely my preferred winter Olympics sport.

Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Gold Medallists in Ice Dancing

China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, Gold Medallists in Pairs

USA's Evan Lysacek, Gold Medallist, Men's Singles

South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, Gold Medallist in Women's Singles

And for those who prefer their ice dancing comedic, here are Virtue and Moir, brilliant and funny, in exhibition:

Still, sadly there have been a number of casualties associated with these Olympics: the death of Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili; the death of Thérèse Rochette, mother of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette; the disappearance and suicide of actor Andrew Koenig who was visiting Vancouver for the Games, an increase in violence in Vancouver related to protesters, etc.

However, there have also been unusual moments.

One of the odder "highlights" of these Games is Netherlands speed skater Sven Kramer's interview with NBC immediately following his gold medal in the 5000m. When the interviewer asked him to identify himself by name, country, event, and accomplishment, he said "Are you stupid?" He went on to point out that she had just seen his race, and only became cooperative when she asked about his feelings about winning. Ah, but in the 10,000m race his gold medal was aborted by his disqualification for a lane foul, which had him, under the direction of his coach, skating in the wrong lane for the final 8 laps. It makes one wonder if there weren't jinns involved: the jinns of sport, or sport as war, at the very least trash-talking war, the jinns of NBC, the gods of USA sport--something to explain such a fatal, though basic, error in a top athlete and his coach.

Now it only remains for the Canadian men's hockey team to take the gold, preferably in a shut out over traditional rivals the USA, and the Winter Olympics 2010 can conclude appropriately. :)  The importance of this upcoming game (Sunday) and the rivalry behind it is well described in this article, with excellent pictures of the Canadian semi-final against Slovakia (3-2 ), It's Canada-USA again, for all the bragging rights. Fortunately that preliminary Canadian loss to the USA (5-3) was just a psychological fake out, as seen in the photos here. This time it will be Luongo in net, and there will be no false modesty! :)

Do the Olympics, Summer or Winter, have any importance for you?
Have you been watching? What have your impressions been of the Games?
What is your favourite spectator Olympic sport?
Do elite training programmes help or hinder development of the sport? How?
What aspect(s) of the politics of the Games interest you? Why?
How much should athletes' behaviour be controlled for the media, and those who see them as role models?
Is any of the coverage or controversy in this year's Olympics reflective of sexism?
How much is sport a part of socialization and acculturation?
What role does sport play in the life and peregrinations from country to country of an expat?
Any other thoughts, experiences, comments?

Coming soon...Olympic Gold: Sports, Sportsmanship, Health, and Joy

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Time To Say Goodbye

Funerals are a time for leave taking, and so on the morning of February 23, 2010, we formally said goodbye to my father. I have long thought that these rituals around the death of a person were an important psychological and social way of helping the living to move forward, whatever the religious beliefs might be about the soul or the body, or the hereafter. This is hardly a novel idea, as any observant member of a society will acknowledge, and as any anthropologist would agree. However, putting theory into personal, rather than professional practice is quite different.

Our tasks in both preparing the funeral and grieving were greatly facilitated by 3 things: my father and mother both decided long ago that they wanted a small service with only very close friends and family, to be cremated, and buried in my father's family's plot; my father when he was feeling very ill reiterated the same wishes, and that there be no notification in the newspaper or at any of the social groups he belonged to, specified the funeral home, and no visitation (viewing the body in the casket for days or hours before the funeral service); and, his Roman Catholic faith, and being a member of a parish.

In the mind numbing shock and grief, all we had to do was speak to the priest who is the head of his parish, who told us to contact the funeral home. A wonderful funeral director took us under wing. I must say that the experience was far more dignified, far more adhering to my father's or our wishes, and far less commercial than I had expected, but with some wonderful suggestions.  There are things one doesn't know of, unless one has been in this situation, like who does the death certificate for the government, who calls whom about cremation, burial, city permission to be put in the ground, etc., and it definitely helps to have someone calmly, competently, and professionally guide one through it.

