Ed “Wilhelm” Simmons is a British teacher in Saudi Arabia. He moved to the Kingdom in September 2011 to learn Arabic, explore Middle Eastern culture and research for his forthcoming PHD in Jeddah. As a Western male living in the Arab world, Our Other Sisters asked Ed to share his views about the impact of the Arab Spring on Saudi Arabia and how he has adjusted to living in the Middle East.
Feeling welcomed by the Saudis in Jeddah, Ed has quickly become accustomed to living in the Middle East.
“I realise my opinion isn’t representative of all Western males, but I found it quite easy to adjust. I was prepared for most things.”
Asking Ed about the treatment of women and the status of their emancipation in Saudi Arabia is a difficult question for anybody to answer.
However, Ed tells us that in Jeddah, women seem to “get a better deal compared to the rest of Saudi Arabia” as it is a slightly more liberal city. He tells us that young women hang out in malls and “even talk to strangers, seemingly without fear of repercussions”.
Ed feels unable to comment on women’s struggles in the Kingdom but admits treatment of women is often “abhorrent.”
“On the surface, things obviously appear very difficult. Not being able to do everything that men can do (especially driving and traveling) is obviously highly restrictive. I cannot comment on how women are treated.”
Our Other Sisters attempts to break down stereotypes, not just regarding feminism, but also culture, and the Western perception of Saudi Arabia. Stories and reports about what life is like for women living in the Kingdom is brought to us, mainly, by the Western media.
Ed tells us that “the Western media assume the hijab is repressive of women, whereas many may see it as liberating.” This is also true across the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Our Other Sisters have reported recent developments regarding the Women2Drive campaign in the Kingdom. Ed is aware of the campaign.
“Women’s rights are one of the few political areas people are prepared to talk about.”
Ed attributes this to King Abdullah’s “selective liberalisation” which he suggests has allowed female protesters to be more vocal in their campaigns. Ed muses: “perhaps it is the aforementioned changing nature of the youth in Saudi Arabia” which has put women’s issues on the national agenda.
“Almost everyone, largely male, I have asked agrees that women should be allowed to drive, and most believe that this will happen soon. However, they merely expect it to happen.”
Ed admits he spends a lot of time thinking about the Arab Spring and the way in which it has affected life in Saudi Arabia. He believes it has “permeated culture” in the Kingdom, but it appears that people are “slightly envious of the situation elsewhere.”
So is it likely that Saudi Arabia will feel the full force of the Arab Spring outside of its Eastern province?
Ed is not convinced. “The most ‘visible’ reason for this is the invisibility of any form of organised opposition, be it in a tangible form or in cyberspace.”
“From personal experience, people are also very reluctant to talk about politics and many seem unaware of developments. Perhaps they are unwilling to talk to a stranger or westerner about it, but it is almost as if the subject does not even register with the youth, of whom much is hoped.”
In reference to Ed’s previous comment about change being “expected”, he elaborates: “If change occurs, and people expect it will, most seem to assume it will be top-down.”
“In my experience, the problem is that the Western media view religious dominance, the oil issue and freedom of speech as massive problems. Here in Jeddah, the muttawa are rarely seen, and people are not as scared to speak their mind. Religious dominance is largely seen as something to be celebrated, not to be ashamed of.”
Western eyes and ears
Our Other Sisters want to know if the Western perception of life in Saudi Arabia is accurate. Ed reassures us that the Western media reports the broad issues enveloping Saudi culture quite well: religion and oil are important, the Royal family are venerated and free speech and women’s rights are curtailed.
The very fact that free speech is restricted means that “it is impossible to get an accurate idea of whether all this is true, however, and how much opposition there is to all this.”
The problem of stereotyping still exists.
“As for the bigger inaccuracies that all Saudis are terrorists, they don’t care about the poor, they are rude, and other such stereotypes about the middle east – well, you’d have to be an idiot to ever believe they were true.”
You can follow Ed’s journey in Jeddah via his Burger Kingdom blog.