Women Make a Splash.

I have been a bit quiet since my last post, mainly due to obsessively watching the Olympics combined with preparing to move back to the East Coast, this time to upstate New York, in a ‘city’ I am slowly getting my hands on. Hello, Ithaca.

Going back to the Olympics– This summer, I was quite pleased to see Phelps break more records, the female American Gymnastics Team light up the games (and media), and the emergence of a new star, Missy Franklin. Those are just a few of the stories of a very record-breaking-heartfelt-stories-filled Olympics.

What I was particularly pleased about was the obvious observation of women making a big splash on the sports world.  A simple fact: women won more (and I mean, way more) medals than their male counterparts in the US, China, and Russia, the leading countries in the London Olympics. These three large delegates also brought more women than men. Two thirds of the gold medals won by Team USA were won by women. Every national delegation had a female athlete on its team. In many of the sporting events, women fared better then the men (US Women’s soccer, anyone?). Female athletes helped Britain achieve its best medal tally since 1908. Women simply won disproportionately more medals then men. There were no female competitors when the modern Olympics started in 1896.

When Saina Nehwal returned to her home, India, after winning the bronze medal in badminton, the ovation and euphoria received from fans was comparable to the kind usually reserved for their all-male cricket team.

The statistics and facts go on.

While women’s professional sports still get less media attention, let alone viewers and audience interest, in an event like the Olympics, it does not take a lot of analysis to see that they are not doing so bad these days. Of course, some things still come later than they should when we talk about gender equality. Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar (finally) let women compete on their Olympic teams for the first time. And speaking of sports, the Augusta National Golf Club has decided to “stop embarrassing itself and move into the mid-20th century” by admitting two women as members (New York Times). The members are no other than former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, a business executive.

As Andrew Rosenthal of NYT put it, there is not excuse for the right thing to take place a few generations too late.

With this dramatic London Olympics, I really cannot wait to see what’s next for women, and for underrepresented women in Rio.

Princess Ameera Al- Taweel and her advocacy of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Princess Ameera Al- Taweel, the only wife of the progressive Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has recently traveled throughout the United Kingdom and the United States to speak with media groups (e.g. Times, the Guardian, NPR, CNN, etc.) about the image of women in Saudi Arabia, calling for change. This past year, Saudi Arabia has been highlighted in terms of their women, from women finally getting the right to vote, to protesting their driving ban, to the recent outlaw of men from working in lingerie shops. However, leadership roles in advocating gender relations and female rights has been quiet, so it was a surprise to read about Princess Ameera in Forbes about her work in promoting a better image of her country.

At only 29 years old, Princess Ameera outside of the Kingdom does not personify the image that media has posted about the country’s women, who are usually described as unsocial, unable to speak their mind, un-interactive with the opposite sex, takes a backseat in social interactions, and are forced to wear the very black, very symbolic abbayah in public. Not only does Princess Ameera walk the talk and dress the part, but she comes from the very family, the Saud family, that has molded the nation to what it is today- hyper conservative and unable to give women the same rights and places in society as men.

Of course her actions (participating in international forums such as the Clinton Global Initiative, speaking about allowing women to drive in NBC, etc.) has had its backlash, and from her family. The princess’s brother-in-law, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz stated:

…Our family honor is a red line and if you don’t respect this honor, then we do…I now tell you that if you do not come back to your senses and stop your deviation, then our response will be very severe and harsh next time without prior warning.

Anushay Hossain’s response illustrates my own sentiments:

Using a man’s wife to publicly threaten and blackmail him? Sounds like plot from a classic (sexist) movie. I mean, are men in 2012 seriously still this insecure that they have to pin their prestige on women and use them as pawns in what is obviously a much larger issue of power?

It is understandable that there will be reactions, and unfavorable ones at that. However, what is disturbing is that the reactions can include further demeaning sentiments, such as here, where women is linked to a family’s honor- a concept often used for some of the worst types of violence committed upon women in the Middle East (i.e. honor killings). Furthermore, the brother-in-law does not even speak directly with Princess Ameera but instead, gears his anger towards her husband who allowing his wife to behave such a way, as if she is the property of her husband.