By chance, the priest my father knew best was the one to perform the Catholic liturgy of death. This too was surprisingly more relevant than I thought it might be. It included some elements of a mass, but was obviously designed to emphasize that my father was now with Jesus, not alone, not suffering, but welcomed by his Saviour, and now, more than ever, in his care. It also emphasized that we must accept this death, with sadness but understanding; and the priest's words included a reminder that after the shock, and the bustle of preparation, and the funeral, internment, and gathering of family and friends, there would be more grieving to do, and more life to live--as my father would have wanted us to.

The priest had asked us for information about my father's earlier life, and included it all appropriately, capturing him extremely well. He included a quote, "as one daughter asked [me] to", from an email that I had received from Abu Abdullah, and which I, my mother, and my sister thought captured well the essence of a father, and of my father: "A father is a guide and a mentor; a man who loves you more than himself."

My sister remarked later on how different this service was than the Protestant one she attended for a friend's father--more ritualistic, and structured. Also, we realized mid-funeral that all of us had trouble with the Lord's Prayer (the Our Father...). My mother, sister, and I went to public schools where the Lord's Prayer is the Protestant version. We had to consciously stop at "...deliver us from evil", and add the Amen there. Since the Lord's Prayer is no longer part of the public school morning ritual, my nephew (baptized but does not attend religious instruction) has never heard it. Fortunately, it was repeated with time delay by the group and he has a good ear, so by the last time we prayed that same prayer he had it down--the Catholic version. Wait until he finds out there is potentially more!

When the service concluded we drove behind the lead car to the cemetery. We stood beside the family head stone, with my father's ashes in a small wooden casket-shaped container, covered with red velvet, and a gold crucifix on top. The crucifix was a surprise but a beautiful one. More prayers were said as snow fell lightly on the tree tops, the bushes, and the headstones of the cemetery. At the end, the priest handed the crucifix to my nephew, and the funeral director handed each of us a long stemmed red rose from our funeral arrangement, and then each of those in attendance placed their rose on the wooden box which would be lowered into the ground after we left.

Close friends and family gathered at my parents' home (it will always be "their" home to me), for a luncheon and to share remembrances, and condolences. Among those who attended were lifelong colleagues and friends of my father's. One of them, whom neither my sister nor I recognized, was the first to arrive at the funeral home. My mother did recognize and greet him, and then between the first name and the Scot brogue we knew exactly whom we were greeting. He had come, he thought , uninvited, because he wasn't checking his phone messages often while his wife was in rehab after breaking her femur in a fall on the ice. He apologized for coming, saying "I'm sorry, but I heard about his death, and I just couldn't live with myself if I didn't attend the funeral". He just guessed at the time and place, and was right. He was of course welcomed, and reassured he had been invited all along.

Family included my paternal uncle's son who looks most like my father, and has a very similar emotional structure and accepting personality. The likeness was confirmed by all, including my cousin himself; and by his sister who pointed out the family portrait of my father at 12ish, with his brother 18ish, and his parents, and said--"My brother looked exactly like him at that age". He had flown in on short notice, and was a great comfort to us all. I don't know about the others, but for me, his stature and general likeness to my Dad were a pleasure. Perhaps that is why we spent so long talking to one another.

Like most of these gatherings it turned into a celebration of my father's life, a catching up, promises of future get togethers, and genuine offers of help. One of my paternal cousins said in a phone message "Now the 2 brothers are united in heaven"; another that he had "the biggest heart of all the family". My mother's family were there to support her, and also loved him. We ended up having a big laugh about the first time I met one of my older maternal cousin's daughters: she flipped over in the wading pool I was life guarding and her mother and I reached for her at the same time--and then recognized each other. In short, the conversations wandered away from the deceased, then back again, and they should in the grieving process.

