Little Lulu, my 10-year old daughter came to snuggle in my bed the other night after the quietness of slumber time had brought peace and quiet to our home. As she crawled into my bed, she had that “look” on her face; the look that every mother knows that a serious conversation was about to ensue that could potentially leave a lasting imprint on her child. She had the same look on her face the day she sheepishly came home and announced to me that a girl at her school had “educated” all the other 4th graders about what mommy and daddy “do”. I had been deep in thought working on a paper for my PhD program and literally choked on my coffee and sent a spray of coffee, milk, and sugar across the room in my shock. I had been lulled into a false security that my children living in Saudi Arabia would be magically protected from the subjects such as sex, drugs, or other topics that parents worldwide often find a challenge to broach with their children. I took a deep breath, preparing myself again, for how I was going to handle the subject that my child was bringing to me, hoping NOT to replicate a similar episode of my coffee choking episode that had occurred in the previous year. As parents, we are often put on the spot of how to instill some type of wisdom or insight to our children on those taboo subjects that through the generations have left us all in a momentary daze.
My daughters are half Saudi, and half American, which I have fondly nicknamed them “noose-nooses” which translates into English as “half/half”. Their cultural identities are mixed between two cultures that in many ways exist on opposite sides of the cultural spectrum in relation to individuality vs. conformity. The identity of an individual is not static but dialectical and ever changing in relation to the environment, social influences, and the people sending messages of worth regarding an identity. Bi-cultural individuals are often presented with a more complex identity encompassing various ideals, values, and beliefs that may contradict each other (Schafer, 2010). I have witnessed events either from both my husband’s cultural group and my own cultural group that have said disparaging remarks towards their opposing identity directly, or through indirect methods. Being completely honest, I do prefer my American ideological upbringing, which in words at least, supports individualistic pursuits and independence. I would be lying to others and myself if I did not acknowledge this aspect of myself. At the same time, I recognize that my daughters are not a mirror image of their mother, and have a different world to learn to navigate. With this said, I want my daughters to understand both sides of their cultural identity and be able to appreciate the positive aspects, as well as negative aspects that exist in both of the cultural identities. As they develop into adults, they will have to come to terms with the divergent themes between their cultural identities and develop a lifestyle that is befitting of their essences. Part of my struggles of being in a bi-cultural marriage, as well as parenting bi-cultural children, is I am often faced with trying to provide a response that supports my children’s bi-cultural identity.
As Lulu snuggled down into the pillows and pulled the comforter up around her neck, she tilted her head and began our conversation with an apprehensive tone. “Mommy, what does God want a female to do?” I felt the heaviness of the conversation increase as I thought about the various voices she was confronted with on a daily basis of what her role as a female is in relation to the Islamic faith. While many believe outside of Saudi Arabia that women are oppressed and are served with one version of the role of women, in reality there are a multitude of views and interpretations depending on the people you speak too. Even in the cultures that are often viewed as homogenous, heterogeneity exists in all societies.
“Well Lulu, God/Allah wants us to be compassionate and kind to others.” I replied hoping that his would answer her question.
She sat for a moment, contemplating what I said and then replied, “Mommy, yes I know that, but what does God want them to DO with their life? My religious teacher told me that God only wants women to stay home and take care of their children. You stay at home and take care of us. She said it is against God for women to be like an engineer or something like that.”
I sat there in silence contemplating my next sentence. To be honest I felt like I was going to explode; I was mad at myself, and mad at this teacher who had erroneously used religion as propaganda to keep little girls from developing their passion. (By the way, for those outside the Islamic faith, there is NOTHING in the Islamic faith that prohibits women from having careers, although just as in any religion, certain fundamentalist at times try to use religious doctrine to repress a sector of the population). Furthermore, I felt like a wave of anger wash over me as I thought of the tuition we were paying for our girls to attend this school and have this kind of message sent. I had specifically selected this school because I knew the history of the school, and the historical struggle of this school to establish education for girls in Saudi Arabia. I know the founders and owners of the school are pivotal players in the empowerment of women in the Kingdom. Somehow, a woman had found her way into the classroom and delivered a message that had the potential to leave a lasting impression on the plans of these vulnerable impressionable girls.
I tentatively asked Lulu “So if women should only be allowed to stay at home according to your teacher, how is it that she is working?”
Lulu smiled and replied, “Well she said it is ok for women to be a teacher. Like you were a teacher mommy that is ok.”
I left my position at a private women’s university two years ago to pursue my PhD and spend more time with my children. My children saw my position at the university as a “teacher for big girls”, which fit into one of the acceptable roles women have been allowed to take in Saudi Arabia. I had always believed that I had instilled in my girls that they could choose a career that they were passionate about, even if it fell outside of the traditional roles that had been assigned to women. Lulu was born in the United States, but we had moved to Saudi Arabia when she was only a year old and had never seen me in the role of a full-fledged career outside the boundaries of “acceptable women careers” in Saudi. Furthermore, I knew she had received similar restrictive messages from her Saudi side of the family and I needed to handle this with the utmost sensitivity. Every fiber in my body wanted to scream to her “Your teacher is a freaking idiot”, but I knew that was my feminist side waiting to be set free and attack every institution or person that had ever left me feeling repressed in my life. Moreover, calling her teaching an “idiot” was not exactly setting a model of compassion and kindness.
After thinking for a couple of seconds of how I was going to attempt to show some level of respect for the view her teacher had taught her, yet at the same time provide her an alternative worldview, I began to speak. “Lulu some women prefer to stay at home, but that does not make them any less or any better than women who decide to have a career. You know mommy’s cousin in America is an engineer….she is a good person right? Your Auntie (from her Saudi side) is getting ready to start law school because she wants to go into the courts in Saudi and help women and children. Aunty is a good person isn’t she?” My dialogue continued as I continued to try examples of women from both cultures that had contributed positively to their society by taking up different occupations. In addition, I talked to Lulu about the different positions I have held throughout my lifetime, and what they entailed to illustrate to her that women, if they chose, have a role to play in their community, as well as in their homes.
I want to empower my girls to take on roles that best suit their own hearts, and not those roles that others press upon them. Lulu is my child that is most likely to embrace motherhood and domestic life. She loves babies, she loves to watch the cooking channel, and she prefers the comfort of home instead of forging into new situations. Although she is also my little entrepreneur that has recently developed an interest in creating customized hair accessories, which her father, her older adult sister, and I are encouraging her by teaching her basic business management principles to use in developing her idea. She is only 10 years old and her identity is continuously growing right along with her physical development. Although bi-cultural children are often faced with an identity crisis of sorts as they go through the process of figuring out who they are, bicultural children have also been found to grow into adults who are more flexible and are able to effectively negotiate different social situations and work effectively with diverse people (Matsumoto & Juang, 2008). Perhaps the exposure of different worldview and beliefs from an early age teaches them there is more than one “right” way to approach and live in the world, which gives them the ability to embrace and respect the diversity of others, because of their own internal diversity.
Matsumoto, D., & Juang, L. (2008). Culture and psychology (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Schafer, G. (2010). Multiple Identifications, movement, and place making in cross-cultural heterosexual relationships in New Zealand. New Zealand Sociology, 25(1), 4.