A Time of Transition: How my experiences in Saudi Arabia impacted my time at U.V.a.

March 30, 2015
View of the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Story and photos by: Kelsey McKeon

Third Year Women Girls and Global Justice intern Kelsey McKeon describes her experiences living in the Middle East for her intern project as a part of the Women’s Center’s International Women’s Month.

As the oldest child of a State Department diplomat, moving has been a defining part of my upbringing.

I was fortunate enough to finish out high school in Stockholm, Sweden, where my family was stationed from 2009 until the summer of 2012. After spending more than half of my 18 years of life in four different countries, I knew a move was coming, and that our third and final year in Stockholm was coming to a close.

But I did not think that the move would be to Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I had only dabbled in transnational feminism while in high school, and though I had never studied the Middle East I knew that the Kingdom was notorious for their strict and oppressive treatment of women, more so than any other country in the region. I knew that after living in Stockholm, a European capital known around the world for its social liberalism and subzero temperatures, that moving to Saudi Arabia’s desert capital would be a very pronounced change.

However, being afflicted with a severe case of senioritis and convinced that this move would hardly affect me, I said goodbye to my family in August 2012 when they dropped me off here at U.V.a. and left for Riyadh. After a difficult first semester transitioning into college life with my parents halfway across the world, I boarded the plane home for winter break feeling excited to see my family but also nervous to experience a culture unlike anything I had ever known before.

Now, three years later, my family has returned to the Washington D.C. area, and leaving Riyadh has been a great cause for reflection on how my time there has impacted me, both in my academics as a Middle Eastern Studies major and in my involvements and interactions with others here at the University. Here’s what I feel I have learned, summarized in the following four points.

1) That I am a woman

This seems like a no-brainer, but nowhere else have I been so explicitly reminded of my gender, and it has caused me to reflect on the ways in which I am reminded of my gender here at the University. Being a woman affected every aspect of my life every time I left the house. Not to say that all of these effects were negative, they were just more noticeable. The best example of this is at Saudi restaurants, cafes, or anywhere one can order food. Restaurants are all divided between all-male sections and "Family Sections." They were established essentially to preserve the privacy of women who wished to eat without the niqab (the popular face-covering), and the interiors are always just as nice as they are on the male side. You just can't see out the window onto the street. There was even one popular fast-food restaurant that did not allow women in at all because they had no “family section” available. Possibly my biggest social gaffe in all the time I spent there was ordering from the barista on the male side of the Starbucks. This separation and creation of space was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

 

2) That my privilege is always with me, it just might look different sometimes

The most common question I get from people is some variation of “did you feel oppressed while you were there?” While there were some laws that were cumbersome, being a Western woman in Saudi Arabia carried a certain weight. Though women are required to cover their hair, as a Western woman I just needed to make sure I had a scarf with me to cover in case I encountered the religious police. It also didn’t take me very long to realize the Riyadh I experienced as an American was not the same as the Riyadh experienced by many other women who are third-country-nationals, women from all over the world that come to Saudi Arabia seeking employment as domestic workers (Read this BBC article from last September for a harrowing graphic account of an Ethiopian woman sent to work in Riyadh, a situation that is all too common.) It would be fair to say that I did not fully begin to examine and unpack my privilege until I got to the University, but it was this experience in Saudi Arabia where third country nationals are routinely exploited behind closed doors, that caused me to think about my privilege in a new way upon my return to Charlottesville after those first few visits.

 

3) That happiness does not depend on where you are

Before Riyadh, I had been privileged to live in some of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in the world. However, I can honestly say I was as happy in Riyadh as I was anywhere else. I got to do some truly amazing things during my time there. I volunteered in a classroom at a small Saudi international school, helped Saudi’s applying for visas navigate around the Embassy, and even drove across the bridge between the Arabian Peninsula and the small Gulf nation of Bahrain. Any difficulties and challenges I faced were ultimately surmountable. I won’t deny that it was tough at times. It wasn’t always easy to don the abaya during 120-degree heat or plan my day’s activities around the prayer call (which led to the closing of stores across the city for thirty minutes, five times a day), but if there is anything I have learned throughout my years of countless moves, it’s that happiness in a new place has to come from within.

 

Kelsey McKeon wearing an abaya

4) To embrace meaningful experiences

Living in Saudi Arabia gave me a unique life experience, but it took a while for me to learn how to share it. It’s still not easy to share with people, sometimes people look at me like I have two heads and suddenly I find myself trying to explain my life story to complete strangers in order to connect the dots about my life. However, my time in Riyadh is ultimately what sparked my interest in the Middle East and led to my decision to pursue Arabic. I have been able to link my experience to almost every class I have taken during my time at this University. In an environment that thrives upon intense competition between students both inside and outside of the classroom, it’s easy to fall into the trap of self-deprecation in the face of excellence all around.  Now, as I move into my fourth year, I realize how important it is not to sell yourself short when it comes to your experiences. We all contribute so greatly to this University community, and it’s imperative that we do not lose sight of the value that each of our individual life experience provides.

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