Now I get to experience first hand the stages of grief that I have learned, analyzed for patients, and taught...a less comfortable position to be in, for sure. I am getting faster at remembering when I wake up and listen for him in the next room, that no, it's okay, he is in hospital,, he no longer is; and not crying at every reminder. Those do sneak up on one though: like going for a long walk with my mother, and saying to each other, "By now he would have come looking for us in the car, to make sure we still wanted to walk the rest of the way home in the snow and cold"; or walking past the Italian bistro near the supermarket; or playing football (badly) with my nephew. So I know I have a hard six months ahead, then an easier six, and don't have to diagnose myself with a psychiatric disorder unless the grief is abnormally severe after 2 years. Of course, for my mother, all of this is far worse, and for my nephew remains to be seen. My sister is more overt with her emotions than I, but coping...sort of.

We all are coping, sort of. My nephew's worst moment was when he discovered that a neighbour and his 9 year old son, as a kindness on learning of my father's death, shoveled our driveway and walkways after a major snow storm. My nephew was inconsolable. He had wanted to do it himself, as his job now, for the family, and the way Grampa taught him. He read a version of the tribute I did to my father in the previous post, and said "I have the tool room now, it's mine, and the garage and the shed". He needs the legacy and the role for which he was enjoying being the helper. He is a bit more clingy about us coming and going, or my sister driving on the highway to the school where she teaches.

The dog, Whisper, is just discombobulated. She used to watch for him to come in when the rest of us entered, but stopped after a while; and made a point of ignoring the clothes we brought home from the hospital after he died. She used to guard him when he was ill, which is not her breed type. When we had the family gathering she welcome people with silent grace, but barked when they wanted to leave. Her breed (Coton de Tulear) does have separation anxiety, and she was crying and looking at his empty chair at dinnertime this evening. She is just generally not herself.

Nonetheless, with the funeral over, and as the priest emphasized, it is time to say goodbye to the expectation of a physical presence, and embrace the memories, the souvenirs, and the legacy of attitudes, values, and ways that my father has left behind. For that reason, along with his favourite aria, Nessun Dorma, the other musical piece at his funeral was "Time to Say Goodbye".

A concert version, "Time to Say Goodbye/Con te partirò", Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman

Since it is time to get back to normal, some questions for your reflection and comments:

How do the events described compare to your own ways, or religious/cultural ways, of observing the passing of a loved one?
Does anything directly contradict your own experience?
If you have lost someone close, what helped you the most in the immediate time after the death? In the later stages of grieving?
If you have lost a good friend, how did you mark that passing? How does it affect you now?
Do you think family pets have grief reactions too?

Please feel free to share your own experiences of religious rituals of death and mourning, your own grieving, or any other thoughts, experiences, or comments.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Walking with God and the Saints

My father passed away in his sleep,in hospital, on Friday, February 19, 2010 at 2:30am after suffering a cardiac failure. Despite partially successful resuscitation attempts 3 times, he succumbed.

Although he had been acutely seriously ill since December, and hospitalized since January 13, this was a shock, in that he was doing very well, and it was planned that he would be going to the rehabilitation ward to prepare him for coming home. He was to be transferred there as soon as later the same day as his death.

Our family takes comfort in the fact that he did not consciously suffer, that he had excellent in-hospital care, and appropriate resuscitation measures were taken, then stopped when futile. The doctor on call was compassionate and had excellent interpersonal as well as technical skills, and my father did not die alone but surrounded by truly compassionate professional caregivers, if not family.

February 15, 2010 was Family Day in Canada, a rather new holiday, but one which we all spent with my father in his hospital room. He was in good spirits and very much enjoyed seeing us all together, especially his 10 year old grandson, my nephew, whom he helped raise, and with whom he shares a middle name, Paul.

Saint Paul  is the patron saint of the parish my father attended faithfully in the last few years. He took great spiritual strength and comfort from returning to regular mass attendance, now one of the senior members of this new congregation, when once he was the altar boy for the old cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary which was across the street from his childhood home.

He died in a hospital founded by the nursing sisters of Saint Joseph--in the newest wing, across the street from where he was born in the same hospital’s historic maternity home, literally an old mansion. It was the hospital where he always felt safest and best cared for. After he died, a priest came to his bedside to pray for him, something he would have wanted.

