Rant warning. Buckle up.
Since I live in Saudi Arabia and write a lot about it, I often end up reading a lot about it, too. Often people, especially friends and family who probably wouldn’t otherwise read a whole lot about Saudi Arabia if I didn’t live here, will send me articles or pieces about life or events in Saudi Arabia and ask what I think of them.
Like, one time a person sent me a link to a piece about abuse in Saudi schools–teachers hitting children–and asked my opinion on it. My opinion was that this is certainly a problem. It needs to be addressed. I applaud parents who actively seek reform. If my child were to come home and tell me that she was hit by a teacher or an administrator, or that she saw another child being hit by a teacher or an administrator…well, let’s just say that the next day would be really unpleasant for all of the adults involved.
But then…there were the comments on the piece. Oh, the comments. Dripping with neocolonial angst and pity that people actually live in such a backward society. This is common in Westerners’ writing about Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to negative stories, although they frequently don’t notice it (and I’m guilty of it too sometimes, although I really try to police myself when it comes to this). Painfully common. Sometimes the neocolonialism is so evident in people’s words, it’s like seeing someone walking around with their skirt tucked in their underwear, and you just want to tap them on the shoulder and let them know.
From what I’ve read, Westerners will scoff at Saudis who demand legislation to address problems they see in their society (for example, the wasting of food), especially if those problems aren’t legislative priorities in America (“Oh, those childish Saudis and their lack of common sense! They’re so unable to control themselves that they actually demand frivolous legislation to do it for them, when such greater problems exist in their society!”), while simultaneously expressing horror that laws that protect Americans from real dangers and injustices that have managed to make their way onto the American cultural radar do not (yet) exist in Saudi Arabia. For example, car seat laws. As far as I know, every state in America mandates that children be buckled into appropriate car seats when riding in cars, even though when it comes down to it, it should be common sense to buckle your kid into a car seat, for Americans and Saudis alike. But it wasn’t in America until laws made it so. And unfortunately, it certainly isn’t in Saudi Arabia yet, and just like in America, I expect it won’t be until laws make it so.
That’s creeping neocolonialism, folks–this idea that “my culture does it right and yours is backward if it doesn’t do things like mine does, so fix your culture to make it more like mine. I’ll help you! The problems you see in your culture are silly. The problems I see in your culture are important and need to be addressed immediately.”
My brother and I used to ride in the back of a truck when we were kids. Like, if we were going to town and we were taking the truck and the weather was nice outside, of course we kids would load up and ride in the back. Having four people in the cab of a truck was crowded and uncomfortable, something to be endured preferably only on snowy days when my parents had to take the truck to work because the cars wouldn’t make it in the snow. We loved days when we could ride in the back of the truck. It was fun.
It was also really, really dangerous. Our parents loved us. Our parents were the best parents ever. But we were allowed to do that very dangerous thing, like every other kid we grew up with, simply because it’s what had always been done in our part of the country. Eventually, of course, my parents stopped letting us ride in the back of the truck. They wouldn’t dream of letting their grandchildren do it. But why did they stop? Was it because they suddenly wised up and decided, “No, this is bad, very bad, and we should not do this anymore; this is a cultural flaw”? No. Was it because a tragedy befell our family due to children riding in the back of a truck? Thank God, no. It was because a law was passed. Heavy fines were enforced for anyone who was pulled over with passengers in the back of the truck. And through the enforcement of that law, the culture changed. You’ll never see a kid riding in the back of a truck nowadays in Missouri. And it probably should have been common sense to not let kids ride in the backs of trucks, at least not at highway speeds. But it wasn’t. Because, again, it was what had always been done. It was culture. And a law fixed that problem, because someone (or multiple someones) from within my culture identified and addressed it.
When Americans pass a law that addresses a problem in their society, no matter how invasive the law may be (I mean, there are people in America who still complain about being required to wear seat belts in cars) or how attributable to a lack of common sense the problem may be, the legislative solution is lauded as enlightened, progressive, civilized. But when a Saudi calls for such a law to be passed, it’s because Saudis are primitive and backward and cannot control themselves, and so they must have silly laws to do it for them–that is, unless the Americans have also identified the problem in their own culture and legislated it away themselves.
