Saudi women have a complicated relationship with men, to say the least. Primarily, we’re taught to respect our fathers, to trust them and the leadership of our patriarchs without question. On the other hand, as we grow older and develop into young women, we’re simultaneously taught to mistrust any “other” men as wolves. The term “other men” constitutes any man who isn’t a part of my direct family – any man who isn’t my brother, father, uncle, or grandfather.
These “other” men are painted in an absolutely evil light; we’re taught to see them as animals, driven by dark and primal instincts. We’re taught that they’re only out to get us “prey.” Of course, the lines between “other” and non-other
men blur, particularly as we grow older and marry what was once an “other” man, but becomes the man we owe ultimate fidelity and respect to for the remainder of our lives! We owe him obedience to the extent of never even refusing him sex; it’s common knowledge here that when a woman refuses her husband what he wants, the angels spend the hours of the night cursing her. The solidity of the sources behind this belief is a whole other matter, of course.
I remember overhearing my aunt giving marital advice to my other aunt when I was about twelve years old. One would think they were plotting a battle to take over the country from the complexity of their discussion. She had a fight with her husband over the purchase of a luxury bag; harsh words were exchanged and she left the house for her mother’s house in a huff of anger. Now, she wanted him to come to the house, begging for her to come back and asking her forgiveness. And she wanted an expensive gift – the same Chanel bag he had refused to buy her in the first place. The idea that her fashion selection was over his budget, or that he wanted to save for their future didn’t cross her mind. The idea that expensive luxuries should maybe be saved for special occasions, or that she could earn her own money and buy it herself, or even the idea of reaching a compromise weren’t any of the suggestions brought up by her sister, who was comforting her. They weren’t speaking about her husband as though he were her partner that she was simply having a misunderstanding with; they were speaking about him as though he was the enemy. And he was the prize at the same time.
“Wait a few days, he will come eventually. When he does, turn him away so he knows he will have to work for your forgiveness!”
“Yes! I agree”, chimed in the estranged wife.
“Then, when he comes again, make sure you look good. Put something pretty on, but not too pretty – he mustn’t think you are trying. And perfume, you must smell nice and tempting. Don’t rush to hug him though, act sad, like he has betrayed you and you can barely look at him. How dare he think you aren’t worth it!”
And on went the conversation. “If he says this, then you say that, and if he does that then you do this!” Even to my twelve-year-old ears, it sounded petty, exhausting, and ridiculous. I knew that a marriage shouldn’t work that way. Unfortunately, sometimes it does – especially when you’re raised in a culture that sees men as being the ones “in control,” as authority figures. When you don’t have much power in a society (or are raised to believe you don’t), you will probably resort to plotting and manipulation as well, simply as a means for survival.
I remember that those two aunts had an insatiable appetite for those cheesy romantic novels translated into Arabic. The ones with the rugged, dark and handsome hero and the rebellious, but innocent and misunderstood heroine and that always ended with a steamy love scene and a happily ever after. The ones that ended with sudden perfect understanding, even though he’d kidnapped and “ravished” her. Maybe that was another factor that influenced their understanding of men, and maybe that’s why they approached disagreements with such drama. I must confess I indulged in some of those kinds of reads myself, but I affectionately refer to them as “junk food of the mind.” They’re easy reads that provide some escapism from reality with the assurance of a happy ending and no surprises. Like chick-flicks. But I digress…back to my experiences with men.
I grew up during the late 80’s and 90’s, in almost perfect segregation. This means that the only examples of the male species I interacted with after I turned ten were my younger brother, my father, and my uncles on the rare occasions that they visited from the distant cities where they lived. My Grandfather had long since passed away, and the maternal side of my family lived across the globe. I suppose I also interacted with our driver(s) over the years, too. Men were virtually an alien species; I would only see them on TV, or in the street from a distance. They were never really known as human beings.
I remember there was this one “boy” – an older teenager – that used to stalk me from his car when I was about fourteen. He would be waiting outside my home when the driver took us to school in the morning, and he’d follow us there and would be waiting for me when we got picked up to go back home. At one point, it got so bad that he followed our car for and hour and a half to the airport. That’s when my mom found out about him and told my dad, who had him picked up by the police and “slapped around a bit” so that he’d cease and desist his stalking. In hindsight I’m not sure how I feel about the way things played out. A bit appalled, I guess. But at the time I simply thought he was getting what he deserved. That he was a creepy weirdo (which he probably was), and that I was glad he was gone. I also remember being a bit curious; didn’t he have school? A job? Family? Friends? A life? Who has the time to sit in their car, day in and day out, for weeks, maybe even months, and wait for a girl so that he could shadow her from a distance? Maybe all the scary stories and warnings had failed in achieving their goal with me, but I felt a mixture of pity, mild disgust, and genuine curiosity towards that weirdo. Not fear.
I’m lucky that when I was seventeen, my family moved to the more liberal city of Jeddah. The new friends I made there included their brothers, cousins and male friends. These men became my friends as well. And over time, I slowly became a bit more comfortable around them. After I graduated from college, I started meeting many men as clients and colleagues. Some were marked “sleazy,” others “cool” in my book. But I quickly learned that it’s not so hard to tell one from the other, and to set the tone of a professional relationship either way.
Later on, I chose to pursue my masters in London, and while there, I made more male friends, except that none of the men in my classes were Arab. By then I was pretty comfortable setting the boundaries to my various friendships with men, so I found it fun to see if these non-Arab men were any different from the ones back home by testing those boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, there were still jerks out there who didn’t know how to take no for an answer, but maybe because people that attend university are already more educated than many, those men would accept the boundaries that I set and respect them. Maybe it was because I was an alien creature to them as well, being Saudi and all.
But I still viewed them as strange creatures that may or may not have been wired differently. My conversations with other women of various nationalities confirmed that. While they didn’t hold the extreme views that I was exposed to growing up, there was still some confusion, frustration, and mystery involved in their relationships with men. Sometimes abuse as well. I remember a German girl, a friend of my classmate’s, who was telling me about how she discovered that her Austrian boyfriend of two years was actually much older than he originally told her he was, and that he’d also lied about his name. When confronted about this, hebecame angry and so aggressive that she had to call the police. I remember thinking I couldn’t understand how she could have been so oblivious to his real nature and identity for so long. Maybe she didn’t understand himwell enough to see the signs – and I’m sure there were small signs, at least. Though this is an extreme example,women and men struggle to understand each other all over the globe. Perhaps that’s why self-help and relationship books sell so well world-wide. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the extreme segregation we grow up in in Saudi just makes the contrast that much stronger, aggravating the confusion and misunderstandings, instead of making it better.
I sometimes have moments of complete clarity and realize that men aren’t any different from us, that they were only raised and socialized differently (no matter the specific culture we live in). Deep down inside, we’re all children that simply want to be understood and loved. And like women, men have also grown up to wear masks and perform their rigid gender roles. Unfortunately, we’re all subjected to the limitations of these masks, and they often make us act and behave (and possibly even think) as though we were actually a different species.