Where is Your Husband?

Where is Your Husband?

During the second year of my residence in Riyadh, I made friends with an American woman married to a Saudi. She invited me to her home, and I was thrilled. Finally! I’d get a chance to see inside one of those vast, cubic villas surrounding by walls and gates.

I took a taxi, and of course got lost. I found myself telling the driver, “Stop here! No, here! Turn left, turn right!” Sure that I was in the correct neighborhood, I paid the taxi driver and took my chances on foot, rather than embarrass myself further.

I wandered between villas, and admired their various shades of salmon, gray, ochre, and straight, sweeping walls that overlapped, creating clean, geometric images I wished I could have photographed. In those days, however, photography was really haram. Each of the villas somehow fit the description she gave me. Naturally, nobody else walked around outside; the neighborhood seemed like a ghost town. Eventually I saw a young Saudi male on the street, and in my as yet unmodified American way, asked him, in English, “Do you know where Asma lives?” (LOL)

He looked at me as if I were crazy, this bare-headed Western woman wandering around between villas. No, of course he did not know. I pressed a few door buzzers, and then hit the right one. Asma answered the intercom, and buzzed open the gate.

She showed me into a large living room, the size of which amazed me. We sat on a formal blue sofa, with carved trim and matching curved legs. I admired the crystal chandelier, and the gold-framed calligraphy, with its swirls of gold Arabic letters I could not yet read, against its velvet black background.

We sat there and chatted for awhile, about being Westerners in Saudi Arabia, about our lives in America, about how she met her husband, how she became Muslim, and the all-important question: Are you happy here?

Yes, she was happy there.

We talked about Islam, as by that time I was interested in it from a personal perspective. She allowed me to watch her pray; Isha had fallen due.

She took me to the kitchen, where my eyes widened at the sight of long counter tops, large cabinets, and American style stove and refrigerator. It might have been a modern American kitchen, except for the harsh fluorescent light, which, I noticed, had also lit the living room.

We talked about recipes, family, and all manner of domestic affairs. . She then served me kabsa she’d made earlier; it was the first time I’d tasted that magnificent dish. Another surprise greeted me when I asked whether I could help clean up. A housekeeper emerged, from where I didn’t know, and Asma and I retired to the living room.

After several hours of visiting as if we were already close friends, I thought I’d better go home. I lived in the hospital compound. Her driver would take me. Suddenly I remembered that she had two young sons and a husband.

“Where are they?” I asked. The children were in their rooms, and the husband was in “another part of the house.” What? What other part of the house?

“You mean, your husband has been home all this time, and stayed in another part of the house?” I asked incredulously. I would have wanted to meet him.

That was how I learned about segregation in a most practical way. I was appalled at first. “Won’t he become angry?” I asked, suddenly feeling like an intruder. “We’ve sat here all night and he’s been cooped up elsewhere?”

“Oh,no,” Asma said, “he’s in the men’s room. He has an office and a TV and plenty of things to keep him busy.”

During the next six years, Asma and I became dear friends. We got together whenever we could, and chatted on the phone nearly everyday. I never did set eyes on her husband, not even a far off glimpse, and when I married, she never saw mine. I overcame the desire to meet her husband. As our friendship solidified, I reveled in the fact that it belonged to us, and only us. Husbands could not have added anything. In fact, with them out of the picture, we got to know each other more deeply than we would have, had our meetings been mixed.

I developed several other friendships over the years, and in each one, I found much freedom, and a satisfaction that could not have blossomed had husbands been in the picture. Those female friendships in Saudi Arabia were the best I’d ever had, because of, not in spite of, gender segregation.

I do not segregate here in the United States, but I’m thankful for having discovered a hidden blessing in the custom. Most of us get lost in the “should” or “shouldn’t” of gender segregation. I do not say should or shouldn’t. I say that I’ve tasted a way of life most people will never experience, let alone appreciate, and I’ve found some good in it.

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21 responses

  1. I’ve lived all my life in Iran and i’ve never faced this separation between women and men. In Iran also men and women are usually together and if woman has a female guest for herself, her husband will come and greet for the sake of Adab, but it happens he does not sit all over the discussion and just inform them that he is leaving the room and let them be alone.
    Now after marriage, since i am married to a westerner, there are much less separations. But still my husband greets my guests when we are together and then if the discussion is boring for him, he would politely leave the room to do his jobs.
    For male its different bcs they usually go to a cafe with friends. So i give him this space to be alone with his male friends, otherwise they bring their wives.

