Have you ever been curious what it feels like for Saudi women to be part of polygamous families? I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers of Language-on-the-Move admitted to such a curiosity because my Saudi students regularly get that question from non-Saudis, particularly Westerners. Since I’ve come to teach ESL at a women’s college in Saudi Arabia, I’ve found that confronting stereotypes and the desire to clarify the Saudi lifestyle globally is a predominant issue for my students. Through the global media they are very aware of how the wider world sees Saudis and they often describe belittling and humiliating experiences when on vacation in Europe or North America. Many of them have first-hand experience of being treated like terrorists and they can’t fail to notice that their Western interlocutors raise their eyebrows in disbelief when they describe balanced or moderate Saudi views. Then there are the more imaginative stereotypical questions they are asked about faucets that pump out oil and camels in their yards. However, the ubiquitous stereotypical question that ticks them off is the one based on the assumption that all Saudi men have four wives. And thus Saudi women abroad are regularly asked: “How can you live with THAT?”
In fact, polygamy is not the norm amongst Saudi families. Polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia, and when it has happened to a student or to someone in one of their families, the students are generally openly upset about it. They describe their anger at their fathers and how they must take care of their depressed mothers and siblings in classroom discussions, and in their writing. Divorce and polygamy seem to cause equal amounts of distress, and while polygamy is socially understood, it is rarely comfortably accepted. Some students have said their families have been totally split apart, and describe what I would, from a Western point of view, consider permanently separated marital status. In these situations, the father doesn’t divorce the first wife – he just lives with the new wife. He may or may not financially support the first wife and his children, and the emotional support has definitely dwindled. This obviously causes a strained relationship with the children, who try to look after their hurting mothers, and thus they often struggle to keep up with their studies. By contrast, I have only seen a few cases where the children are openly OK with the reality of a polygamous father. This is usually the case when the mother is mentally stable and has family support, and the financial support continues to come from the father.
The reality of polygamy is usually something as in the following story, told to me by a student, whose father – in his 60s – decided to marry a young girl from Egypt. The arrangement was made when he simply flew to Egypt, went to a village and paid an acceptable dowry to secure a marriage with a local girl. He came back to Saudi Arabia and to his first wife and children announcing he had remarried and introducing them to his new wife. Needless to say this didn’t go over as well as he had hoped and soon after he moved into an apartment with his new wife. A few years passed and all his children were furious with him and they were all suffering financially as he could not afford to take care of two households much less be there for them emotionally. He had two young children with his new Egyptian wife and was struggling to make ends meet. Soon after the birth of the second child by the Egyptian 2nd wife, she decided to go back to Egypt to visit her family. However, she never returned and the father was left alone with young children to take care of. He begged his first wife to take him back and care for these children who had been abandoned by their mother. While the first wife didn’t take the husband back, she decided she would raise the two kids as her own. My student was not happy with the situation, as she hadn’t been able to go to college due to lack of funds until she obtained a scholarship. She had never forgiven her father and felt ridiculed by her extended family. Furthermore, her father’s polygamy would also impact her chances of getting married negatively. Polygamy is thus a class phenomenon: in a rich family the second marriage might have been more socially acceptable and the impact less painful.
The complexities of polygamy and the hurt it causes Saudi women escape the stereotypes and asking Saudi women how they can live with polygamy is adding insult to injury. As an ESL teacher in Saudi Arabia, I myself have also had to learn to not judge Saudi women and consider the situations in which they find themselves. As an Iranian-American, married to a Saudi myself, I didn’t think it would be too hard to understand and accept the issues that Saudi women face. Getting over stereotypes was thus not a challenge for me as a teacher because I already knew that commonly held stereotypes involve complicated truths. However, questioning students and cultivating critical thinking around social topics has certainly been a challenge. One method has been the development of student ESL blogs, which center round my own, Philosophy Café. The blogs cover student-selected topics such as polygamy but also Islamophobia, co-education, and working women in Saudi Arabia. This provides students with an opportunity to speak out about their concerns while practising their English writing and gives them a chance to explain what they feel needs explaining. Saudi women’s own voices are making a dent in the wall of stereotypes they are facing.