Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Boys To Men In Saudi

While wandering the aisles at an exhibition in Riyadh one day, a kerfuffle broke out just ahead and female security in their stern brown uniforms were surrounding a woman and her children.  As is usual in Saudi whenever something exciting is going down, the commotion drew the attention of attendees in the near vicinity and soon a small crowd had formed, with the sound of a shrill and angry exchange taking place.  It turns out security was objecting to the age of a young boy who had entered the female only section of the event, (he looked about six), and his mother was just as forcefully objecting to her offspring being told to wait outside.
I have no idea why this woman took her child to this event. Maybe she wasn't aware it was Ladies Only.  Maybe she believed that six was still young enough to be an innocent child and, like the other youngsters being allowed access (though admittedly most of those were in push chairs), didn't expect there to be problems.  Perhaps she didn't have anyone to babysit said child, and let's be honest, if a mother were to leave her youngster alone at the door she would probably be labelled a bad mother plus run the risk of losing who child to some abductor (terrible thought, but not unknown to happen!), so it's no wonder she insists that he is coming with her, grabs his hand and attempts to drag him in behind her.

The young boy in question looked a little confused and frightened mid kerfuffle, the mother agitated and the security stone faced and adamant that 'He is not to go one inch further!'

Security coming down on mothers and their youngsters has happened at a couple of events I've been to, though having never stuck around to see the result of these exchanges, I can't say who wins out.  The incidents do make me wonder how old a boy has to be before he's no longer a child in Saudi eyes.  Apparently, looking six is getting on in years.

I presume young male children are excluded from these events because they may see, or be at risk of fraternizing with, uncovered, unrelated women.  What I used to doubt was whether the boys are old enough to compute what they are seeing, or if they even care.

On trying to recall what my brothers were thinking about when they were between the ages of six and nine, all that comes to mind is riding bikes, pretending they were super heroes and asking for food.  I seriously doubt how pretty, or otherwise, the lady next door was even entered their heads at that age.  In fact, the only reason they would have been the least bit interested in the neighbor is if she had freshly baked biscuits for afternoon tea and had brought over a tin full to give away!

But this is Saudi, and boys are raised with different ideas.
I know a seven year old who is well aware that the Arabic teacher (a male) who has just arrived to take him for his after-school lessons is not to be let into the same room as me, so he has asked the teacher to wait in another area until I'm gone.  And yet another young boy who is concerned that my head and face are not covered as I leave his home (I have no idea what his parents tell him on that score).  And at extended family functions young boys learn they are the conduit for communication between the male tent and female section as they are sent back and forth between each.

The first time I witnessed how many of the social and cultural rules that young Saudi boys knew I admit to being stunned, first in an impressive way (as in, Whoa, look at that!), then in a sad way (as in, O my gosh, he's so young to know this already.  What's gonna happen when he meets the big bad west!)

Discussions with fellow expats on these eye opening occurrences usually results in 'brain washing' comments entering the conversation which is a bit unfair.  We laugh watching our grand children mimic their parents when on Skype but forget that they are, in fact, also learning behaviors, rules and attitudes. We forget how quickly children learn from their environment, how much the culture of a place is taught and learnt in the home before a child hits school or the big wide world.

How difficult must it be for Saudi parents to explain we westerners, who quite obviously have slightly different ideas on life, to their children.  (Of course, the lazy parents will take the quick option and simply say we are infidels not getting to paradise.  I guess they aren't interested in raising future generations with rounded attitudes).

I have been informed via the expat grapevine (and yes, that makes it rumour) that Saudi women provide all care for the children till the age of seven, then the fathers step in and take over a boys care while the mothers continue to raise the girls.  There may be an element of truth to this, though Ii'm not silly enough think it means seven is the age of transition from boys to men in Saudi Arabia.  It's more a question of logistics because there has to be a point in a young Saudi boys life when the father (and his brothers and uncles) becomes a lot more involved with their sons upbringing, largely due to the segregated environment within which boys must live and try to make sense of life.  Another expat friend believes twelve is the age of no return for a Saudi boy due to approaching puberty - at that point he's completely thrown into the Saudi mans separate world, ready or not.  Here's hoping he's ready!
When boys truly transition to men in Saudi is, no doubt, an individual thing as it is around the world.  And I say 'truly transition' because there is simply no one 'magical moment' when 'boys' become 'men' in the true mental, emotional, responsible sense of the word.  (We had to wait almost 50 years for one of the brothers to grow up!)   And I don't believe for one second that a male child is mature enough, in any sense, of being a capable guardian to his mother and older sisters,  This particular Saudi law or cultural practice or religious edict or whatever it is, that makes women dependent on their male children or young male siblings for all their needs if no other significant adult male is around has be given the heave ho!  (I actually think the whole guardian system needs to go, but that's for another discussion).

Unlike girls in Saudi Arabia, boys do not get lumbered with a sign that announces to security guards (and anyone else who needs to know)  "My developing body has physically transitioned to manhood.  Separate me from the females because now, I'm dangerous!'' - (Perhaps they could put that on a shirt...)

... This means security guarding the inner sanctums of malls and family only places from 'single males' has to take take a wild guess at the age of a child and often times simply being a boy (and an extremely young one at that) seems to be sign enough. for exclusion.   For example, I've seen a boy, he looked nine, having been sent out by his mother to buy drinks for his younger siblings, denied entrance back into the Family Area of a mall food hall and told to go sit in the singles section.  He looked like he was gonna cry and his mother clucked her way over to him, lambasting security all the way.  I couldn't help thinking some of the rules in this country are a bit stuffed.  On the other hand I also thought she was being unfair to security - after all, these are your rules!  (Living in Saudi can seriously mess with your head if you let it.)

The sign for a matured girl is easy to identify and, if the mothers have done a good job, girls look forward to their first blood and the marking of their transition to 'womanhood' with an all covering abaya and niqab with enthusiasm.  Having to give up playing kids games with the male cousins of similar age is simply part and parcel of the process.  (I do wonder how, overnight, you can become too beautiful for male to look at just because you had a period because, let's be honest, most menstrual related activity is a far from glamorous affair!)  One can only imagine that girls who are not prepared for the great cover up that accompanies 'becoming a woman' must be somewhat traumatized by the entire process.

If you think about it, the abaya and niqab ensemble does little more than mark you as a female , and one of reproductive age at that.  Putting newly menstruating girls into them is akin to branding packaging with a tag line 'Need Offspring? - I'm Good To Go!'  (Post-menopausal women don't have to wear the niqab, so I've heard, because they are considered 'past their use by date' but most continue to do so out of habit, and I reckon the old girls still get a thrill out of the young men throwing phone numbers at them because of what they imagine is under the black attire!).

I have heard stories of Saudi mothers not letting on that their daughters have begun menstruating, so they don't have to be marked as 'available' quite so soon and who can blame them, childhood is over so quickly and adulthood lasts for decades in this modern day and age.

Without any outward sign of a boys age, the judgement of whether or not that boy can pass as 'child' or be denied access as 'man' is left to the discretion of the security guards and their assessment that said boy is too large, too old, or too handsome to be allowed in to the inner sanctum of 'Women Only' areas with mum or 'Family' areas without her, much to the chagrin, I've noted, of many a mother.

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