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Saudi women taking part in Babson forum

Posted by Tom Coakley  July 24, 2009 09:00 AM

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Hours after they arrived for a two-week session at Babson College earlier this month, 30 women college students from Saudi Arabia approached and interviewed complete strangers walking around Faneuil Hall Market Place in Boston.

In their first assignment for an entrepreneurship forum at the college, the Saudi students – equipped with Flip video cameras – documented differences between American culture and their own, and quizzed people on their knowledge of Saudi culture.

“Basically they don’t know much,” said Maria Mahdaly, a 21-year-old junior studying graphic design at Dar al Hekma College – an all-women’s college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “The major difference was they don’t know about us, but we know a lot about America.”

Nineteen-year-old Alaâ Al-Mizyen, a banking and finance sophomore at Dar al Hekma, agreed.

“Everyone comes here knowing about hip-hop, the music, the language, the fashion and the culture,” she said.

When asked about Saudi Arabia, many Americans interviewed by the students responded with, “Isn’t that the place with all of the oil?”

The students said part of the reason Americans might not be familiar with their culture is because Saudi Arabia is, as they described it, “quiet and low-key.”

“To me it’s like a diamond in the rough,” Al-Mizyen said.

But, the two young women – who have both visited the US before and speak fluent English – said they and their classmates were not shy in telling the people they met at Faneuil Hall about their country.

“What’s really awesome is letting people know about our culture,” Mahdaly said.

One misconception that westerners have about that culture is that Saudi women are oppressed, said Saleha Abedin, vice dean at Dar al Hekma., who has been with the students during the Babson session that ends July 24. Perhaps it comes from the portrayal of Saudi Arabia in the media or the general misunderstandings about how some Saudi women dress, said Abedin

However, she said women are very influential in Saudi society, and the 30 Dar al Hekma women, who are starting their own entrepreneurial ventures, are examples of that.

"These students are pioneers and successful ones at that," she said.

The first U.S-Saudi Women’s Forum on Social Entrepreneurship is made possible through a partnership with the global professional services firm ICF International, The Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson and The Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The students have been designing seven different entrepreneurial projects aimed at addressing important social needs in Jeddah. Their projects will extend beyond the classroom and will be implemented into the students’ own communities.

The program started with 140 students taking part in a session in April in Saudi Arabia. The 30 who came to Boston were chosen from that group. A third and final session will be held in either January or December in Jeddah.

At Babson, the women split into groups and worked on their projects, including helping the youth in Jeddah, developing a web platform to link social entrepreneurs, promoting early childhood education and health, creating recycling centers, establishing a women’s center and starting a special education center.

“It’s an amazing opportunity everyone benefits from,” said Mahdaly, who described business as her passion. She has been working on a project to help Jeddah youth, which has its own Web site, www.fainak.com.

“We don’t have youth councils. We don’t have youth platforms. We’re like pioneers in that,” she said.

The Saudi government provides free education through high school, and Saudi women make up about 70 percent of the students enrolled in higher education, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington D.C.

Though Saudi women are often not expected to earn a living to provide for themselves or their family, Abedin said, they control a great deal of wealth and are highly influential in deciding how that wealth is spent.

Shari'a, or Islamic law, says that any inheritance or income a married woman makes is her own. According to a 2008 TIME Magazine article, Saudi women have an estimated $11 billion saved in bank accounts.

And, because giving back to the community is an important part of Islamic faith, social entrepreneurship has been an appealing aspect of the forum for the Saudi students.

“It’s not like a professor standing up in front of a classroom speaking. These are really highly-interactive classes,” said Janelle Shubert director of the women’s leadership center at Babson.. “It’s very much a coaching process.”

The program is funded through the Middle East Partnership Initiative within the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

The Saudi women are accompanied by Abedin and other Dar al Hekma professors. Nine Babson professors, three Wellesley College professors and 10 guest speakers who are social entrepreneurs have been working with the students.

The Saudi students have also met with some students from Babson, including sophomore Jillian Smith, who is a peer mentor for Babson’s Center for Women’s Leadership.

“The best part has been asking each other questions – chatting and learning about their culture,” said Smith.

Shubert attended the program’s first session as did Amy Lazarus and Evagelia Emily Tavoulareas of ICF International.

The women said they enjoyed getting a taste of Saudi culture during their visit in April. They each pointed out that, although many women in Saudi Arabia wear a head covering, or hijab, it is a woman’s choice and preference to do so. It is not mandated.

Tavoulareas said she wore a hijab while she was there and it was not confining as some Americans perceive it to be.

“It felt strangely comfortable,” she said. And when she returned to the states she said, “I was craving to have a scarf around my neck.”

“We learn things about our own culture sometimes when we see through others’ eyes,” added Shubert. “It was a great way to open the conversation about perspective.”

To keep students connected with one another in between sessions, the program has created “an online virtual community … very similar to Facebook,” said Tavourlareas.

