How it all came about
My (white, male) boss went to Saudi Arabia a few months ago to speak at a conference on e-learning. He was flown out first class and put up in a nice hotel. He had some interesting things to report, mainly to do with the conference being mixed (men and women), but completely segregated.
1. When he gave his talk (I think it was a keynote speech), and in fact in all the sessions, the men sat in one room, the women in another. The women would see the talks piped into their room by videoconference. When it was time for questions in his session, this set-up meant they alternated between the men's room and the women's room. So there were more questions from women than there would usually be here (don't believe me? take note at the next few F2F conferences you go to as to how many men ask questions, and for how long they occupy the floor, versus women). And, again as reported by him, the quality of the women's questions was generally more interesting and thoughtful.
2. In the "mingling" bits in between sessions, everyone was in the same space together, but might as well have been separate as there was no interaction between men and women. Because the men all dress in white, and the women head-to-toe in black, he said it was like some strange chess game of pieces moving around each other, seemingly together but in separate dimensions. (Actually I am heavily paraphrasing that last poetic bit - I know he said something like that about it but can't recall what it was).
3. The conference dinner was men only. He doesn't know if the women had their own conference dinner, or went home.
So, now I've been invited to co-present with him at the next conference over there. They specifically asked if he could bring a woman to run the same workshop he will run, for the women.
Now, my feelings about doing business at all with Saudi Arabia are akin to what I'd have felt in the 80s if I'd been asked to go to South Africa and present at a conference (for those who really don't understand this, I expand a bit more at the end of this article). There is a key difference, though: there was a boycott of South Africa on at the time, so by not going I would've been acting as part of a concerted international effort. I couldn't have justified going under the guise of "seeing for myself", or "lending a hand". In this situation, it's really up to me. So, I asked my boss to forward some questions to the conference organisers about what I would be expected to wear, where I would stay, where I would be expected to eat, etc. I do want to know that stuff, but it was also a holding question while I really considered the invitation.
One thing I've done is ask my friends what they would do. Now, my friends know me well enough to understand that nothing they say will really influence my decision: I always do what I want to do anyway. But it's been a bit like a big, Web 2.0 tarot reading: each person's response crystallising or challenging certain aspects of my own thoughts and feelings about the situation. I didn't really respond much yesterday to the Facebook, Twitter and text messages I received because I was very tired and intensely pre-menstrual and was aware that I was having strong emotional reactions to each message. That's when I conceived the idea for this post.
I'm going to use my friends' messages to illustrate my discussion here, anonymised. I'm also going to contact everyone again once this is published and invite them over here to comment further, expand on their earlier comments, and, I hope, discuss this issue. I would like to acknowledge that when I asked for their comments yesterday, my friends were hampered by (a) the limited space I had to explain my dilemma, and (b) the limited space they had in which to respond. So, I hope that noone is hurt or offended if I use their comment as a jumping off point to some challenging thoughts: I know these were extremely short summaries of folks' immediate reactions. The text and Twitter direct messages were personal between individuals and me, the Facebook messages a bit more public. If anyone wants to claim their comment here, you are welcome to do so.
I can't help but start analysing the responses as if I was doing a research project! They do fall into a few broad categories with a few outliers. I should also describe the cohort. I think all my respondents are white females, apart from one white English male. One of my respondents is in fact 1/4 Egyptian, but doesn't have any family connections or persona experiences in Egypt. All are in their 30s and 40s, they are from both middle and working class backgrounds, and most (except two or three I think) are currently in white-collar occupations. Some have children, some don't. Some are straight, some gay, some bisexual, some in relationships, some single. All live in the UK except one (who lives in New Zealand). Two are American, living in the UK. So, yeah, not exactly a reputable survey. But they are my pals, that was my only criterion.
Follow your heart / gut / instinct
Thanks to those who encouraged me to look within, trust my gut, etc. I was very surprised to find my initial reaction to the proposal wasn't a big interior "NO!". But I need some time to get in touch with what I really believe is the best thing to do, and this is part of it, because many different voices and reactions in me are competing for attention.
text1: Do what's best for you hun xx
... getting there, thanks!
Follow your heart / gut / instinct, and here's my reaction
Some folk shared with me their immediate gut or heart reaction and several of these then followed up with provisos or rethinks, emphasising that I have to do what feels right to me.
text3: Oh! Bloody hell that's no light weight question!