In keeping with his own Catholic faith, and good character, I am confident he now walks with God, in the company of his grandparents, parents, brother, and extended family, protected by all these Saints, while we who loved him so dearly protect his memory and his legacy on earth--the one thing he cared about most of all, his family.

My Dad and I shared a love of athletics, travel, international cuisines, and classical music. We were once opera buddies, and concert and ballet buddies. He was knowledgeable without being pedantic, and preferred Tchaikovsky for a stirring musical experience. We were hoping for another trip to Italy together.

My father was always proud of his family’s accomplishments, and spent a career putting other people through university: his older brother, my mother, and my sister and I, for more degrees than he initially planned. At one point he had 3 of us in university, in graduate or professional schools: my sister in the Faculty of Education, her then husband in the Faculty of Engineering, and me in the Faculty of Medicine.

He never complained, though he did once say in frustration “I want to retire eventually!”, then caught himself and asked if I needed money for books and instruments. He was also the man behind the camera for the graduation pictures, the chauffeur, the mover, the builder, and the one who bravely let his daughter travel on scholarship to a variety of “scary places”--at least ones scary according to the news. At the nadir of my medical school experience he was the rock I leaned on. Unaccustomed to this being necessary, he still stepped up and was my support and strength as long as I needed it.

He was often the man behind the women, and a feminist before it was popular. He always encouraged us to excel at our chosen professions, to behave with integrity, and to remain lady-like while doing so. Although he was an outstanding athlete, and I had glimpses growing up of what an excellent father he would have been to sons, he never once gave any impression of having wished for sons over daughters, or being dissatisfied with his girls.

The last 10 years have been filled with the joy of a grandson who has lived with my father, mother, and sister  since birth. A traditional father, in that he was the breadwinner, and the “outside man” when it came to household chores, my father was also good at helping out in the kitchen and with cleaning, as he was raised by a working mother. However, his willingness and availability to take on baby care only came with grand-fatherhood. It was both surprising and hilarious to have him arrive home from a coffee with his buddies, with all sorts of grandfatherly advice on diaper rash solutions--less surprising and hilarious than watching him change a diaper though.

My nephew shares his left-handedness, athleticism, height, and good-nature. When he skates it is like watching a boyhood version of my father. When he jumps to fix something in the house, or help out with something, it is always as the young boy modeling himself on my father. He now says often, “Now I’m the only boy”, and worried about who will clean the filters because, “I don’t know how to do that; well I watched grandpa, but I am not sure”. He volunteered that he can do the barbecuing, and accompanied us to the grocery store, remembering to get buns because Grandpa was the one who always did that.

My father took pride in a job well done, was meticulous, and was rigorous about safety. My nephew does things like use a saw for a school project exactly the way my father taught him--carefully, safely, and precisely. The tool room was their room, and now will be his. The same is true of the garden shed and the garage,  male domains they shared in taking care of the family home.

It saddens me that my nephew will go through adolescence and adulthood without my father’s wise counsel, but heartens me that at least statistically he is above the age range for the type of “early loss” that is a more profound psychological negative. It also encourages me that he will have so many good memories and such positive modeling from my father on how to be an excellent man, professional, citizen, friend, and most of all, a family man. Then again, we are all, regardless of age, feeling this loss acutely, and each in our own way.

Though I have complained, and made jokes, about being the GP, ER doc, family shrink, nurse, night nurse, nurse’s aid, and chief cook and bottle washer for my Dad during the month I was home with him before he went to hospital, it has been an honour and a privilege to have him allow me to do so. He has always been far too independent before, so that even needed medical advice had to be given covertly--a word to sister or mother, or a surreptitious comment to a nurse or a doctor when he was in hospital previously.

I am glad that I was able to rearrange my life to stay on past the holidays, and to be with him and the rest of my family. I am proud that he turned to me for care when he fell and could not get up, had a major nosebleed and had to go to hospital, fell again and split his forehead open, went through follow-up visits to the ER and his GP, and then admission to hospital and a 1 month stay. I was able to visit almost daily, by car with my mom, or solo on the train. This gave us now even more precious time together.

