So, the Saudi trip never happened, even though I decided to go.
Last year, my ex-boss and I had to send the Saudi conference organisers some stuff so they could start the visa application process for us. Saudi Arabia being a medieval-style feudal kingdom, they do things differently, and it's tough for a foreigner to understand what's going on. But my impression is, they start the visa application process, then we have to actually apply.
So, they needed us to send a scan of our passports.
I have two passports: one New Zealand, one US. I'm a dual national: American by birth and New Zealander by naturalisation.
I live in the UK on a Certificate of Right of Abode, which is a stamp in my New Zealand passport. I have all the rights of a UK citizen, based on my citizenship of a Commonwealth country, coupled with having a British mother.
So I generally travel on my New Zealand passport because I need it to get back into the UK. I only travel on my US passport when there is a specific reason to do so, like having to go to or travel through the US, or going somewhere where Americans have special entry privileges, like Mexico or Canada. In those cases I still carry my New Zealand passport so I can get back in here.
Anyway, my ex-boss was gonna send all the stuff off in one go (he was my actual boss at the time), and he asked me for a scan of my passport. I was at home, unwell with a bad flu, but remembered that Intrallect actually has a scan of my passport in its personnel files. I emailed my boss with this info, but also attached the scan to my email (from Intrallect's file system) for his convenience.
Fast forward to a week before the conference. The Saudi conference organisers had left it really late to get our plane tickets and visas sorted out. All kinds of feudal shenanigans had to go on at the Saudi Embassy. We had to send passport-sized photos and a filled-in form, and the form has to be done 100% correctly.
So we did all that. And I get a phone message the Friday before we're meant to leave saying there is a problem because I am a dual national. I had been reading the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office website advice about Saudi Arabia (very scary BTW), and it had mentioned that you shouldn't bring two passports in with you, if they find more than one they confiscate one.
I thought that was the problem: that they had discovered I had two passports.
As it turns out, the problem was that the file called sarah_NZPassport on Intrallect's file system is actually a scan of my US passport. How that happened, I don't know: I know I brought both passports in to be scanned when I started work there.
So, the conference organisers asked me to send my US passport to London ASAP. But I can't enter the UK on my US passport, and I can't carry two passports to Saudi Arabia.
It was too late to sort out. I couldn't get anyone at the Saudi Embassy to tell me definitively whether they had issued my visa or not (they let my boss believe that I might have a visa). So I didn't actually find out until my passport arrived by return post on the day before the flights were booked. Up until that moment I had no idea whether to prepare for a long haul flight and a trip to a very foreign place, or not.
I had kinda guessed though. In my experience when people from a very honour-based culture stop returning your calls, it usually means they have something to tell you that you aren't going to like. It's a face-saving thing.
What I Learned
Well, I was surprised at how disappointed I felt at missing out on this adventure.
But I was also relieved. I learned a lot about Saudi Arabia in preparing for this trip, none of it good. It's possibly the worst country in the world right now (barring war zones) to be a woman. And that's not even getting into how they treat foreign nationals who work there as servants and labourers. And gays- don't even think about it. Beheading.
I had convinced myself that going there to support the development of e-learning and the higher education system there would help Saudi women.
However, a bit of recent research clued me into the fact that the extremely conservative, fundamentalist form of Islam that rules in Saudi Arabia means that the government (and by government, I mean Kingdom- absolute monarchy) has always done everything in its power to prevent the rise of an educated middle class. At the moment many Saudis, including many women, study for advanced degrees overseas. If they can't stop that happening, they can ensure that all education takes place completely within the Wahhabi Islamic framework under which they live, including complete gender segregation.
So maybe I'm not so unhappy about missing the chance to support that.
When I realised that some male e-learning experts who I know were going there, e.g. Tom Boyle and Terry Mayes, and I pictured myself there with them, me in an abaya and headscarf, I had an extreme emotional reaction. I felt humiliated, sickened, actually tearful. I could just about cope with it when I thought noone I knew would be there (apart from my ex-boss, who is someone I trust a lot and know pretty well), but this was different. And that was just picturing it in my head, not spending a whole week there. It was an extremely visceral reaction.
On the other hand I met and befriended a Saudi woman living here in Glasgow, studying at Strathclyde Uni. She's really great, so I hope we can keep developing our friendship.
I found out about one solitary Saudi feminist, Wajeha Al-Huwaider. Please listen to this interview with her on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour, it's only 11 minutes long.
I met a Glaswegian woman online who has married into a Saudi family, converted to Islam, and lives in the Middle East. She's pretty cool, and told me some stuff about the traditional healing traditions in Saudi Arabia (she saw from my blog that I'm into shamanism).
I learned that most people in the UK are really, really ignorant about the government and living conditions in Saudi Arabia. I found that shocking; I had a pretty good idea before I started investigating. There is a country on this planet where all women are essentially chattel by virtue of their gender and nobody knows. I could list all the horrific stories I've heard that fall out from that fact, but noone seems to care. Even many feminists I know are ignorant. I was also suprised (but shouldn't have been) at the oft-expressed attitude that they just need some "intelligent" or "powerful" women to go over there and win them over. Believe me, any people living under extreme oppression don't lose their intelligence. They are oppressed, not stupid or weak. It's so insulting to think otherwise. I'm sorry to the Saudi women who might have read my previous blog post where I went a bit easy on this attitude.
Also, it takes more than some pet western woman going over there under extremely controlled conditions to help overthrow raw patriarchy. Hell, I can't even make a difference here in the UK.
The one thing I'm sorry about: that I missed the chance to spend a week essentially in women-only spaces. Wonder what that would've been like.
Oh, and just the sheer adventure of experiencing something first hand. That would've been worthwhile, as long as I could've kept my mouth shut for long enough to keep my head attached to my shoulders.