Last night I was invited to my first private Iftar – the breaking of the Ramadan fast – held at Dar al-Hekma (House of Wisdom), the first women’s liberal arts college in The Kingdom. I went with the Public Affairs Officer from Consulate General Jeddah.
What to expect, as I exited our armored van amid a flock of black clad and veiled invitees?
We entered the four-story atrium filled with tables for ten done up in blue velvet and gold ribbon. Along one curving wall were table after table laden with ornate gold-colored serving dishes. The Dean of the college and its founding mother greeted us with many kisses on both cheeks. and led us to the center table. As the male caterers departed, the abayas and veils came off, and there were 450 women of all ages in a range of dress from elegant, flowing caftans to skin-tight jeans and sweaters (students) – quite a transformation! (Parties with other women are the only allowable social life for females in The Kingdom and at such an affair outside the month of Ramadan, they would be dressed to the nines – designer evening wear, lots of jewelry, dramatic make up – all for their female friends.)
The guests approached to meet the strangers – it was really quite wonderful to be greeted with such warmth and in such good English. They seemed genuinely delighted that we had come. And so we broke the fast with dates and something very special – pitchers of holy water from Abraham’s well in Mecca – said to do wonders for all sorts of ailments. As guests, we were led to the serving tables first but were soon engulfed by very hungry women who had not eaten or drunk for 15 hours. (The concept of the queue is not well-developed here, even under the best of circumstances.) The food was excellent – Iftar dishes that are becoming more familiar.
Over dinner, the woman responsible for getting the college built told us more. At a cost of $14,000 for tuition (with many scholarships available), young women follow a liberal arts curriculum for the first two years and then study graphic design, interior design, computer systems, nursing or special education. The first class graduated last year. 40% were offered jobs, 20% went on to graduate studies. The others probably got married. (This private institution was the gift of 12 VERY wealthy donors. It is a beautiful building with the latest of everything – much of it done in shades of pink.)
Some companies are receptive to hiring their graduates, but, of course, they cannot work in offices with men, though they can interact via meetings. Men calling to inquire about purchasing computer systems are shocked when a woman answers the phone, she said. After the initial daze wears off, they normally get on with business. Most of their graduates are employed in banks catering only to women, car dealers selling Mercedes to female clients, etc, etc. It all sounds so very hard.
Jeddah is the most open of Saudi cities, having long been the commercial capital and, until the 80’s the capital of the country. The envelope is being pushed here, but even so our host, a Ph.D. and college administrator, related her recent experience in trying to open a joint bank account with her husband. The bank couldn’t understand the concept, she said, but finally agreed. They received their first statement addressed to her husband’s name followed by ‘and wife’. They hadn’t yet accepted that she had a name. She told us that Saudi Arabia is unique in that it is a rich country. Most women here lead very comfortable lives with imported servants, nice homes, drivers. Unlike women with fewer advantages, they are less likely to push for change, or to understand what they are missing. How to change these attitudes? Education and time, was her answer – open up the world to them so they can see its possibilities. This college is a small start in that direction.
As we left, robed and veiled agian, the facilities director, a beautiful young woman, from the little I could see of her, took my hand. She wanted to make sure I understood the reason for Ramadan “We fast as a sacrifice”, she said, “to give up what is most necessary, in order that we may experience what it is like to be poor. At the end of fasting, we have been transformed and give with joy to the poor as the Prophet has instructed – of our salaries 10%, of our wealth 2.5 %. The latter is collected from businesses by the government and distributed. We give the 10% as we choose.”
Next – Terror in the Kingdom