Princess Ameera is a refreshing figure to see taking a public stance from the Middle East. Her intelligence in her approach and mannerism in the mainstream breaks stereotypes about women in the region. The support that she receives from her husband and the fact that he is using her to promote modern ideas about women’s role in society should generate applause (it is working).  It also proves that while this fight for Saudi Arabia’s women is going to be a long and difficult one, it is not hopeless.

(Which) women’s employment in Saudi Arabia as a result of banning men from working in lingerie stores (?)

There has been a lot of discussion lately on how opportunities for female employment are beginning to increase, especially with the recent ban on male employment in lingerie stores in Saudi Arabia. However, it must be notes that the applicants for most of the job vacancies are from South Asian and Southeast Asian migrant laborers, not Saudi Arabian women who only compose  7% of the work force in the Kingdom (government figures). According to the Labor Ministry, over 28,000 women have already applied for the jobs in lingerie stores, but most are South Asian migrant women. In this respect,the opportunities to work in stores rather than as domestic workers is certainly a positive step for the thousands of female labor migrants in the country. In Saudi Arabia, migrant laborers already make up a majority of their work force, and this is not just associated with the cleaners, construction workers, etc. Most of the country’s doctors, engineers, and other technical professionals are also foreigners, often recruited heavily from some of the top agencies abroad.

While more Saudi women are getting educated in the country, the scope for their actual participation in the labor market remains  abysmal. Female employment is not going up for Saudi women, and they are not going to suddenly apply for thousands of shop assistant jobs.

Landed in Dhaka

My flight out of Saudi Arabia left thirty minutes late. It was a two-story Saudi Arabia airline, and almost full, mostly with Bangladeshi male laborers returning to their country, and very few women. It was slightly uncomfortable because I received a lot of stares at the airport, and one guy even took a photo of me with his phone. I was completely irritated and wanted to say something but didn’t want more attention. My seat was upstairs and I got more stares as I saw down from the men surrounding me. I almost wanted to snap and ask if they planned to look my direction the entire five hours. The hostess though right before take off came by and told me she has a “more comfortable” seat for me and I was taken to the back where I got an entire row to myself.

Landing in Bangladesh was really cool since I find the view to be breathtaking when we cross India and you can see the rivers snaking around the country. The city itself is vast looking and dense, with buildings clustered around each other, and the slums pocketing around spaces. You could feel the volume of people from the air, even if you did not see them yet.

After landing, I found the man holding my name pretty quickly and was taken immediately to the diplomatic counter which was really cool since I got to avoid the line and pretend I was more special than I really am. He filled out everything for me and I was escorted by two men who helped me locate my luggage. This part took forever and it did not help when my mother called and told me that last time it took three hours for her luggage to come out. I didn’t realize there were so many people on my flight and that they just had so much…stuff. Mostly wrapped around in what looked like comforters and then tied around in ropes. It reminded me of my childhood when we used to come to Dhaka and wait forever and almost every time, some luggage was missing and my dad had to fill out forms and we would get those two weeks later, often with items missing. A guy nearby who was on my flight asked, “is it always like this?”, and I told him that yes, as far as I heard, flights from the Middle East to Bangladesh were chaotic since they were usually full of labor migrants who probably were returning after years.

After they located my luggage we walked to the VIP section to greet the car that awaited us and off we drove to my apartment in Baridhara. The ride did not face the dreaded traffic that you hear about in this city. As we drove through Khelket, I just stared outside where I met familiarity of language and culture, though all unfamiliar at the same time. I wanted to buy the guavas sold on a stick by the random boys- they are cut like a flower and spices sprinkled at the top, a favorite of mine- but I didn’t want to risk getting sick already. I saw a train pass by with people sitting on the roof, to which my driver told me that they were “low class”, as translated from Bangla, and that they did not have the money for a seat so took to the roof instead. When I told him I wanted to try that, he looked at me in the rearview mirror and laughed, but in that foreigners-are-crazy way. The buses always amused me on the streets too, as they are packed beyond humane means, and all sorts of things are shouted from it. I saw a boy lean out of the bus and wash his entire head with bottled water, and then use it to spike up his hair in the front. The water dripping from his face was landing on the roof of a brand new white Toyota, and nothing was being said.

