People have often asked me how I could go from living in the United States to Saudi Arabia, especially in light of the perceived role of women in Saudi Arabia. A country where unarguably women are often at the mercy of their male guardians. Women in Saudi Arabia are born into the world having the male guardianship of their father, and throughout their lives, and dependent upon their life circumstances may be under the guardianship of their father, brothers, husbands, or son upon their death. As a woman living in Saudi Arabia, a female will never reach legal status of being “independent”. Although growing up in Oklahoma, right along the Oklahoma / Arkansas state line, I often see many similarities between the two cultures in relation to women roles and family expectations. I am the first to admit that Saudi definitely has more harsh interpretations and implications for women in line with punishments for breaking out of the traditional gender roles, but in both cultures, women are expected to play the domesticated maternalistic role.
I remember when I divorced my first husband and was returning to start my Master program, my grandfather asking me why I was “wasting my time” with further education, that I should be spending my time in attracting a new husband to secure my future. His final comment was, “You know you are not getting any younger and women don’t hold their looks forever”, even though I was only 25-years old at the time. My grandfather was a successful businessperson and attended college, which was uncommon for a man born in the early 1900’s., but still his views and social indoctrination of the role of women were that a female should focus on building a family, home, and children for the security of her future. According to Johnson & Stokes (1984), the Southern part of the United States has held the view of females’ role relegated to be more domestic with females being relegated to the role of being beautiful fragile creatures excluded from major decision-making positions that are relegated to the male gender. Interestingly enough, during my grandfather’s lifetime, he was married six times, and divorced four times. I remember him often saying that he probably would have flourished in Saudi Arabia because at least he would have been able to keep more than one wife at a time legally. While I love and adored my grandfather, this also showed his views of women in seeing them as a possession or object that were to be collected like luxury cars.
As women, across different cultural boundaries, I am sure many of us can identify a part of ourselves that does not identify with the gender roles we have been given. For that matter, how many men have squirmed and led a life of misery because their innate tendency does not match those roles, which society has imposed on them? My mother had a career, but in my childhood, I remember her coming home in the evening preparing the family meal, and then often serving my father in his recliner as he sat watching television. I remember promising myself as a child that I would never play the slave to any man. Although I remember in the last years of my parent’s marriage, my father began taking on some of the responsibilities of preparing the family meals as well. Perhaps the early scenes I watched carried out between my parents forever imprinted an aversion to the whole expectations of a woman cooking and what it represented to me.
I personally hate to cook. In fact, my hatred of my expected culinary role, is such an anxiety-ridden experience, I would prefer driving stakes into my hands than attempting to cook a meal. An attribute that both my ex-husband (an American), and my current husband (a Saudi) both have had issues with. Both of them had mothers that fit closer to the idealized role of “the wife and mother slaving in the kitchen” to provide for their family. My husband recently told me “What kind of woman are you?” an attempt to question my adequacy of being a mother, wife, and a female. In fact, he even tried to pull the “biological argument”, which because of my educational background and experience was promptly slapped down with scientific facts. In spite of our heated discussion, he did not change his belief that females were biologically born into this world with a pink apron ready to take on the role of Betty Crocker. A belief that has been so ingrained into the culture, that my scientific based findings were ignored, regardless of the fact that he is well educated with a Master’s degree.
We are not born knowing our gender roles. As much as the media and others have proliferated the belief that males and females biologically are programmed to take on roles, in reality this is false. Gender roles are composed of the socialization process that takes place from family, peers, educational institutions, culture, religion, and media that describes the attributes and characteristics that an individual is expected to strive to achieve in relation to their gender identity (Crouter, Manke, & McHale, 1995; Lips, 2006; Para-Mallum, 2010: & Witt, 1997). Specifically the socialization processes offered by family, as well as education in the early years of an individual’s life influence the primary determinants of gender roles.
Typically, family members are the first life-long, meaningful relationships established by a child that is a major force in a child’s socialization process of the world in terms of culture, values, morals, and more specifically expected gender roles (Witt, 1997). Gender roles are usually first introduced by the family, where subsequent influences such as peers, educational institutions, and other entities build upon these identified roles, or at other times may challenge the identified gender roles (Witt, 1997). Not only does one’s family teach the gender roles, but they are also modeled through the interactions of family members in what is expected and sanctioned rules of engagement between genders, as well as preference for the male gender as children, which is seen as a worldwide phenomenon (Crouter, Manke, McHale, 1995; Sadker & Zittleman, 2005; & Witt, 1997).