I regret that he placed such great faith in a GP who seems to have decided that he was not worth more effort, and allowed his medical status to decline, particularly in the last 6-8 months, when simple measures would have greatly improved his health and well-being (iron pills, a consultation, decreasing his Coumadin dose, adequate pain relief for his arthritis, adequate medication for Parkinson’s), and prevented complications that further strained his system, and resulted in further cardiac damage.

In contrast, the professionals at his “home hospital”, who met him for the first time, were more actively concerned, more encouraging, and did a splendid job of recognizing that he had many easily treated conditions. They unfailingly believed he was worth the time, effort, and taxpayers’ expense. They were compassionate without being condescending.

The male nurse who saved him one night with hours of fearless cardiac care, unintimidated by blood results and monitored numbers, a mechanical mitral valve, profuse GI bleeding, or a newbie intern, took great pride in his accomplishment, joy in a social visit when my father came back to the ward from the ICU, and seemed to know and appreciate him as a person, and his family as well. More so than the GP of decades.

I am trying hard to forget her cavalier attitude in allowing his hemoglobin to drop from a normal 120 to below 100, below 90, below 80 which made him weak, unable to eat, and despondent; or his INR to rise from a normal 2.5 to 4.5, 6.0, 9.0, without telling him to go immediately to hospital (at 4.5-6.0) until he started bleeding to death at 12. I half-wish I didn’t know about her direct advice NOT to get a transfusion when his hemoglobin was 67 (transfuse at 70-75), or her failure to call at all when he had a hemoglobin of 69; and wish I hadn’t heard her say later to my mother, “Well they would only give him one unit anyway” (actually 3 that time; and more later).

I am sorry he yelled at me every time I mentioned her name, but happy I backed off enough so that he died thinking she did genuinely care about him and had helped him professionally. He believed she had saved him by re-starting medication he had been started on in hospital, and needed, but was discharged without (due to bureaucracy) in 2005; and I didn’t tell him how much work I did to make sure he got it, including letting the GP’s nurse insult me for identifying myself as “his daughter, and a doctor” in an effort to make sure my concern was taken seriously (no one had called back for the previous 2 "daughter" messages). He believed the same nurse cared enough to get him an emergency appointment this past December 22 with the on call doctor, and didn’t know that she only did so after my sister called her again when she failed to answer a message, and bullied her into it.

The day he fell asleep and died, he was in a lot of abdominal pain, during the afternoon, and early evening, but had a visit with my mother and myself, asked about my nephew, and then had a brief phone conversation with my sister, and another one with me later on. His last words to me at 8:38pm were “I feel terrible… stop calling, you are waking up the whole…city”. Not profound, but then he was in pain, thought he would see me the next afternoon, and was concerned about others in his semi-private room. His words were also typical him--to the point, straight shooter, and conscious of others. He later received adequate pain medication and fell asleep with relative ease.

When the doctor called at 2am to tell us about the first cardiac arrest, I am glad I took the phone call, and helped prepare the others, then stayed on the phone until the doctor said, “If it were my dad, I would come to hospital”. We woke my nephew who began to cry; somehow he knew, even though we at first only said, “Grandpa is very sick”, and then my sister insisted that he had to come and “Say goodbye”. We arrived 10 minutes after he died, but he had not been conscious.

Perhaps it was best, though sad, to see him lying as if asleep, and to say our final words to his spirit. I stroked his hand and his brow, and even forgot about the now healed place where I had repaired the gash with steri-strips. His brow, though wrinkled, was at peace, and his lovely grey hair soft. Odd to stroke one’s father as one does a child, yet comforting.

The lilacs are in honour of the ones he planted: first as a young and vigorous newlywed, in the garden of my parents' first house, the one he built by hand, including mixing and pouring the concrete foundation, because my mother loved lilacs; the next were planted, through the hard and heavy clay, when he was weakened by arthritis and Parkinson’s, in their final home and garden, because he still loved my mother so very much.