... followed quickly by:
text3a: Well I have to say purely on gut and with nothing i can reasonably verbalise at present my feeling was 'No don't do it' some of that may be an inaccurate knee jerk tho which would respond to more info and more thought. X x x
text6: Hard one. Hard to imagine myself in this situation. Professional development or female solidarity? My gut reaction is to say 'don't go'. Your career won't suffer if you don't go, but your conscience might if you do. Any help to you?
... followed, after a neutral response from me saying I would be doing this blog post, with:
text6a: When I mentioned my own gut reaction i meant to say that's how you should decide, by following your own. I admit i was wondering what other people were advising so if you do got round to blogging it let me know. :-)
What are the decision-making factors?
Well, that leads me to those who seemed to miss the point a wee bit. I say "seemed to" advisedly: both the women I quote below are absolute sweeties and very busy and probably a prime example of not really having time to talk it through, think it through, or understand where I was coming from. But I'll say now that this decision has nothing to do with career for me (it won't affect my career or my relationship with my boss either way, and even if it did I still wouldn't allow that to be a factor); nor is it a carbon footprint issue. Maybe I should throw the damage caused by the flight into the mix, maybe I will in the end, but that was definitely not my first, second, third, or twentieth though (but as all my friends know I am a Very Bad Environmentalist).
text11: Congratulations. Got no advice on whether to go or not, but as long as you're publishing and putting yourself out there will probably be other conferences. Hope stuff is good for you otherwise
text8: Sounds like an amazing opportunity. what is your doubt?
followed the next day by:
text8a: Is it the carbon footprint? I would weigh up the benefit to all of the people who would benefit from it and then decide whether or not it is worth the flight x
There are subtleties I didn't see at first in both these texts. In the first the person is implicitly acknowledging that it is not a good idea, or perhaps just that my career shouldn't be a factor. The second person, in their first text, is actually giving me the opportunity to discuss my concerns, rather than leaping immediately to her own, which is, now I reflect, highly laudable. Her second text, though, reveals that (a) she can't really think of any reason why I wouldn't go, but that (b) it should be about the potential benefits to all concerned, weighed up. Which is also great. And, you'll see below,a big part of where I'm coming from.
Some folk really just took the "go for it" point of view, which is a testament to me spending nearly 13 years in Scotland building a family of friends who can give me that kind of support (which flies in the face of the stereotypical view of British people always being all "can't do", "you don't wanna do that, x might happen", etc.). An even lovelier thing was the number of people who added to this words of personal compliment to me and my superpowers when it comes to bringing the light, the freedom, the fabulousness wherever I go. Thanks darlings!
FaceBookMessage5: go for it! it is a one in a lifetime opportunity.
text4: I would so go! Spread the fabulousness! X
text5: Wel done sister. I,d say go for it. They need all the intelligent liberated women we can throw at them. Good luck. x x
text9: (1 text from 2 people) Go! Go and inspire and influence all who move through your locus with your superness. Show them the vitality of free intellect and self expression. xx
Now, flattering as these are, the last two include an uncomfortable implication: that (a) there are no intelligent or liberated women in Saudi Arabia, and (b) that there is no free intellect or self expression in Saudi Arabia. Knowing the folk involved as I do, I suspect this is again a factor of limited space to write. I personally am sure there are many great, intelligent women (and men) who are as liberated and self-expressive as they can be within a patriarchal theological dictatorship. In fact, I would like to meet them. I won't get the chance over here, because there is no way of making online connections with feminists or other radical folk in Saudi whatever my best intentions might be, as reflected in this text:
text10: I'd try and make contact with women working in elearning in Saudi, and/or feminist groups and discuss it with them. You could go with agenda of supporting women fighting for change. Can I come too????
Now, this friend is one of oldest and dearest friends and a woman after my own heart- I thought about this months ago, but if anyone can suggest how you get in touch with women who live on virtual lockdown at all times, with anything like this in mind, I'd be glad to hear it. Try Googling "Saudi Arabian feminist" to try to find individual feminists or feminist groups. Marvel at the total of six hits returned, none of which take you to anything like, er, Saudi Arabian feminists.
It did occur to me though to try the local Red Cross (where a friend of mine, not mentioned here, volunteers), or Amnesty International, to see what groups there are. But I am seriously doubtful if I will find anything that I can follow up. And I probably would be too scared anyway, given the penalties to women for stepping out of line in Saudi Arabia.
Which leads me to those kind souls who encouraged me to go but with warnings, humorously expressed, but I've no doubt, covering a genuine concern, knowing me as they do. Actually, here is the relevant bits of the Facebook conversation, starting with my own brief explanations:
Facebook Status: Morag is a queer feminist who has just been invited to speak in Saudi Arabia at an elearning conference: what would you do? discuss..
