[EDITOR’S NOTE: Names have been changed to protect identities, given the sensitive cross-cultural nature of the subject matter.]
“Why do you oppress women?” a UCSB Global Studies professor once satirically asked Faisal, a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian student, to mock common American misperception of Middle Eastern cultures. Such jokes aside, Faisal and his Saudi friend Taja rarely encounter cultural harassment from others at UCSB. But one rare incident brought out Taja’s feisty side.
Last year in the dining commons, Taja scooped up the ice cream from her bowl, smeared it across another girl’s head, and walked out. This girl, who was obviously intoxicated, had approached the table Taja and friends were sitting at and started mocking Faisal, calling him flirtatious names she’d rather not share.
Not amused by Taja’s ice cream stunt, the drunk girl followed Taja right up to her dorm room, and eventually filed a complaint with the university. After a brief hearing at Judicial Affairs for “initiating a food fight” a few weeks later, Taja received a warning. She also had to write an essay about appropriate dining common behavior.
“Maybe they thought that because I am international it would be difficult for me to write in English,” she said. “It wasn’t.”
The drunk girl had to go before the university court as well, but Taja said they wouldn’t tell her the result.
Taja and Faisal are here for four years to study engineering, but their college experiences don’t include keg stands and beer Olympics. Instead, the two and their diverse group of friends — which includes students from Taiwan, Trinidad, and Bangladesh, as well as three Mexican-Americans — go to the movies, have game nights, and take weekend trips to L.A.
Taja and Faisal’s excellent English and keen sense of American humor undoubtedly contribute to their positive attitudes and, usually, cool demeanors. Plus, “most people at UCSB are so nice,” they both said.
They’ve experienced little culture shock in Santa Barbara. A full dose of American culture from the Internet prepared them for living in Santa Barbara. But few Americans would experience the same ease visiting Saudi Arabia, Faisal said.
Americans, especially women, would be shocked in the fanatically conservative society. Men and women rarely speak in public, even at Starbucks. Women do not drive. Alcohol is prohibited. Marriages are arranged; dowries are customary, and expensive.
But the country’s oil supply pays for its lavish welfare system; the government pays for middle class young people like Faisal and Taja to study at UCSB for four years. That doesn’t sound too oppressive.
In America, we are understandably critical of arranged marriages and gender segregated public spaces and tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an oppressive kingdom dictated by age-old rules and regulations. But Faisal and Taja said most Saudis are more moderate than western viewpoint suggests; in fact, they say that most Saudis are fond of America. In fact, the government pays for over 80,000 students to study here every year, Taja said. However, most of those students are male.
Also, “arranged” marriages might be an overstatement. Faisal explained the courting process he’s familiar with: When a young man reaches the age of 20 or so, his mom and sisters begin to keep an eye out for attractive and likeable young women in the area.
“My mom wouldn’t go for an ugly girl,” Faisal said jokingly.
After finding a potential girl, the two families meet over a large meal. The men sit on one side of the table, and the women sit on the other. Among potential family, the girl does not wear her head scarf. After the couple spends about an hour alone together, the young man decides if he wants to propose. If he does, an engagement period begins, which is basically the Saudi version of dating, Faisal said. After the roughly one-year engagement period, the couple can decide if they want to go through with the wedding.
The process sounds fairly reasonable, although, it doesn’t exactly resonate with Americans’ idea of independence and extended adolescence.
Even in Berkeley, of all freewheeling places, one gray-haired woman’s remark suggested Islamic customs like the head scarf equated to female oppression. She said, “You don’t have to wear that here. This is America!”
“The funny part is the lady was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. She was covering her head too,” Taja said.
Taja takes these rare encounters with a grain of salt. She’s accustomed to a life S.B. that couldn’t be more different from her old one at home. Here, she drives a car and wears a red head scarf covered with little peace signs — a California-inspired twist, she said. Santa Barbara has made a mark on her.
When she returned home last year for summer vacation, she found the name of a UCSB graduate on a research blog who was working near her home town. She messaged the fellow Gaucho and arranged to meet up and chat about their reverse cultural experiences. Taja brought along her friends, who despite being fairly moderate, were shocked that she was speaking to a man in public.
“He used to be a wild IV partier,” she said. “He told me about all of the promiscuous Saudi girls he’s hooked up with.” Her friends were floored. But they could tell he was a decent and smart guy so after talking to him for a bit, they eventually changed their mind about the wild American. Taja had no reservations about meeting up with this older guy after only one year abroad; I wonder how Americanized she’ll be after four years.
Both Faisal and Taja chose to come to America because life at home was too easy. Food was prepared and rides were chauffeured — not much different from some American childhoods. Perhaps most Americans don’t have chauffeurs, but many teenagers here are fairly pampered by their families before they leave home.
Taja has noticed that chivalry is almost nonexistent in America. But women are “liberated,” she joked. Guys don’t stand up for her on crowded buses. “If I had my hair flowing, he’d stand up,” she said. Funny how American perception of liberation equates to a foreign one of disrespect.
Taja and Faisal didn’t know each other before Santa Barbara. But they are two of the only Saudis on the UCSB campus.
“Faisal is family,” said Taja. “If you mess with him, I’m going to put ice cream in your hair.”
I emailed her after the interview asking her if it would ever be possible for her to marry someone she met on her own.
She said it is possible for young people to marry someone they meet personally, perhaps in a co-ed work environment, as long as both families deem the other suitable and compatible. Some Saudis, like Taja, deem this process a better option.
Santa Barbara has given Taja and Faisal an opportunity to create a friendship that would have been impossible for them to develop at home.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the two of them.