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.”