    There is something else about kitchens in Arab countries. The kitchen is not the kind of open-kitchen. (Not wet kitchen. I mean the front kitchen) They do it bcs women usually wear a hijab for male guests. But it’s alittle difficult to deal with them.
    And yes, there are walls and walls and cubes. But just like Iran.. lol

  2. I dont agree with the forced segregation that occurs in many parts of the Muslim world…but I do enjoy the women only gatherings as the women that do believe in it are more comfortable and able to enjoy themselves…and we all have a good time. I hate when everyone is chatting having fun then shouts of “a man is coming”…and women start snatching and grabbing hijabs and abayas as if they were all sitting there naked together…it makes me wonder about all the frenzy and mayhem…really…would it be that bad if a man caught a glimpse of you? Maybe it would be…but it just seems silly to fall all over yourself to “get dressed” in 5 seconds flat in case some man catches a glimpse of your hair. Im just saying.

    btw I will never understand the Arab love of flourescent lighting…everyhouse I ever went to usually has its fair share…so harsh on the eyes and very unflattering. But the sitting rooms at least usually have softer lighting at least.

  3. I enjoyed reading your perspective on this. I have my Girls’ Nights Out and lunch with my girlfriends occasionally. Then we sometimes all (men & women) get together. I like the mix, but I DO love my girl time a lot. We laugh and cut up like crazy! I can relate to what you said. Thanks for sharing.

  4. coolred, you made me laugh! The “man is coming!” call to cover really is kind of funny. Women who were relaxed, laughing and beautifully dressed will jump as if they’ve they’d been informed of a ntaional emergency, or at least a fire in the house.

    The Saudi fixaton on fluorescent lights really is curious, unless one regards it as temperature issue. Fluorescents do not throw off extra heat, but they are ugly, indeed.

    Shahi, maybe someday I’ll be able to go to your country and see all those walls and cubes for myself!

  5. turgayevren, thank you for your kind and generous words. Of course, you may add me to your blogroll.

    Writing is a passion, and I am ready to share it with anyone who would be enriched by my words. Thanks, again.

  6. You are very observant and your writing reflects it. My husband and I have a few family friends who we visit as a couple, but mostly I have girlfriends that I visit alone. I have seen their husbands but we only exchange greetings.

  7. I love the way you write, Marahm!! This was exceptionally well said. I’ve personally never had to consider the positives OR negatives of gender segregation – it’s never been a part of my life.

    Nevertheless, I loved the post =)… and the image of you, a hair-baring Westerner, wandering about and asking random Saudi men if they know where Asma lives. LOL. What I wouldn’t give to have seen the looks of shock on their faces!!

    btw. Syrians seem to have the same odd fixation with fluorescent lights…. now I have to ask why!

  8. Hi Marahm – You are such a great story teller. Your words just flow and weave together so effortlessly.
    For me, the segregation between the sexes here gets old. I don’t mind spending time with my girlfriends at all, but when there is not an option of mingling, I guess that’s when I start to have a problem with it.
    I don’t get the fluorescent light thing here either. There are so many lighting shops with beautiful fixtures, but so many here go for the fluorescent. I am miffed at the way all the gas stations are lit up with hundreds of white fluorescents and placed in patterns all over the property. And the colored fluorescents too – it’s lit up like Las Vegas here!
    Fortunately for me, our flat has tasteful fixtures plus some recessed fluorescents that aren’t visible. Whew!

  9. Thanks again, Friends, for your lovely remarks. You inspire me to write more!

    Susie, when I first saw Riyadh, with all its colored lights tracing the outlines of businesses, and strung over parking lots, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Christmas. Riyadh businesses at night looked like concrete Christmas trees.

    souvenisandscars, welcome to the blog! I was most impressed to find that you are an excellent writer in your own right. I will add your blog to my roll.

  10. Marahm – although I do not like nor endorse segregation you wrote how it can be a positive and enjoyable experience.

    I guess I still prefer to have the choice of whether to have segregation rather than have it enforced…and my Saudi husband will always come and greet my guests unless we know they are conservative and would prefer not to see a man.

