I had been living in Riyadh for all of a week or two when my friend, Joyce and I decided to take in a day of shopping at the glorious Faisaliah Mall. In Saudi Arabia, two of the most popular pastimes are socializing with friends and family over a meal and shopping, so it is no wonder that the capital city is festooned with innumerable opportunities to do both.

Joyce and I very quickly adjusted to these local customs and it became our habit to spend Thursday mornings perusing the latest sales at one of the malls and then enjoying a lunch together before returning home.

On one such excursion, we were strolling along while waiting out the Dhuhr prayer time. Hundreds of other shoppers similarly spent the half-hour either eating their lunch in the food court, chatting on one of the many wooden benches or in one of the special prayer areas provided by the mall. During those early days, the sight of most people clothed in black abayas or white thobes was still a marvel to us and as well, we were often taken aback by some of the ritualistic behaviors practiced during the five holy times of the day. Performing wudhu, or ablutions are a prerequisite to prayer and we had been startled on more than one occasion to enter a public washroom and find two or three ladies with their voluminous skirts and abayas hoisted above their knees as they washed their bare feet in the sink. Apparently, our rather conventional Canadian outlook on social hygiene etiquette needed a little more acclimation time than did our ability to shop with the best of them…

As we moved down the mall, I noticed a woman kneeling in the alcove of a shop; pressing her forehead on the cool marble floor as she prayed. What was particularly striking to me was that the place she had chosen to worship was in the entranceway to the very popular shoe store Nine West. The juxtaposition of this devout Middle Eastern lady saying her prayers below the neon signage of this ubiquitous American shop struck me rather forcefully and it occurred to me that had I a camera at the ready, this image would make a rather provocative magazine cover.

Some of the Best Nurses are Men

Since the times of Florence Nightingale, women caregivers have universally dominated the profession of nursing. Nurses in this country, however, have forged their way along an unusual and fascinating path. With a national workforce populated almost exclusively by men, the hospital setting is no different and Saudi Arabia has a remarkable gender representation in nursing unlike any other in the world.

In fact, in 1958, through a collaborative effort by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the first health institution in Saudi Arabia offered a training program for nurses and enrolled an inaugural student body of fifteen, all male. In 1961, two more Health Institutes opened their doors and welcomed both men and women into their nursing programs. Initially there was an outcry at the idea of the women working alongside men as it was assumed that the absence from their families for long periods would cause great hardship.

Regardless, in 1990, along with a general move toward the education of women in Saudi Arabia, the MOH extended the number of Health Institutes to include seventeen for females and sixteen for men. At the same time, Junior Colleges were created to upgrade the training standards for nurses and by 2008, the MOH had aligned their thinking with these facilities and developed thirty-three of their own Colleges of Health Sciences, essentially closing all but four of the original Health Institutes.

Concurrently, in 1976, the College of Nursing at King Saud University in Riyadh offered the first Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in Saudi Arabia, followed in 1987 by a Master of Science program. Since then, a total of fifteen degree programs have been developed in various locations throughout the Kingdom, but despite this evolution in educational infrastructure, Saudi nurses were still grossly under-represented in the hospitals. A royal decree to have a higher percentage of locally trained nurses in the healthcare facilities of this country led to the creation of the Nursing Development and Saudization program at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre; a department devoted to the hiring and mentorship of Saudi nursing students and new graduates. This comprehensive, multi-tiered program recruits bright and ambitious student nurses and enrolls them in a detailed internship program, which upon graduation from both their academic and practical studies, often culminates in a contract as a staff nurse.

Programs such as these, along with a growing acceptance of women in the workforce have certainly increased the number of female nurses, however there still remains a far higher percentage of male nurses per unit here than anywhere else in the world.

Taking the Wheel

Hospital staffing ratios aside, the patriarchal tradition in Saudi Arabia has created another interesting feature of life. In Canada, it is still the norm to see mostly mothers accompanying their children to doctor’s appointments or dropping them off at school each day. Due to the fact that women here are not permitted to drive, the fathers are assigned that role by default. It still intrigues me to see the prevalence of men with one or more little ones in tow as they make their way down the corridors of the hospital or stopping in at the local supermarket after their work-day and cruising the fruit and vegetable aisles with carts piled high with food.

Alarmingly, on a handful of occasions, I have actually witnessed a boy-child barely able to see over the dashboard chauffeuring his mom or sisters about on their errands. Which raises the issue of women and driving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While I very quickly acknowledge that in smaller cities or in more rural areas, women driving themselves is a perfectly natural and very practical notion; the idea of driving in Riyadh immediately creates a visceral response deep within my body, akin to the feeling one might have if teetering on the edge of a cliff. Navigating the streets of this city either on foot or behind the wheel of a car is an exercise in courage, constant vigilance and patience like no other.