The familiarity of the honking followed me to my apartment where on my first night you could hear it all through the window. I forgot to sleep with a mosquito net but I always hated them, leading to a few red bumps on my feet.  Welcome back.

The day before.

Luggage allowed: two checked in, max, weighing 40 kg all together. 40kg is all I can take for a year abroad to embark on what I hope will be an eye opening experience in Bangladesh. 40 kg so far is comprised of clothes, shoes, and hygiene products even though people I know in Dhaka tell me that you can find “everything here”. But while I believe that, I also need to use things close to home, something that will give me comfort in a world opposite of what I know.

I am currently sitting in my living room in Saudi Arabia avoiding the packing and ready-ing. You would think that after all the time that I have spent traveling before and especially during Wellesley, I would having this process known as ‘packing’ to perfection but false- my mother has not given up an opportunity to tell me that I am going about it the wrong way and reminding me of what to do. I have to say she is right most of the time.

I am leaving on the 5:45 am flight via Saudi Arabia Airlines to Dhaka, 4+ hour journey that I have been waiting for since April when I found out that I was granted the Fulbright for Bangladesh. The catch- I don’t actually have my exit/ re-entry visa from the Kingdom yet. So…I am not actually sure if I am allowed to leave the country and like most things here, I am about to find out last minute if in fact they have granted it to me today, or if I have to reschedule my flight. I am hoping for good news. It is already the afternoon and no word yet though.

Hearing about my friends who are already well into their first jobs, graduate schools, fellowships and embodying adulthood over the summer have been inspiring and now I am about to join that realm. I am ready to start my Fulbright, first by the training and language study that we are going to go through until December, and then my ETA starting in January. Here I say adieu to my long, long summer and I welcome the real world again. You know who you are when I say to keep in touch and find me on Skype. I look forward to keeping this blog up as much as possible and talking with you guys about the many ups and challenges I am about to face and tackle.


Eid prayer morning.

It is really hard to take photos during the morning Eid since it is simply rude and not in the culture where you maintain anonymity with your clothing. The prayer we went to was in the Royal Commission in Jubail, just by the Persian Gulf in a beautiful location where everyone was either dressed in black (women) or white (men), and the kids being the exception with their brightly colored clothing and heels. It was quite adorable to see the little boys dressed in the traditional Saudi outfit as they fidgeted with their headdress and long train of white cloth.

if only I was a princess. or a captain.

Saudi Arabia airlines has the best selections for the category of “title” in their booking website. I have never seen these but I wondered what would happen if I chose my title as princess or a captain or even sheikh. Apparently there are other airlines that does this too, and requires you to choose a title. 5 more days until Dhaka.

getting a hair cut during Eid weekend in KSA requires not following order, paying 2x the price, and gawking at women as they take off their veils.

I finally had a chance to get a haircut today at my favorite salon in Jubail, after being rejected last night at 11 pm because they had too many customers. They did not take appointments so I had about 20 minute wait after my mother paid for the cut (before even getting a cut). I went in the afternoon and even then, it was packed, mostly with women getting their nails done, hair styled, and eyebrows colored (instead of waxing/ threading which was recently outlawed in the salon. No idea why). Women of all ages sat around in the red tones waiting area with plush cushions and bright red sofas with their children.

