HAMMOND — Daily life for men and women in Saudi Arabia differs from the perceptions many Americans have, yet it also depends on where in the oil-rich, conservative Muslim country people live.
Whiting resident Susan Duncan, who taught English as a second language to graduate students for 2½ years at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, presented “An American Woman’s Observations of Daily Life in Saudi Arabia” at the Hammond Rotary Club luncheon Tuesday at Purdue University Northwest’s Alumni Hall.
While the capital city Riyadh is “very conservative,” Duncan said the coastal city of Jeddah “is like Saudi Arabia’s Las Vegas.” Jeddah is also the port city for Mecca, where millions of Muslims arrive for the hajj, or pilgrimage, she said. “That makes Jeddah a cosmopolitan city. I think of it as a United Nations.”
Both women and men cover up when they appear in public, with women wearing an abaya, a robe-like dress; the hijab, a head scarf; and a niqab, the garment that covers the face. However, men don’t cover their faces, said Duncan, who does academic research and teaches psychology and linguistics.
“There is a misconception that there are strict rules and there are severe punishments, but there is a lot of thumbing-the-nose in Jeddah. It’s a loosey-goosey place,” she told members and guests of the Hammond, Munster and Highland rotary clubs.
“Do women mind this way of dress? No,” she said. “After two weeks, I got used to it. You can have a bad hair day. The abayas are increasingly decorative. The sleeves are the location for ‘bling.’”
In addition, Saudi Arabia is largely a desert with wind blowing sand and dust in sudden storms.
The hijab and niqab are practical garments, Duncan said. “If you don’t cover your face, sand gets into your lungs.”
These garments emphasize that women’s identities are not public, she said. “Her face, her beauty is for the appreciation and enjoyment of the man she marries.” However, under the abayas, “they dress like us.”
Saudi women love lacy attire and lingerie, she said. “Victoria’s Secret sells more lingerie in Saudi Arabia than anywhere else in the world,” she said.
Duncan said the disparity between men and women shows up in the separation of facilities on the college campus and in such places as banks, telecommunication stores and other retail establishments.
The men’s campus at King Abdulaziz University occupies a large footprint and features state-of-the-art soccer fields and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The women’s campus is a little rectangle of land, and while that campus has the same type of facilities, they “are inferior, kind of cramped,” Duncan said.
In addition, the women’s campus is a walled compound. Residences also are walled with elaborate shrubbery, and the windows have special screens to hide women from view.
“What I felt most objectionable was being inside tomblike houses without windows,” Duncan said. “When I came back to Hammond, it was like paradise.”
Marriages are arranged by families, and most females marry young or not at all, she said. “There are no loud objections from males or females about arranged marriages. The hope is they will fall in love.”
Saudi Arabia has a system of male guardianship, which means a husband owns his wife and children, Duncan said. If there is a divorce, the husband gets the children.
And there are definitely no Valentine’s Day celebrations in Saudi Arabia, she said, explaining that “one’s romantic life should focus on your spouse. No one in Saudi Arabia will receive a box of chocolates."