The point is, we Americans, especially white Americans, are so terribly efficient at illuminating others’ cultural malignancies while conveniently ignoring our own, or ignoring that we once had the exact same problem. Actually, in many cases, “ignoring” is much too generous a term, because that would imply that people actually see and recognize problems but choose not to address them. In many cases, people don’t even know or realize these problems exist because they’re so busy tsk-tsking about how the savages need to be saved from themselves.
Remember that article I mentioned earlier, the one about abuse in Saudi schools? The comments on that piece went largely along the lines of, “I’m so glad I don’t live in Saudi Arabia.” “This would never happen in America.” “I’m so glad I live in America, where I don’t have to worry about the safety of my child at school.” And I’m sure that if it came out that Saudi Arabia was considering taking a much stricter stance on teachers or administrators who hit children (as, I will say as the mother of a Saudi-American child who will likely be attending school in Saudi Arabia, they absolutely should), the comments from my countrymen who got wind of the development would go largely along the same lines, complete with detailed diagnoses of exactly why this problem exists in Saudi culture, from people who are (shocker!) not Saudi. Because Saudi Arabia is backward and primitive and Saudis have little regard for their children. And yet…
Let me tell you a story about going to school in America.
When I was a freshman in high school, I took band class. I wasn’t really that into band, but it was a tiny school, and elective choices were limited. I played the flute. (No, I never went to band camp, for those who share my late-90s pop culture reference set. And as serious as the following story is, I know that it totally lends itself to American Pie jokes. Just to get that out of the way.)
I was pretty terrible at playing the flute. I couldn’t even sit properly while I played. Apparently, it’s bad form to cross your legs when you play the flute. I kept forgetting, because in any other sitting situation, I crossed my legs out of habit. I didn’t even realize I was doing it half the time, but when I was in band class, my music teacher noticed every time, and she would yell at me to uncross my legs whenever she caught me.
Now, as teachers go, this music teacher was not a particular favorite of mine. I didn’t hate her, and I never really had a major problem with her, but I admit, once I realized I had this ability to drive her crazy by crossing my legs while I played the flute, it got kind of fun to mess with her. We were all somewhat amused by how she would scold me so seriously whenever she caught me playing with my legs crossed. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to get so upset about. It was a tiny rural school; none of us kids were destined for Julliard, or even a bottom-tier college marching band. Band class was a silly elective. None of us took it seriously.
But one day, the teacher had enough. She stopped the piece we were playing and said, “Nikki Hunter, the next time you cross your legs, I’m going to paddle you.”
We all laughed.
“I’m serious,” she said. “I will paddle you the next time this happens.”
Despite her ominous proclamation, none of us believed she was serious. Still, I figured it was best not to mess with a paddling threat, and right then I decided I would quit with the leg crossing.
But as I mentioned before, it was a habit.
I crossed my legs again a few minutes later, not even realizing I was doing it. I was plugging away at the piece on the music stand in front of me, along with the rest of the class, when the music teacher stopped us, pointed to the door, and said, “Nikki. Art room. Now.”
The art room was empty during that particular class period; it was the art teacher’s planning time. The music teacher did not have a paddle, but the art teacher did (when one of her classes got particularly loud and rowdy, she used to smack it on her metal desk to startle/threaten us into silence), so for the music teacher, the art room was the place to be in order to administer a paddling.
The music teacher escorted me out of the room and into the art room as the entire class watched, stunned. No one had expected her to actually do it, which, I suppose, is exactly why she was determined to do it.
The art teacher was sitting at her desk in her empty classroom; the music teacher requested the paddle, which was a plank of wood about two feet long and about an inch thick, with a narrow end for a handle. According to Missouri law, another teacher had to witness the paddling, so the art teacher stood by after she handed the paddle to the music teacher.
The music teacher had me put my hands on one of the art tables. She explained that she was going to hit me on my rear three times. She wound up, and I cringed, anticipating the first blow.
It hurt. Like, a lot. It hurt so much that my eyes welled up with tears that I wouldn’t let fall because I was so angry; I wouldn’t let this teacher see me cry for anything.
The second and third blows hurt just as much. But they weren’t as traumatic as the first, because, I expect, like childbirth, the first one is always the worst because you have no clue what to expect. When the third blow had been administered, the music teacher handed the paddle back to the art teacher and I turned around, looked upward and blinked back my tears, and marched back into the music class, a smug grin on my face, proud of myself because I hadn’t let myself cry.
I took my seat and picked up my flute. The music teacher came back into the room a few seconds after me and started the class again like nothing had happened.
It hurt to sit down for a few days after that. I didn’t think to look back there until a couple days later, when I craned my neck around while stepping into the shower and looked into the mirror to see yellowish-gray bruises fading into my backside.
When I was a little kid, my dad had always made it a point to tell my brother’s and my teachers that we were not to be paddled at school. My parents weren’t opposed to spanking, but my dad would not accept any sort of corporal punishment being administered to his children by teachers. “If they need to be spanked,” he would say to teachers, “I will be the one to do it.”
But by the time I was in high school, it was unrealistic for my dad to go to every teacher and state his rule, and besides, I’d never done anything to warrant a paddling in elementary school or middle school. It seemed silly to think that high school was when I would do something to get myself paddled.
I did tell my parents about the paddling, but I downplayed it as much as I could. I didn’t want them to make a big stink at school about it. I’d gotten through it (although I was certain I wouldn’t be taking any more band classes). I was humiliated, and I just wanted the whole thing to go away. And it did.
Years later, when I told Mr. Mostafa about this incident, he was horrified. “That’s sick,” he said. “No way are teachers allowed to do that.”
“Yup,” I said. “In Missouri, and a bunch of other states, it’s totally legal.”
“Teachers can hit you?”
“I mean, like, they have to hit you on the butt, nowhere else. And it has to be with a paddle, I think. And I don’t think they’re allowed to do it in front of other kids. And another teacher has to watch it, as a witness. There are rules as to how the teacher has to go about it. But yeah.”
“That’s sick,” he repeated. “I mean, sometimes would teachers hit us, like smack us on the head or something. It used to happen. I guess it still probably does sometimes. But it’s not allowed. Ever. That’s horrible. Horrible.”
And the thing is, I agree wholeheartedly with him. It is sick. It should be illegal for teachers and school administrators to hit children. This seems like a no-brainer to me. And yet…it’s legal in 19 states, including Missouri. According to federal data collected in 2009 (the most recent data), approximately 184,527 students without disabilities (which makes me wonder how many students with disabilities were left out of those numbers) received corporal punishment in American schools in states where it is legal. (And let’s not even go into the epidemic of school shootings in America. Kids having to do lockdown drills. Teachers accidentally shooting themselves–or, God forbid, someone else–because they’re carrying concealed weapons. Fun fact–that New York Times article I just linked to was written about one of the towns in the area I grew up in. I could also mention sexual abuse in American schools or the epidemic of child abuse in homes. And heck, both those stories came out of my area of the country, not even worthy of national–let alone international–outrage, and they both hit the local news within the span of time that I was there last month! There are tons more.)
Now, does this mean that all American schools are violent places? That America is a horrible place for children? Well, no, of course. I take my child to America every year. She is American. I can’t imagine her not being a part of American culture, of American life. But my point is, when something bad happens in America, we Americans often write it off as just the product of a deranged outlier. When something bad in Saudi Arabia happens, it’s a product of the culture. Those people are repressed. And oppressed. These sorts of bad things are destined to come to pass in Saudi Arabia because it’s a bad place. Read the comments sometime, about any piece related to Saudi Arabia, and this is what you will find. Sometimes you don’t even have to read the comments–it’s right there in the piece itself.
So what’s our excuse, Americans?