But you don’t actually wait for your number to be called. There were only three women actually cutting and styling the hair today and there were literally crowds around them waiting in line, no matter if they came after me or whenever. So I had to follow this disorganized mishap and just wait. It did not help us that the receptionist spoke no English, refused to respond to my broken Arabic, and played with her iPhone the entire time and picked on her nails. The woman I waited for, a Filipino who usually did my hair and may I add, amazing was busily cutting away. Except she was literally taking about 5 minutes on each hair; her hands moved fast and I was pretty sure she was ignoring the mothers or she was actually multitasking and risking with women’s long, amazing hair.

For one girl, she literally grabbed the top chunk, sliced it off in three strokes, and left the rest to be, creating bizarre layers while the mother looked on, looking pleased. It took just a few minutes and I was a little more than freaked out and wanted to run away.

Thankfully, she handled my situation beautifully. She took a bit longer with my hair and just did what she wanted to with it. This is why I love her; the women just KNOWS hair, and does whatever she wants and know sit will look good, whether it takes 5 minutes or an hour. She tugged and pulled, and didn’t care if I winched but just grabbed by head here and there like it was a tree. While mute most of the time, she started talking to me and my mom and said that her arms were weak and she had been working nonstop, without any breaks. She was in such a hurry and complained about how busy they were with swarming clients as they did not take appointments and no one followed  rules. They were open until 3 am last night, and today expected to work all night until 8 am, the day before Eid. Women flocked the place to get everything done before the break so that they could look their best. After ten minutes (I was really, really thankful for the extra five minutes), and apologizing that she could not blow dry my hair because of the line behind me and charging us double of what we usually paid her, we left the area where arms and scissors flew everywhere along with hair and nervous energy.

Anyways, I got my hair cut and I know now to not wait until the last minute because nothing gets in the way between Saudi women and primping themselves for the holidays. They can literally get what they want no matter what time it is and how much it will cost them. And I got to see what they are like beneath all the busy abbayahs and niqabs. Gorgeous, as usual.

fireworks, niqabs, and Jubail, Saudi Arabia

I bought fireworks today (!!!!) which was absolutely exciting since they are a) legal, b) abundant because of Eid, c) everyone is doing it, and d) who doesn’t like legal fireworks from your patio that are abundant in supply for Eid? We bought a few types, the kind below the ones I am most excited about, as they just spark up when you light them with a lighter. 30 sticks for 25 riyals (less than $10), though we could have bought it for less. She sold all kinds of fireworks to “mini bombs” that are like fire crackers, and other things that kids were snatching away. She was selling them in a stall outside a store where my mother has summoned a Bangladeshi guy to help her figure out which ones to buy and how to haggle.

There were also a lot of stores selling niqabs, shown below. They are used to literally hide your face and hair and to only show the eyes.

Jubail’s industrial sector lit up as usual all night, Eid or no Eid.

Shopping in Al-Khobar for Eid where things don’t close until 3 am.

Last night I went shopping with my family to Al Khobar, a nearby city where stores opened around 9 pm and went on forever into the night/ next day. The streets were packed, and the roads jammed with people finally getting out of the house after breaking their fast and crowding the markets. There are so much lighting and decorations everywhere to celebrate Ramadan, from lamp posts, to the hotels and private buildings. The Saudi version of Christmas lighting.

There are “Ramadan discounts” everywhere and people taking advantage of it like no other. I went into a jewelry shop and could not find a counter space at all as flocks of people lined every free inch, mostly men, to buy gold. The counters for the clothing were a bit insane too, and I think it also drove the men running it insane who either spoke no English or just did not want to speak because they were afraid we would demand something.

The woman guarding the ladie’s fitting rooms were also a bit out of nerves. It is definitely not like the United States. I am trying on clothes and literally another woman and her daughter are standing outside my door staring at me, in a distance like as if they are about to come inside. It was… awkward. I was not sure if they were like, lining up to get in or just wanted to stare at me (both possible). One of the woman guarding it came and told me to hurry up in broken English to which my mother and sister snapped at and the woman just backed away because I am pretty sure she did not understand a single word and did not have a comeback. Having so many languages spoken at once just adds to the utter chaos of the stores.