Some of the memories of my Oklahoma childhood, as well as my own experience of having children, has proliferated the uneven sanctioning of the worth of the male over the female in both my native Oklahoma, as well as Saudi Arabia. I remember my mother repeatedly telling me stories of how disappointed my father was that I was not a boy. I was born in 1971, the days before ultrasounds gave parents the ability to know the gender of their child. My mother recounted the story of how I laid in the hospital nursery for days nameless because my father had refused to pick any names for a baby girl because of his strong belief that he would be blessed with a baby boy. I remember my mother telling me how my father looked at me with disdain my first few days of life because my gender broke his dreams of having his prodigy to follow in his footsteps and share his love of hunting, guns, and fishing. I remember my mother in a fit of rage during her divorce from my father, wondering if their marriage would have been saved or her life would have followed a different path if they had a son.
Other messages were sent to me during childhood from my extended family by the exaltation of the lone two grandsons that were born into each side of my family. Each of my male cousins held some sanctioned position as the “prince” of the family, simply because they possessed male anatomy. That somehow they deserved more because they were the “lone grandsons”, the prince of the family, with the expectations of continuing the family legacy into the next generation. In my perceptions, as granddaughters we were loved, but no great expectations or special place was contrived simply because we lacked testicles and instead possessed ovaries.
In my life as an adult, I saw my ex-husband, and my current husband disappointed because I brought forward female offspring. Even though both had the knowledge that the sex of a child is determined by the male, somehow both seemed to carry anger towards me with the birth of daughters. I will always be grateful to the Egyptian female doctor who performed my ultrasound that revealed the gender of my youngest daughter for chastising my husband who had tears well up in his eyes with disappointment as the doctor happily announced, “It’s a girl!”. She attacked him with harsh words for his response, and reminded him of the blessings of having daughters in the Islamic religion. I wondered as I sat there on the table if she too had been made to feel someway inferior in her life because she was a female.
I personally love having all daughters, because to be honest, I would not know how to relate to sons. I had no brothers, my father was often away from home during my childhood, and I was raised with the feminine mystique pervading my childhood home. Quite honestly, marriage has never been my best role as well (according to both my current and ex-husband) because of my apparent inability to “understand and read the male mind”. It is not that I do not understand the male mind; I just choose not to play into the stereotypical roles that have been thrust upon me, not based on my aptitude, but because of my gender.
Saudi Arabia and the Southern part of the United States continue to echo benevolent sexism, which is not always openly hostile of women, but more so the process of objectifying women as beautiful creatures, that need to be protected from the outside world, and is measured in her worth of producing male heirs and her performance of domestic duties. In addition, women often base their own identities in their perception of their beauty and ability to perform “womanly” duties versus obtaining status through accomplishments in the world of work. Women comprise roughly 50% of the population in both of these cultures, and as such, have also played a role in subjugating and supporting the minimization of the female gender, through their own voices, as well as their expectations of their daughters, mothers, granddaughters, daughter-in-laws, and friends of what a “real woman” should be able to do. I am a real woman, but I will not take on an identity or roles that are not coherent with my biological aptitudes, which matter of fact, have little resemblance of the human socially constructed role of a woman. In addition, I will raise my daughters to listen to their inner voices and follow their passion in life, and not falling victims to the socially constructed role of being a female that others try to impose on them.
Crouter, A. C., Manke, B. A., & McHale, S. M. (1995). The family context of gender intensification in early adolescence. Child Development, 66(2), 317–329. Retrieved from the Walden Library using the Academic Search Complete database.
Johnson, N. E., & Stokes, C. (1984). Southern traditionalism and sex-role ideology: A research note. Sex Roles, 10(1/2), 11-18.
Lips, H. (2006). A New Psychology of Women. (3rd Ed.). USA: Waveland Press.
Para-Mallam, F. J., & Funmi, J. (2010). Promoting gender equality in the context of Nigerian cultural and religious expression: Beyond increasing female access to education. Compare: A Journal of Comparative & International Education, 40(4), 459–477.
Retrieved from the Walden Library using the Educational Research Complete database.
Witt, S. D. (1997). Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles. Adolescence, 32(126), 253–259. Retrieved from the Walden Library using the Medline With Full Text database.