Sunday, December 21, 2008

Saudi girl handles her own passport: "I felt independent!"

Once again, the Arab News has an article about how Saudi Arabia is liberalizing itself, while the article itself shows instead how impossibly far it has to go:
At the immigration check at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Ghadeer Al-Swailim got her first taste of how things are done in the West. As he always does, Al-Swailim’s brother handed the immigration officer his passport as well as his sister’s. The immigration officer initially refused to take the booklets, telling the brother that his sister must hold her own passport when she goes through the immigration and customs process at the airport.

“I felt independent!” said Ghadeer, a 20-year-old Saudi postgraduate student on her way to Maastricht under Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s foreign scholarship program.

Holland, one of the most liberal countries in the world, has 138 Saudi students currently on scholarships; 36 of them are women. In 2007 the country was added to the list of authorized Saudi scholarship destinations; students are able to choose from three fields there: Medicine, dentistry and engineering.

Twenty-year-old Kawthar Al-Marhoon, from Qatif, shares an apartment with her women colleagues in Groningen, located in northern Holland. There are 56 Saudi students studying there. She began studying medicine in May after receiving the Saudi study-abroad scholarship.

Kawthar’s brother stayed with her the first three months.

One of the requirements for Saudi women to obtain government study-abroad scholarships is that a legal guardian must accompany them during the entire duration of their studies. In many cases, however, the guardian will go and then return to Saudi Arabia later. The requirement to send a guardian to accompany an unmarried Saudi woman (which is usually a brother, though mothers are also allowed to be guardians in this case) for the entire study-abroad period places an additional burden on women scholarship-seekers, especially if they are unmarried.

In Kawthar’s case, her brother left and she had to learn to deal with a lot of responsibilities that she used to ascribe to men.

“It wasn’t easy for me to adjust with load of household tasks, such as fixing the Internet in my apartment or going to the electricity company to pay my bill,” said Kawthar, who had never been in any European country before winning her scholarship.

Now Kawthar travels to Amsterdam to process her own immigration documents. In Saudi Arabia, a woman would typically need permission to travel to another city and the presence of her male guardian to engage in bureaucratic procedures.