This is a self-reflection post on how I relate and try to understand change happening thus far in Saudi Arabia.
I look back at 2018, perhaps like others, with mixed feelings. As someone who comes from the most conservative region in the Kingdom, Al-Qassim, I have always been apprehensive about change. My parents, both from religious families, had to experience what it feels like to break away from the norms and constrains of the conservative life that was expected of them.
My father was one of the first Saudis to be awarded a scholarship to study abroad. However, my mother’s family was quick at issuing a fatwa (which my father has been keeping until today) forbidding her from travelling with him to the United States. She stayed behind with my siblings in Buraydah. At the same time, my eldest sister joined the first girls’ school in Al-Qassim. The parents of the few students who enrolled struggled to make sure that their daughters go to school unseen. My father, who was not present at that time, asked his cousin to be responsible for taking her to school. He would hide my sister’s bag under his bisht so it wouldn’t be seen by passers-by. This was in the 1960s, before the oil boom and when most people in al-Qassim, including my family, lived in mud houses.
After a year of studying abroad, my father traveled back to Saudi to take my mother and siblings with him to the United States. The process of smuggling them out of Al-Qassim with the help of the government was perhaps one of the most dramatic moments of their lives. They drove from Al-Qassim to Riyadh and then flew to the United States via Beirut.
Upon returning back to Saudi Arabia, the oil embargo followed by the oil boom dramatically transformed people’s lives. Nevertheless, the economic transformation did not change the conservative lifestyle that was maintained in the 1970s, and more so in the 1980s. My family continued to live their lives without upsetting their extended families or the larger conservative society at that time. They adapted to the circumstances by maintaining a private life for themselves and a public life for those around them. Living through the oil boom and its economic transformation was a dramatic transition for the older generation. Until today, my parents keep remembering how difficult it was to live through poverty, hardship and disease. Yet, their core values remained untouched.
Looking back at 2018, one can openly state that it has been a year full of astonishing and perplexing developments. The year started off on a good note; it was nice and promising to see women entering football stadiums in January. Cinemas opened in the absence of gender-segregation. A baloot tournament took place in Riyadh after being considered by religious scholars a forbidden pastime. Women were allowed to drive for the first time in the Kingdom. The year ended with concerts and dancing by a mixed crowd of men and women, something that would not have been allowed a few months ago.
As the youngest of seven children, I was born in the 1980s which meant growing up during the height of the sahwa era. For those who have been affected by the religious discourse, the change witnessed today makes us reflect on the beliefs and values that were constantly reinforced and rarely challenged. As someone who criticized the dominant religious discourse and never adopted it, I still struggle to cope with my mixed feelings regarding change. I find myself thinking of those who, not so long time ago, believed in the religious discourse that is being contested today. I remember the debates I had with them regarding the veil, segregation and religious diversity. Are they now supportive and adoptive of change? Or are they merely accepting change while holding on to their beliefs? In social psychology, holding contradictory attitudes or beliefs towards something is called “cognitive dissonance”.
The problem with cognitive dissonance is that it usually leads to feelings of discomfort. Some of those who experience this discomfort will ultimately need to alter their beliefs in order to minimize or resolve dissonance. Others might refrain from taking part in activities that might challenge their belief system. Perhaps many are not confronting their feelings of inconsistency as a way not to deal with dissonance. It makes sense that the youth are enjoying the moment without thinking of the religious and psychological baggage that lurks somewhere in their subconscious. If anything, perhaps we can conclude that we have mastered the art of living through change and the discomfort that comes with it. We learned to accept the seesaw effect of social transformation whether we’re up or down.