  11. Very interesting perspective!
    Marahm I come by your blog and do my share of reading but I don’t remember commenting so here’s a hello!

    Your posts are a great read : )
    Girl time is wonderful and all female gatherings a must, but to me it never hurts to get to know a friends husband, maybe our husbands get to be friends too!
    Being Muslim and half Arab I have experienced segregation in certain settings and I know at times it’s needed but to take it as far as never meeting family members of friends is well, taking it a bit too far! Maybe it seems that way to me since me and my husband have the same friends and when we meet up with friends we spend time together as couples and then the girls and guys may get together and do their own thing.

    I remember one awkward moment though of running into a person who my husband just met and as they said their salams the man turned away from me so as not say even hello! I stood there shocked and couldn’t bring myself to say anything and just waited till their greetings were done and off we went. I asked my husband why he didn’t introduce us and he was like didn’t you see the way he turned away?!
    I understand where he was coming from as this is the way he’s used to in his country (Saudi) where males don’t greet females and vice versa (in general anyway) but the next time we met I made sure I say the salam first so that he responds and knows it’s okay to say hello, especially since he’s not in Saudi anymore!

    Like Shahrzad I believe saying hello is just part of a normal manners, they can say their hellos and leave, pretending you’re invisible is just so weird!

  12. I don’t know how I ended up here but I’m glas I came. You are a great storyteller.

    @coolred – I call it the ‘stop, drop, and roll’ I’ve had to do it a few times. There are some Saudi homes that I will not remove my scarf at because they are only use to family/tribal gatherings and often times a visiting male relative wil come in to greet the women and nobody thinks to warn me.

    As far as the floresant lights – I have coonsidered rewiring my house for them. I’ve always lived in Government housin in Saudi with standard light bulbs and the first thing I noticed was that all the Saudis rewired their lights. It’s because the bulbs burn out very fast. wsometimes in a week. My last villa had over 50 light bulbs to be changed. My new place has about 30. It’s expensive and time consuming.

  13. marahm,

    mashaallah…i love your recounting if this ….

    flourescent lights..let me give another perspective 😛
    when I came to the United States, I was appalled at the ‘yellow’ light in the houses and apartments…in Malaysia, we use a lot of flourescent light too…white…I felt stifled by the yellow soft light, as if it’s not enough light to sit by. And we install the white flouresecnt light in our apartment, forgoing the soft cosy light (I do think of it as cosy though). and I think after having lived in the US for 11 years and more, I’ve now come to appreciate the soft cosy light and when we move inshaallah I think I will forgo the flourescent light (not in all rooms, but in most) 😀 inshaallah 🙂

    as for segregation…i love the segregation in saudi…how they have another part of the house ..here I struggle with it..when my female friends come over, since the aprt is small, it’s hard to segregate my husband LOL…sometimes he has to go out…so i don’t really have my female friends over that much bec I feel bad for him…i wish we have ‘that other part of the house’ 😀 i personally love the segregation, forced or unforced. 😀

  14. as salamu alaykum Marahm,

    I loved reading your story mash’Allah! Here among the muslims that I know we do separate. My friends never saw my dh and same for me about theirs. I do prefer it as we can stay about hijaab and being more “relaxed” mash’Allah! 🙂

    take care!

  15. LOL subhanAllah! Beautiful and fun story well told of course 🙂

    Hehehe reminds me of the fact I have yet to see a few of my friend’s husbands and soemtimes I still find it very disconcerting. Like a big part of their life (whom i know so well) is missing. Like it’s just some random “ghostly” figure they sometimes mention. I much like it when they at least pop their head in so I have a mental image when they say my husband ….. but for many of my friends it’s jsut a blank image which i guess is better Islamically but if I were to ever run into them on the street I’d never be able to say “give salams to your wife”. So I like it cause as you said you don’t have to worry about pop-ins or fast coverings as coolred said but I don’t like it only because sometimes I find the men’s conversations more facinating and I’d like to share my opinion and I can’t because it would be Ayb to join them lol.

  16. Thank you all for these comments. I guess segration is one of those subjects we will always be able to write about, to entertain ourselves as well as to explore the benefits and difficulties thereof.

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