I loved the vibe of the city though. I have celebrated a Muslim holiday I can remember just once in a Muslim country, which was Eid years and years ago in Bangladesh. Being in Saudi Arabia felt foreign to me even though it should not, I suppose. The entire month is a celebration, but only at night- during the day, everything is closed since people are fasting. It is dead silent. And around 3 am, an hour before sunrise when you have to start fasting again, restaurants and fast food places are packed with tired families and single men eating away. It reminded me of Las Vegas where the nights go on forever and the next morning you see dead silence as people sleep through their hangover. The hangover here is from overeating and carrying too many shopping bags, I suppose.

Phoenix–> Washington D.C. –> Kuwait –> Bahrain –> Jubail, Saudi Arabia: 7 am (Mountain Time) to 7 pm GMT +3

The route I traveled- September 1-2, 2010

Phoenix to D.C.: September 1st, United Airlines

Only a little more than a third of my flight was full, which was good news for me as the extra seat of space allowed for a great in-and-out sleep for 4 hours. One of our flight attendants was forgivingly hilarious, making  jokes about everything from the “blas” we had to turn off, about knowing that we get bored of watching emergency landing videos but it’s on, to talking about leaving the Arizona heat, finally. I mention this because I am going to miss the friendly attitude commonly and stereotypically associated with Americans.

Washington D.C. : 3 hour layover

My craving for sushi (who knows when I will have some again) led me to drag myself from terminal C to terminal A and endure a 20 minute wait for shrimp tempura roll, salmon roll, and unagi roll all to myself. I also spent most of it talking on the phone with friends who are convinced that I am disappearing from the face of the earth. I had to run back to my gate just before boarding to see my flight to Bahrain with United Airlines of a crowd I have never seen in any of my flights to the Middle East before: mostly men in the American army, some dressed in their jumpsuits, others in regular clothes, some calling their loved ones and joking about the next several months. I was wondering where all the women went…it was quite a scene and I couldn’t take my eyes away from it all.

Washington D.C. to Bahrain, with a stop in Kuwait: 14 hours.

I was not looking forward to the next 14 hours with United Airlines because in general, I do  not like airlines of the American brand. I have way too many personal anecdotes to share (no food, uncomfortable chairs, making us pay for checked baggages, no pillows, no entertainment, paying for everything and headphones, etc. as a result of recent economic terms). I am definitely a airlines-from-the-Gulf snob.

However, this time I was surprised to see that I had a pillow, a blanket, even my own television (wow, United?) and food! Honestly, what a surprise. The guy at the check-in even let me pass with a half a pound overweight luggage (last time my luggage was overweight by half a pound, the woman at American Airlines wanted to charge me $95).

Most interesting was my neighbor, Mr. X, I will name him. He is about a foot taller than me, muscular with tattoos in his arms, shaved head, tight black t-shirt, and one light carry-on, and gold rings with the seal of institutions I wanted to uncover but knew I would look creepy. After two shots of vodka though he started talking to me and I found out that I was right- most of the people in this place were from the army and related military personnel. Mr. X told me that they were all getting off at Kuwait and taking flights into Iraq. He just came off of a thirty-day vacation and going to Iraq again for seven months. I kept blatantly asking questions, which he happily answered except when I asked his opinions about the current foreign policy, which he basically after many words said that he could not say and had no opinions (right…) and he has to follow whoever is the commander. He laughingly asked me if this was the first time I has such a crowd around me and I said yes, and he told me, don’t worry, you are in the safest hands, the plane is full of guns and snipers and weapons in the cargo. Great. United Airlines apparently has a contract with the federal government to transport military members. Maybe that’s why the service was so good the 11 hours to Kuwait.

Mr. X spent the rest of the time covered in his black hoodie, refusing to use the blanket, and watching no television, passing in and out. I meanwhile used all my pillows and blankets, watched Letters of Juliet (not that great), missed a meal because I was fast asleep seven hours later, and read the latest Time magazine about Kanye West and his year in the industry.

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