Students can share pictures and video, add friends, create groups, and chat through the site. The Saudi women have also setup a blog, www.us-saudiwomensforum.blogspot.com.

“There’s a lot of excitement about the partnership with the schools, ICF and the program that we think it will keep us together,” said Shubert. “If this was all we ever did, it would be a roaring success, but this is just the beginning.”

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10 comments so far...
  1. way to go, these girls are the future of Saudi Arabia, I salute you

    Posted by Dr. N.Barry July 24, 09 05:33 PM
  1. so proud of you girls

    Posted by Alaa.B July 25, 09 09:11 AM
  1. I'm prod of u my friends ,,, obviously u did a great work

    Posted by Lamia'a July 26, 09 10:42 AM
  1. This is a wonderful venture. Communication like this is key to bringing to bringing harmony and understanding throughout the world.

    Posted by Pat Smith July 27, 09 08:41 PM
  1. It was an amazing experience, not only to go through it, but also to read about it. I loved what everyone said above there! Truly!

    Posted by Lamees August 1, 09 11:39 AM
  1. Saudi women keep their inheritance under shari'ah law. Lovely. What? Too bad the author forgot to mention that daughters inherit only *half* what sons inherit under sharia'ah law. There are a great many aspects of shariah law that are discriminatory against women and non-Muslims, including divorce law, custody of children, and inheritance. We're getting the sanitized version of shariah law and how repressive the KSA is for women. Women still can't even drive a car there. Wearing hijab is optional and not mandatedl? Hilarious!!

    Posted by Kelly Two August 1, 09 10:03 PM
  1. Dear Kelly
    Please educate yourself before posting anything and please mention references and sources of your information
    for the inherence it is true that woman take half the inherence of the man but do u know why? Because basically no matter what the man (husband, brother, father, uncle…etc) that is responsible for the woman has to provide for her and any income the woman makes goes to her personal and pocket money . So, logically the man inherence must be more ! but of course this law isn’t fixed there are many occasion by witch the woman took more than the man or even equally.
    And what are u talking about divorce law and custody of children?? My parents are divorced and we haven’t seen any discrimination . my siblings and I live with my mother although the law say that females above 7 are advised to live with their father to insure safety and to insure that someone is providing for them . of course there are many special occasions . my father does provide for us but we live with our mother .
    as for the driving , do u know that s shariah law is ok with woman riving?? And the people themselves, the woman themselves, don’t want to drive because they feel pampered? and I’m not stating this from my head . a study has been done and found that information that 80% of the people are ok with woman not driving. And if women drove there is no punishment against it. in fact in some area’s woman are allowed to drive. Where is the injustice ?
    As for the hijab yes it is optional and a personal choice. The reason behind hijab is for modesty and integrity, and what’s hilarious about it? If a female doesn’t wear hijab nobody is going to throw her in prison! it is her choice to wear it
    I am a 19 year old Muslim woman who is from Saudi Arabia and I am so proud and blessed alhamduellah.. and truly this trip was an extraordinary trip , the experience I got will not only benefit me but will benefit my society as well
    Kindest regards ,

    Posted by L.A.S August 28, 09 12:04 PM
  1. It's sad to read Ms.Kelly's comment. Some People think that they know more about other's religion than them and start giving weird comments. I m sorry to say that this just shows how unaware and not very well-read they are and really gives a bad impression.
    I suggest such people should take knowledge from reliable sources and then think of passing on their comments or opinions because this just creates misunderstanding which is a huge issue of today!
    I am proud of all the girls from Saudi and wish that such events keep on happening to benefit society as a whole.

    Posted by Sana Qurashi October 21, 09 09:26 AM
  1. I think it's really great to show American people our culture and how we work extremely hard to serve our community. Also, our extraordinary Dar al Hekma students have changed the stereo type America had on us, which was that Saudi Arabia only has camels, tents and an oil well. I was a part of this Social Entrepreneurship course, but unfortunately I wasn't from the 30.

    Posted by Jawaher Zahran October 21, 09 11:17 AM
  1. I agree with Kelly. I LIVE in Saudi Arabia right now. Just today on the radio in Saudi, they were discussing that some men were not allowing their working daughters to leave and get married--ALLOW their daughters, mind you---so that they could continue to take the money that they earn for themselves. And anyone who relies on a "study," or survey, undoubtedly also knows that they are the LEAST reliable form of gathering information. And while Sharia requires the next male relative to support the females, enforcing anything against a male in that country, unless you are a VIP of course, is next to IMPOSSIBLE if you are a woman. By the way, I am a Muslim American woman living here. And women "don't want to drive"??!! Uh...what??!! Not any of the women I know. They ALL want to drive. Don't believe me? Check out some other Saudi women's opinions, such as www.saudiwoman.wordpress.com. Please educate YOURSELVES with something better than a survey before you all presume to sugar-coat the lack of human rights for women in the middle east and speak for us all. FYI--the only women who don't wear a hijab are the expat women in Saudi. I know cuz I am one.

    Posted by Melissa December 4, 09 11:41 AM