Five years away from Saudi Arabia is a long time. I’m just starting to get over the culture shock of coming in from the brutal cold of northern England to scorching Jeddah.
The biggest surprise that requires some getting used to is the dramatic change in attitudes of young Saudi women. Many of the young nursing students I met upon my return were teenagers in secondary school when I left and are now young, mature women looking for jobs, security and a life far different from that of their mothers.
Yet even beyond the confines of the university campus, I see that young Saudi women today have much higher expectations, and they are willing to wait if necessary to achieve the very specific goals they have in mind.
The other day I was at the bank and struck up a conversation with a teller in her mid-20s. She had spent much of her life outside Saudi Arabia, living in Europe and later the United States. Her English was fluent and accentless. She expressed doubts, though, about her future. She instinctively felt society’s pressure to get married when she was not only unprepared, but also unwilling to marry a man who might stifle the independent life she led for so many years.
Making a home and becoming a mother did not frighten her, but leading a conventional Saudi mother’s life did. I don’t mean this to diminish motherhood, which is the bedrock of Saudi society. But the worldly view the bank teller has of life does not fit into the traditions and customs that older Saudi women embrace.
The bank teller illustrates what I see in today’s Saudi women university students. Many of the university nursing students I see today have never left Saudi Arabia, struggle with English, and know that the profession they have chosen holds a certain stigma in Saudi society.
The odds are that many, perhaps not the majority, but a good percentage, will abandon the nursing profession for the roles of wife and mother. But the difference I see in the students I left in 2007 and the ones I see today is staggering. In 2007, being a wife and mother was almost a given. Today that lifestyle is an option to be considered, not necessarily the only path. There is palatable energy I feel among the women in the classroom who see a future has no limits.
For many women, nursing is an opportunity to lead an independent life in which they earn a decent salary, engage in science and further develop their English language skills that will open yet more doors. Where does motherhood fit in? I’m not sure, but for some Saudi women that might come later rather than sooner.
Although a great many Saudis consider spinsterhood a troubling trend in our society, women simply don’t see it as a problem. In fact, the average age of a woman getting married in Saudi Arabia almost mirrors that of women in the United States. In the US, the average age of a woman getting married is about 26 years old. In the United Kingdom, it’s about 28. In Kuwait, the average age of a woman getting married is 25. For Saudi women in 2010, the age was about 25 years old compared to 22 years old in 2002.
It should come as no surprise that Saudi women are rethinking their future. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, women’s attitudes toward gender roles are a remarkable contrast compared to men.
Today, just under 75 percent of Saudi women believe that both men and women should earn an income for the family. About 55 percent of the Saudi men believe both husband and wife should work. About 40 percent of Saudi women surveyed said that women should be more visible in politics and government. Only about 15 percent of Saudi men believed women should be active in politics and government. And an overwhelming 75 of Saudi women say women’s rights will change substantially in the next five years. About 50 percent of the Saudi men believe women’s rights will change.
It’s encouraging that many Saudi men are willing to consider the changing roles of women, but the divide between how men and women view their roles in society is wide. Females are far ahead of the curve in their willingness to effect change.
But we can’t completely condemn men for trailing women in progressive attitudes. For example, the study showed that Saudi families “place a high value on girls’ education with 82 percent of women and 84 percent of men agreeing that a wife and mother should be education. The study also found that women lead men in receiving doctorates. Saudi women receive 79 percent of all Ph.Ds awarded each year in universities.
I credit Saudi universities, in particular the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, Nursing College, for providing career paths for young women who might otherwise not have the opportunities. The Nursing College as far as I am concerned is a pioneer in breaking down social barriers to not only prepare women for jobs in the medical field, but give them the courage to explore a world beyond confines of their family and circle of friends.
Sadly, Saudi universities must pick up the slack left by secondary schools that have failed to give students a global view. If there is one weakness seen in the new generation of women is their lack of preparedness to deal with the pressures of a university and what role Saudi Arabia plays in the international community. Young Saudis’ naïveté on matters of global politics, social movements, even terrorism, can be appalling.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, there is an innate curiosity among Saudi woman that can’t be snuffed out. Their appetite for a life outside of traditional roles is enormous. Simply, the horse is out of the barn and there is no way to get her back inside.
Published in the Saudi-based Arab News on Oct. 4, 2012