My Follow-Up Comment: Er, they don't know I'm a queer feminist, I'm just an expert in the area they want me to speak on. And the reason is my male colleague is going and they need a female "assistant" to run the separate women's workshop.
My Follow-Up Comment2: And my dilemma is: UEEERGGHHHH, evil regime, scary, don't give them the implicit condoning of my presence, etc. OR I get the chance to connect with a bunch of women living under that regime and also experience something first hand that most folk never will
FaceBookMessage1a: Yikes... I'd go if I was you - once in a lifetime opp etc - but bejeezus, be careful... No sex on the beach! :^)
Now can I just say that I think this last was a clever allusion to current events and not a slur on my character or judgement. Anyway, the conversation continues:
FaceBookMessage2: Go. Experience. See. Then you are better informed. But PLEASE for God's sake just for once don't try and change the world while you are there.
Not much good you can do banged up in a jail for 30 years.
(Knows this is international incident just waiting to happen :-)
FaceBookMessage3 (Me again): Damn right it's an international incident waiting to happen. Although I suspect if I accept someone over there will Google me and the invitation will be withdrawn.
And [FaceBookMessage1a]: do they even have beaches in Saudi Arabia?
FaceBookMessage1b: They have coasts! I am assuming some sand is involved! Unless that's been banned too...:^)
FaceBookMessage6: I'm with everyone else, and particularly [FaceBookMessage2] (whoever you are, [FaceBookMessage2]). You may be surprised by what the women have to say, or if not surprised, at least confident in your knowledge that you wouldn't be surprised.
And Facebook Messager 2 also followed up with a private Twitter message just to ram the point home:
TweetMess1a: And please restrain your extrov militant feminist librarian side just for once - don't want to see you on BBC news in jail for 30 years! :-)
And of course, there was the unequivocal "don't go" from someone with clearly no faith in my ability to keep my head down and covered, and my mouth shut:
text2.: Unreal! Well i suck at public speakn so ur askn th wrong persn here. Hmm, 1 of th most misogynist places in the wrld.:-S am quite fond of u wit ur head. Stay in 1 piece shaman sistr.x
... followed very quickly by:
text2a: Txtn 4m busstop. Not V.serious respons grantd. [Mutual Friend X] will prob give Wise advice but that z i hv grown fond of ur head n hope it rmains stuck 2yer body Always.;-)x
Now, I did end up getting a text that really got to the nub of the question for me:
text7: Who benefits and what wd they do with th knowledge and insights you bring? Chek that out first. If you are empowering the oppressed, go. If not, stay. x
... to which I responded:
mytextto7: Brilliant answer- that's the nub right there. Not simple to work out- will only be allowed to interact with women so there is a huge opportunity there under the ostensible reason for trip. That would be my only reason for going- but am I arrogant to think I have anything to offer them- am I being a western imperialist in the guise of a feminist? I would need to remember to listen and offer future help if asked for it, not to judge or lecture X
to which she replied:
7a: If you cn empower them in any way, th trip wl not be wasted. x
Now,again perhaps a factor of fast texting into a small space, I'm not sure either of us really meant that I would, or could, or might want to try to empower them. I don't believe someone can show up and empower someone else. Thinking I could would be arrogant in the extreme. The best I would hope for would be to make some connections where I might be of assistance to some woman or women in the future, and to learn, and to open an opportunity for human connection. Which I'm sure is what was in a lot of my friends' minds anyway. I'll finish with the final message which for me summed up succinctly and earthily what the best possible outcome might be:
FaceBookMessage7: There just might be some queeer feminists in your workshop very excited to have you there!
Well, there probably won't be now, because once I publish this I'm sure to be uninvited anyway. But, it's a nice fantasy anyway eh?
Why Wouldn't I Go?
Well, two reasons:
1. It is dangerous. Really dangerous. And as my experience in the much more benign, but still conservatively religious Egypt taught me, being in a place day in and day out where my femaleness puts me in danger and attracts hatred and abuse to an astonishing degree, is very very upsetting.
2. I would be tacitly supporting a cruelly oppressive dictatorship.
Here are some links:
Some specific and scary Amnesty International reports:
Something on women's position in Saudi Arabia from Human Rights Watch:
Oh, and modern-day slavery anyone?:
... actually while we're on the subject- all that self-congratulatory American stuff about Obama being a watershed in moving beyond slavery: peeps, there are more slaves today in the world than there have been at any other point in history: