the women-only city.

August 16, 2012

In the past week or so, I’ve been seeing articles pop up all over the web about this new women-only “city” that’s supposedly being planned here in Saudi Arabia. Never mind that no such city is actually in the works, nor has it ever been; that truth, I suppose, was inconsequential. HuffPost covered the supposed story. ABC did, too. The Daily Mail. The Los Angeles Times. The Guardian.

First of all, I shouldn’t be allowed to read the comments on these articles, because they are mostly full of scorn and derision at how backward those primitive Saudis are, and it makes me angry. Does Saudi Arabia have major issues? Sure. But does the rest of the world have major issues, too? Absolutely. I commented on one of these articles on a Facebook post and when I asked if the person who had such scorn for this supposed project had ever actually been to Saudi Arabia, after she stated that the idea would never work “if we use the West as a model,” she responded by saying, “Why would I want to go to Saudi Arabia? I like freedom!”

Yes, in Saudi Arabia, there are definitely freedoms I don’t have. I can’t drive. There’s no voting. Women can’t be judges. The list goes on and on. But Saudis also have freedoms that most Americans would kill for: namely, they can go to college for free (and the government pays them while they do), and they can go to the doctor for free. The cost of living is not so astronomical that it requires two incomes to make ends meet (even if we hadn’t made the commonly Saudi choice to live with my husband’s parents for our first few years, we could have rented a new two-bedroom apartment here, in the largest city in the Kingdom, for the equivalent of about $700 per month. I had to pay $250 more than that in Kansas). Believe it or not, there are some things that Saudi Arabia is doing right…or, at the very least, is trying to do right. You can’t point fingers about human rights in Saudi Arabia if you’re an American who believes that education and healthcare are basic human rights. Because no matter what you think about the quality of those systems (although, as I mentioned earlier, the Saudi healthcare system was ranked 26th in the world by the World Health Organization, while the healthcare system in the U.S. was ranked 37th), Saudis have much better access to those things than Americans do.

But Saudi Arabia has a lot of shaping up to do. Already I find myself frustrated with how certain things are here, and I’m sure I will find more and more as I continue to settle. But if I have children, they will be half-Saudi. Their parents are both educated and reasonably intelligent; at the very least, we’re neither backward nor primitive. Considering that I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college, my children’s ancestors on the Saudi side of their family, while certainly not more intelligent, will have been more educated than their ancestors on the American side. I don’t want my blog to come off as an apologia for Saudi Arabia and everything it does, but considering the amount of unjustified vitriol that gets thrown around in the Western media about this country and the people who live in it, I feel like it deserves some defense.

Here’s the thing: Saudi Arabia is not the West. And that’s okay. I would venture a guess that few Saudis want their country to look just like the West. And you know what? That’s okay, too, because I’m pretty sure that very few Western countries want theirs to look like Saudi Arabia. But I’m sorry, but you can’t throw stones at a country and claim they’re doing everything wrong if you’ve never actually been to said country. You just can’t. Reading is a terrific thing, and I applaud people who take time out of their busy day to do it. But it doesn’t give you the right to judge other cultures harshly, especially if your own is the only one you have experienced, ever, so that everything you say or think is clouded by your own narrow vision of what you think a culture should be. No. You don’t have the right. I would become equally angry if I heard a Saudi saying terrible things about America, judging it with the harshest of stereotypes and finger-pointing about its immorality. If you’re going to finger-point, you need to have some context for it other than reading books and news on the internet.

Which brings me to my next point: news and books arent always trustworthy, even when they come from supposedly trustworthy sources. Before I continue, I will let you peruse this very interesting graphic about where our media comes from. See you on the other side.



Now that you’re done with that, and you’re aware that the news you consume may very well have its own agenda, even when it manages to get all the basic facts of a story straight, I can tell you that in the process of lifting this story from the English-speaking Middle Eastern media, the Western media got it all jacked up. In the Middle East, the word “city” is used much like Americans use the word “district”–to refer to a part of a larger city. So a part of a city where there are just banks and accountants might be called the “financial city.” A part of the city where there are just TV stations and newspapers might be called the “media city.” That sort of thing. This was confusing to me when I first heard Saleh use the word “city” this way. (Saleh: “The client I am working on now is in the factory city.” Me: “A factory city? What is it called? How far away from Riyadh is it? Do people live in the factories? Wow! A city just of factories!”)