He too was, and is, much loved, and will be forever missed.

No questions this time.
Please feel free to share, and comment.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Saudi Women's Work: Domestic Artists to Working Artisans

In Saudi Arabia only about 5% of women work. This includes all women, those with and without higher education. The reasons for this low number are historical, cultural, societal, and religious, all as understood within the Saudi context. However, as the Chinese saying "Women hold up half  the sky" captures well, women constitute approximately  half the population and their contribution helps hold up half the potential of  a country. Countries with low rates of women in the workforce tend also to have lower rates of achievement, usually economically but also socially, educationally, and in terms of human rights.

Gold thread embroidered trim, Saudi Arabia

While in Saudi it may not seem that the economics are as important, in fact they are for women and families in any number of situations: where the woman has the potential for a satisfying high earning career; where the patriarch is unable to work temporarily or permanently due to illness; where a woman is widowed or divorced and lacks family support, or the family is struggling financially; where the number of children outstrips the father's earning capacity; where a woman is "unmarriageable".

There are other initiatives to increase the number of women in the workforce, including by Ministerial decree, as with the one to replace male salesclerks, usually foreigners on contract and earning lower wages, with Saudi women, as described in the 2 posts on the lingeries buying boycott, here and here . Some careers are more open to women than others, like medicine. Some jobs are more open to women than others. While the former tend to be male-dominated professions, the latter tend to be female-dominated unremunerated work, like housework (maid), and child care (nanny).

Palestinian Embroidery, Jordan

One initiative that has been successful elsewhere, including Palestine (where embroidery became part of the intifada), and South Asia  through the Grameen Bank, to mention but 2, is to turn women's domestic arts of weaving, knitting, sewing, embroidery, quilting, and other textile creations into remunerated work as artisans or copy artists. This is a traditional sphere for women's work, even in developed countries where it is still mainly women who work the sewing machines in factory settings, or do the handcrafted specialty items. Canada's poorer Maritime regions developed the highly successful boutique quilted fashions Suttles and Seawinds; the First Nations Peoples, men and women, have established craft cooperatives which preserved their heritage, developed their arts, and was one of the first steps towards band economic self-sufficiency, instead of total reliance on social assistance which has had deleterious effects.

One initiative in Saudi Arabia, which was developed to give a skill and employment to deaf women, is the Mansoojat Foundation Workshop, teaching and selling embroidered items based on traditional tribal dress in Saudi Arabia. The following article by Assia  Kashoggi, which I have interspersed with her pictures from the Mansoojat Foundation Workshop, explains the purpose, activities, and structure of the workshop.

Mansoojat Foundation Workshop

Womens Welfare Center, Jeddah

The Mansoojat Foundation workshop was established in mid 2000 at the Women's Welfare Centre. It was a JISH (Jeddah Institute of Speech and Hearing) initiative to help women who had hearing and speech impairments find employment.

The Women's Welfare Centre provides Mansoojat with a room for free, and JISH covers the expense of hiring a teacher and transportation. The Mansoojat workshop is open 3 times a week from 4pm to 7pm and runs under the supervision and coordination of Salma Alireza who visits weekly or fortnightly. The main skill the women acquire is embroidery; they learn the exact stitching and designs of the various tribes of Saudi Arabia.

The Mansoojat Foundation provides all the supplies needed (materials, fabrics and threads). The women are paid according to the size of the piece they make and their skill level. The workshop is currently a mixture of levels ranging from those who have mastered the embroidery techniques to beginners.

The finished pieces are subsequently used by the Mansoojat Foundation designers on a wide range of items: art work, hand towels, place mats, napkins, abayas and tarhas (robe-like over-garments and scarves worn in Saudi Arabia), necklaces, bracelets, shawls... etc.

The women at the workshop also receive a % of the sale price of items sold with their embroidery pieces as a bonus. Some of the women who have gotten married or who are not able to come to the workshop work at home and bring in their pieces from time to time. Some of the women are still at school and will come on Wednesdays then take away pieces to embroider at home during the weekend. The total number of women who are part of the workshop constantly fluctuates, never falling below 8, with a maximum of 22.