Densely populated centres such as Rome or London probably convey more cars on their roads per day, but there still seems to be some sense of predictability to their chaos in traffic. The drivers may indeed be aggressive, but for the most part they adhere to some basic rules of the road. Here, the myriad driving violations are never-ending, completely random and often committed at high speeds. The use of turning indicators is almost non-existent, while the use of the horn is incessant and many cling to the belief that it is their inherent right to turn left or right at an intersection from the third or even fourth lanes over. It behooves every driver to continually assess and adjust at an unrelenting pace and sadly, Saudi Arabia ranks very highly on the global scale of motor vehicle fatalities. On a personal note, I have held a Canadian driver’s license since the age of sixteen, but I can honestly say that I have absolutely no desire to drive a car here.

This does not however, address the deeper philosophical question of whether or not women should be permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia. As may be expected, my immediate western-oriented answer is in the affirmative, but when I posed the question to my female Saudi colleagues; their response was unified. They each echoed my concern at the lack of driving education and agreed that the profusion of testosterone on the city streets creates an extremely dangerous arena for the uninitiated motor vehicle operator. Perhaps not surprisingly, as women who have grown up with either a male relative or a hired taxi ferrying them from door to door in an air-conditioned vehicle, the idea of driving themselves out an about in Riyadh is not a priority for my friends.

Far more relevant to them would be a change in the practice of having to seek a male relative’s approval for almost every significant decision they are faced with throughout their lives. Understandably, being granted the ability to drive takes a back seat to their desire for a release from this more profound restriction on their autonomy.

Thinking it Through

When in public, all women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are required to wear a black, loose fitting and fully enveloping garment known as an abaya over their clothing. As Muslims, the women here also cover their hair with a scarf, called a hijab and many of the more conservative ladies will by choice, veil their faces other than their eyes with another black cloth, called a nikab. Lastly, a few women even don gloves in order to shield all visible skin from the view of males.

For years, this form of ‘covering’ has raised the ire of many people the world over, but interestingly, along with followers of Islam, many other women of faith including Christians, Jews, Hindus and Mennonites have and do, dress very modestly and cover their hair as part of their practice.

Being the curious soul that I am, I have chatted many times with my female Saudi colleagues regarding this issue. Each of the five that I work with is in their mid to late twenties. Two of them cover their faces and have articulated very clearly that they do not wish to remove their nikabs in public; it makes them feel vulnerable, uncomfortable and it is their belief that they should cover.

I arrived in this country without a lot of pre-conceived notions of how people here should or should not conduct themselves. I understood it to be an extremely conservative country, steeped in tradition and customs that penetrate all layers of society, but I tried to reserve judgment until I could arrive at some conclusions first-hand. Paramount in my mind was the concept that, just as I expect people to respect the rules and social mores when they visit my country of Canada; I should endeavor to do the same when I travel. It was always very clear to me that I was here by choice and that if I felt unable to stay in such a restrictive land, rather than being bitter about my circumstances, I should simply choose again to return from whence I came.

Conversations with my friends at work have revealed some interesting truths and remind me yet again not to impose my ideas of what is ‘normal’ on an entire people for whom other customs are their norm. Wearing the abaya is as natural to the ladies in this country as donning a coat on a chilly day is to us in Canada. The wearing of abayas and hijabs commences at puberty and just as other societies celebrate their own rites of passage that signify the transition from a little girl to a young lady, these outward trappings of ‘womanhood’ are looked forword to with some anticipation.

It is important to note that when everyone around you is doing the same, a particular practice such as this is probably not viewed as a hardship; rather it’s a natural way of life. In his book, ‘David and Goliath,’ author Malcolm Gladwell refers to this phenomenon as ‘The law of relative deprivation,’ whereby people tend to compare themselves to others within the same situation as they are. Simply put, how you see yourself in relation to those in your immediate circle determines how positively or negatively you feel about your circumstances. If all the women in your home, city and country also wear an abaya in public, you would probably not see your need to wear one as something unusual.

Aside from the abaya issue, another illustration of Gladwell’s observation is the fact that many of the Filipino nurses I work with have very young children that stay behind in the Philippines and are raised by their grandparents, often for years and years. These nurses typically save all their annual vacation time and travel back once a year for a month or two to visit and be with their little ones. In most western countries, it would be very unusual to find a woman who would leave her babies, sometimes only a month after giving birth, in order to earn the family’s income overseas. For my Filipino colleagues, however, it is their norm and although it is an undeniable hardship, the fact that many, many of those around them also do this, somehow makes it simply a way of their life.

Fun, Food and Family

The importance of family ties and values is sacrosanct to the people of this country and is evident at every level. Friday, the holiest and most anticipated day of the week, is invariably reserved for worship and time spent with relatives. In the hospital setting, it is truly heart-warming to see the concern and care that family members display and convey to their ailing loved ones.

To me, one of the most charming insights into the people of this land is the vision of profuse numbers of cars speckling the sides of the highway as dusk falls, with the adults drinking tea on a large carpet and the children frolicking in the sand before enjoying a picnic together.

No matter the absence of shade, the luxury of soft grass and the privacy granted by a cluster of leafy trees. What is far more meaningful to the citizens of this country is the simple pleasure of breaking bread with family, even if on the side of a dusty road. Only in Saudi…

The part one: http://wsimag.com/travel/9389-unveiling-the-sweet-secrets-of-saudi