So I understand the confusion. But when there was a mention of a “city” just for women, they were just referring to a part of a larger city (in this case, Hofuf, which is in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and which has a population of more than a million people) where, supposedly, only women would work. But of course, we Westerners don’t get that usage. So suddenly, everywhere you turn, people are thinking that those nutty Saudis are actually building a new freestanding city where only women will work, live, play, etc. Sure, most of the articles that appeared in Western media specified that it was an “industrial city”–which, to people familiar with the Middle Eastern usage of the word, would be telling. But obviously, most people consuming Western media were not familiar with that usage. I don’t know if the folks behind that media actually knew what the real story was and just didn’t feel like clarifying it, or if they actually didn’t know what “city” meant in this context, either. But it doesn’t really matter. Even if we forget about the fact that no such “city” was ever being planned, they weren’t feeding anyone the real story.

I’ve long been frustrated with the tendency of Western media to either outright get things wrong (I love you, NPR, but even you are not immune) or to add a sense of alarm to everything that they produce. For example, this story, whose headline on the CNN webpage screams, “Facebook stock hits all-time low!” Sounds pretty scary. And I guess it would be, if Facebook were like Ford, which has been a public company since 1956, or even if it were like Apple, which has been public since 1980. But Facebook has been public for two months. Two months. Sorry, but to me, two months doesn’t deserve the “all-time” label. Heck, do you know how much time there is in…well, time? To be fair, no one really does. So to slap “all-time” on two months seems silly at best, and alarmist at worst.

Then there’s what I call the “lowest since” syndrome. Mainstream news media have a tendency to make things that can be quantified sound like they’re on a continuous downslide, employing statements like, “The Dow Jones average has hit its lowest point since…” Except that “since” point is sometimes a year ago. Or two years ago. Which really doesn’t give you enough information to know whether there really is a problem or if it’s a fluke in the numbers. And then they cut to a commercial demanding that you buy gold if you want to insulate yourself from coming crises.

We also never hear about how other cultures do things better than America. For example, you’ll rarely hear that Finland has the best education system in the world. Or that France has the best healthcare in the world. Or that Hong Kong has the best public transportation system.

Or that Finland and Norway tie for having the freest presses in the world.

So basically, from what I can observe, the message that the American media is feeding its consumers is, everything is going to hell in a handbasket, but everyone else in the world is in a faster handbasket (whatever a handbasket is, and however it travels). And the only way to protect yourself is to stay right where you are and buy things.

I’m not saying that anyone should go on any sort of media fast. I’ll keep reading CNN and HuffPost, and other sources from around the world. But whenever I read, I will always keep in mind that what I’m getting may not be the whole story. Or that someone might want me to get something from it…other than the facts.


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  • nassima

    also in France students can go to college almost for free (French government pays students whose parents have small income), students and people who have small income can go to the doctor almost for free. And there are social allowances to help parents to educate their children ( 0-18 years old). The immigrant workers in France have the same rights as French people.
    you are right, Saudi Arabia is the welfare state for Saudis.

  • xgravity23

    I have to be honest: I did not read the whole post, but I wanted to say this. It seems you feel about KSA the way I feel about Germany: It’s not America, and it’s not better than America–and vice versa–but there are some–quite a few–things that the German government, culture, people do much better than America. School calendars, public transportation and all of the geographical necessities to support that, recycling/green living in general, the university system is either free or low-cost (my students complained about EUR 500 for the year!), I could go on. But there are just as many things that I didn’t like about living there, and things that like and don’t like about living here. They’re all first-world countries with rich histories and cultures, and I think too often Americans are either ignorant of that because they haven’t experienced it or they are just plain arrogant about how wonderful this country is. It is one of those things I don’t like about living here. Germans know they’ve got a great thing (now), but they don’t brag about it. That “I like freedom!” woman could learn a lot from that attitude. /rant

    • nicole j. hunter mostafa

      exactly, linden! there are things that drive me crazy here, but there are things that drive me crazy in the states, too. i love my country, but that doesn’t mean we do everything right, or that we know what’s best for the entire world. i get especially frustrated with the attitudes toward saudi arabia (and arabic countries in general) because both liberals and conservatives seem to be equally scornful of its culture, without making any effort to immerse themselves in it or even understand it at all.