The workshop has become much more than just a means of earning some money for the women; they enjoy themselves immensely seeing it as a place where they can get together to work, learn new skills, produce beautiful pieces of work demonstrating their own talents and efforts, as well as and form solid friendships with their peers. Once a month Mansoojat gives them the day off to use the recreational facilities of the centre.

--Assia Khashoggi

An excellent video of the Foundation's participation in the Jeddah Economic Forum, Jeddah International Conference and Exhibition Center, Saudi Arabia, February 2008 can be viewed here.

The same foundation has a Museum of Saudi Arabian Costume online, including exemplars like this one.

Najd, Central Region and Eastern Region thobe of fine Indian silk embroidered with sequins and gold thread. The sleeves are voluminous and are brought around to cover the head.

The overall objective of the Foundation is described on its home page:

The Mansoojat Foundation

The Mansoojat Foundation is a UK registered charity founded by a group of Saudi women with a passionate interest in the traditional ethnic textiles and costumes of Arabia.

Where We Go In The Future Is Determined
By Where We Have Been In The Past.

A non profit organisation, the Mansoojat Foundation's mission is to revive and preserve the traditional ethnic designs and costumes of the various regions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; to promote and conduct academic research important for the understanding of the history and culture of the region, and to raise public awareness for the appreciation of this unique heritage.

UK Charity Registration No. 1115379

Recommend this website to friend

A selection of my favourite costumes and captions from the site's Costumes section follows:

Qassim thick wool woman's aba (cloak) embroidered with gold thread and having elaborate gold thread tassels. This type of aba is for the bride to wear on her wedding night.

Najd and Central Region thobe made of fine tulle with two silk side panels and multicoloured sequined sleeve borders. The yoke is embroidered with gold and silver threads.

Hijaz outfit comprising the inner silk zaboon under the fine organza thobe. Casual day outfits were made in the same way except that the fabric was plain or printed cotton.

Harb [tribe of Al-Madinah] thobe in blue with alternating green on the sleeve panels, and patchwork on the shoulders. The burqu ' (face mask) is made of yellow silk and the front is embroidered with real pearls.

Hijaz ensemble with the inner fitted zaboon embroidered in a floral design with gold thread and small sequins. The outer thobe is made of a sheer linen-like fabric.

Asir [southern Hijaz region] bright floral printed thobe with the traditional cut and decorative stitching along the front and sides. Traditionally, men embroidered the women's clothes in Asir.

Bani Malik [tribe of the southern Hijaz] thobe embroidered predominantly in yellow. Small glass beads decorate the yoke and surround the embroidered panels. The qarqoosh (hat) is also beaded.

Among the Foundation's research endeavours are studies on tribal costumes, as detailled in this article Tribal Dress of Saudi Arabia by Jennifer Wearden. Indeed, the Costumes section provides details, in addition to the rich captions, that add information about tribal characteristics, history, trade routes affecting textiles, and social mores reflected in the clothing of men, women, and children. These "side bars" are themselves well worth the read, especially if you have an interest--intellectual, familial, or other-- in a particular tribe. Notably, a man is shown demonstrating the "Dress of a Bani Sa'ad Lady" in one series of  8 photos, while in another series of 11 photos, a (?non-tribal) woman serves as the model.

Dress of a Bani Sa'ad Lady

The site's glossary of textile and dress terms is highly informative and interesting on its own, and helps to better appreciate Arabian clothing past and present.Its bibliography is a researcher or interested person's dream.

Needless to say, I commend the Foundation , its goals, and achievements, and recommend its website, highly.

What are your impressions of these types of initiatives to increase work for women?
How important is it, in your view, to preserve the tribal heritages of  Saudi Arabian in this form?
Do you have direct experience with, or knowledge of, similar initiatives?
Are you already familiar with tribal clothing traditions from personal or research experience?
Is there any meaningfulness in the fact that a minority of tribal costumes on the site seem to include a face veil?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


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