Lessons from Saudi Arabia
I am a woman. I am a Christian. I am an American born and raised. Going to Saudi Arabia didn’t change any of those things, but it changed the way I felt about all three.
I am a woman. This word has come to mean many different things to many different people. For me it comes with a perfect storm of self-doubt, insecurity, and competition, especially amongst other women. Being a woman means that I can’t drive down the freeway, watch tv, or skim through the magazines without being bombarded with dozens of images portraying half-naked airbrushed models who make size four seem fat. It means developing coping techniques like binge diets, gym memberships, and a Spanx collection that lines the closet like Mr. Roger’s cardigans. It means the words, “She didn’t have babies. She hasn’t reached 25. And, women like her have no idea what it’s like to be less than perfect!,” run through my head like ticker tape onto the floor of my ego every day.
After two weeks in Saudi I realized I hadn’t had one negative thought about myself. I also hadn’t seen one billboard, one commercial, or one magazine portraying a woman as a sexual object. In Saudi the women are taught, and sometimes forced to cover their entire bodies with a long silk robe and matching head covering (called an abaya, often in solid black so as not to call attention to one self). Advertisements portray the object the company is promoting, minus the scantily clad woman on the side. Commercials and magazines maintain the same modest discretion. Women even wear their abayas to the beach, unless they have enough money to reserve their place on a private beach lined with ten foot walls extending fifty yards into the water, and guarded by equally high walls with tall gates blocking the entrance!
The abaya covered our bodies dissolving the lines between us like Christ’s blood over our sins. You no longer had to worry about what to wear to the dinner party (abaya covered it anyway so who cares?) or how bloated you looked in that dress. Women no longer sized each other up and made assumptions about one another based on size and style. We actually had to get to know each other before we made any opinions about the other women in the room. Imagine that! Their Muslim laws forced us to do what Jesus Christ enabled us to do long ago; look with our hearts not our eyes.
I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins so that I may have eternal life with Him. If I believe in Him (even Satan believes in Him), love Him, and submit to His authority (“If you love Me, you will obey what I command.” John 14:15 NIV) I will be saved. When I sin (this is a given), He will forgive my sins if I confess and repent. I believe Jesus is God and yet God’s son. I believe that those who reject God’s son reject Him and will not be saved if they die with this belief (John 3:36). I believe in Heaven and Hell and I am scared for those who reject the One and Only true God, yet I rarely do anything to change the fate of anyone around me who believes differently. In Saudi, the Muslim people believe their God is everything and they act like it. Not only do they evangelize at work, but they are allowed to stop what they are doing, leave work, and take a ‘non-believer’ to church in the middle of the day because everyone believes there is nothing more important than finding a way to their god.
As a Christian I profess that God is more important than not just work, but money- the driving force behind most of our jobs. In Saudi, money stops, doors close and lock, restaurants, grocery stores, and malls shut down with people in them 5 times a day so the Muslims can stop to pray together. They don’t care who is there, they pray. I believe that prayer is a gift and that we should “pray without ceasing,” 1 Thessalonians 5:17, but I hesitate to grab the hands of the woman in front of me and pray with her in the moment. Instead I assure her that I will pray for her (the “later” is implied) and we go our separate ways.
I am an American. I am proud to live in a country founded on Christian beliefs where I have the right to believe what I want, say what I want, and do what I want thanks to the honorable men and women who gave their lives for me to have the freedom to do so. And yet I have stopped believing, stopped speaking, and stopped acting like I am a child of God. Saudi culture reveals that your level of ‘coolness’ is directly proportionate to your level of devotion to the Muslim God. American culture reveals that your level of ‘coolness’ is directly proportionate to your ability to market oneself until you’ve maneuvered your way to the top.
Saudi didn’t teach me to wear abayas, enforce prayer, or believe in a Muslim god. Saudi showed me what I was missing; passion. I want to passionately love a God that I know passionately loves me whether or not I am a size four, whether or not I dressed well for the party, whether or not I prayed 5 times a day. He loves me whether or not. That’s a God worth getting passionate about, so why don’t we?