I’m sure there are many people, especially people who also grew up in schools where corporal punishment was the norm, who would read my story of being paddled and say something like, “Oh, get over it. You shouldn’t have been messing with your teacher like that to begin with. You deserved a punishment, and that’s what you got. Lots of kids got paddled regularly, and from a young age. You got paddled once as an almost-adult. Shut up with the whining.” Let me assure anyone wondering that I am, in fact, “over it.” My one paddling doesn’t shape my life in any discernible way (I’m pretty sure I would wholeheartedly oppose corporal punishment in schools even if I had never experienced it), and until I wrote it down for posterity as a means of making a point within this blog post, it has existed in my memory as only an odd little anecdote that I recall from time to time, in an “oh yeah, that happened” sort of way. But that doesn’t mean it was okay that it happened. It doesn’t mean that it’s okay that it continues to be legally sanctioned in the state that I still call home, even though I don’t exactly live there anymore. And it really doesn’t mean that you can roll your eyes at my tale of being paddled to bruising by my music teacher and yet be horrified and enraged by tales of monstrous, barbaric Saudi school personnel who hit the children entrusted to their care.
Now, as I’ve already said, this is not to say that I would ever be silent if my child were hit by a teacher in her Saudi school. I believe that all mothers, anywhere in the world, have a right to demand schools for their children that are free of violence and abuse, especially from those who are meant to protect our children when we are not with them. And only God knows how many elements of Saudi culture and Riyadh life there are whose underlying logic I don’t understand (if there is any logic within them to be understood). There are so many things about Saudi Arabia I wish I could change, if only for the benefit of my daughter and any future children I may have. But I can easily say the same about America.
When it comes down to it, I guess what I want to say is that the next time you are tempted to diagnose or otherwise rant about injustices that you perceive in other cultures, stop and think if there’s a parallel injustice being perpetuated in your own culture. Look into it. Read beyond the scope of what you can immediately see and want to know. Pluck the lens of acculturation out of your eye (I know it can be hard to do, but try). If your own backyard is truly clean, then congratulations! Proceed (with caution). But if it isn’t (which, let’s face it, is most likely the case), try to do something about that first…or at least make it clear that you’re aware of that problem and are equally troubled by it. Because otherwise, you just look like a clueless neocolonizer, if not a self-aware neocolonizer, which is undoubtedly worse. And that’s cool, I guess, if all you care to do is preach to a choir, even if said choir is in dire need of a come-to-Jesus moment in order to reexamine its own priorities. But if your goal is to make real, lasting change in the world, I think a good way to start is by learning to see and then seeking to address the problems in your own community which you find so abhorrent, amusing, or annoying in others’.
I want to say one more time that I am not offering a blanket defense of Saudi culture or the Saudi state (which seems to be a disclaimer I must offer more and more frequently, as everything I say that points out flaws in my own culture while contending that life in Saudi Arabia may be difficult and unjust at times, but it’s not that bad inevitably gets construed as defending anything and everything anyone in Saudi Arabia does–interestingly, no one ever construes my words that way when I write something positive about life in America and how much I miss it at times). There are certainly major problems here, just like anywhere else. I’ll rant all day long, to anyone who will listen, about not being allowed to drive here. That rule, among others, deserves zero respect, and it is a problem that absolutely does not exist anywhere else in the world. Literally. I have a Saudi American daughter, and I won’t be silent on issues that directly affect her career, her education, her freedom of mobility, and her life in general, should she choose to stay in the Kingdom in the future. But I have zero patience for complaints, “activism,” or “raising awareness” by non-Saudis that addresses problems, rudeness, or inconveniences that they perceive in Saudi Arabia but conveniently ignore in their own backyards; often those exact same problems exist in our home cultures in a format made more palatable to us by years and years of acculturation, the same way that Saudis seem to accept problems in their culture that we Westerners find ourselves baffled by.
You find it rude when people stare at you in Saudi Arabia when you don’t cover your head? Well, women who do cover their heads are stared at in the exact same way in America. You hate being harassed at and/or stared at by those filthy Saudi men? Yeah, watch this video. It certainly wasn’t filmed in Saudi Arabia, and it’s just a snippet of the ten hours of video–there are many more incidents that didn’t make it into this clip, including harassment from white men. Speak out about the problems that manifest themselves in your home country because of the exact same attitudes that undergird Saudi Arabia’s cultural issues, instead of embracing a neocolonial, ethnocentric worldview that depends on you (or others like you) to diagnose other cultures’ problems and their causes.