For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Aug 12 2017
by Gari De Ramos

A Saudi Arabian Student's Perspective on Politics at Home and in the U.S.

By Gari De Ramos - Aug 12 2017

On paper, Jude, an 18-year-old incoming freshman at American University, seems like a typical Saudi Arabian woman. But in reality, she’s not. And, while she is very aware of her culture, she doesn’t necessarily represent it. She is a modern woman with her own beliefs on her religion, politics and how her country can change.

Jude is among the thousands of international students that will be joining the class of 2021 in universities all over America. International students can provide a unique insight on the ever intensifying political climate, and can also widen our perspective by teaching us about their culture and country. Fresh U had the opportunity to interview Jude to discuss the politics in her home country of Saudi Arabia, as well as her views on American politics.

Why did you want to study in the US?

Jude: "I aspire to work in government development. To reach anywhere in Saudi Arabia, you have to have an international education. You have better chances of finding a better job and are exposed to different opportunities. My academic aspirations aren’t being met in Saudi Arabia. If I were to study international relations back home, it would only be a little subject within political science. There’s no major in international relations for women. Certain courses are limited to men."

What’s the most important political issue for you?

Jude: "I think politics is becoming very polarized everywhere. In the Middle East, they overthrow dictatorships and have governments made of the remains of the dictatorships. You have a monarchy that may have democratic approaches, but aren’t straightforward with how they operate."

Many outsiders think Saudi Arabia is a sexist and non-secular country. What do you think of this perspective?

Jude:  "Our country rules through Islamic sharia law, but it is perceived far more aggressively than what it really is. It’s only sexist to a certain extent if you compare it to the rest of the world. A woman’s education and freedom is tied to her male guardian – her father, brother, husband. Almost anything you do must be approved by your male guardian. If you have an open-minded male guardian, then you are an open-minded female. If you have a close-minded male guardian, it will affect your values and views towards life."

Racism against Muslims has been a problem in the US. Have you had to deal with this problem?

Jude: "This is the sixth year I've visited the U.S. I never felt discriminated against until earlier this year when a Muslim Senegalese-American Uber driver verbally attacked me for not being a good enough Muslim. I never thought someone would attack me for that. He thinks Saudis should only portray Islam and nothing else. He was like, 'they shouldn't drink, they shouldn't live the life these Americans live, they shouldn't be affected by any culture other than theirs.' He's not giving people enough space to explore other cultures. Ever since the primaries began in the U.S. last summer, I thought to myself 'this is exactly what the Crusades did in the Middle East hundreds of years ago.' That's exactly what happened to the Jews – they were discriminated against, hated, looked down on. I feel like it's just history repeating itself."

What kind of racism exists in Saudi Arabia?

Jude: "I think racism is the same everywhere in the world. It’s been 40-50 years since we abolished slavery, so people of black skin are discriminated against even if they’re Saudi. It’s insane because Saudis aren’t much darker, but if someone is black and of African ancestry, even if they’ve only known Saudi Arabia, they’re still looked down upon."

Are there similarities between racism in Saudi Arabia and in the U.S.?

Jude: "Saudis of African descent struggle in terms of opportunity. People try to avoid clashing and integrating with black minorities. Individuals like myself have a few black friends; I only have 2. We’re not fully integrated, but that goes back to the evolution of a culture. It takes time. It’s just like in the U.S. back in the 1920s and 1940s when the mainstream movements first started. The only difference now is people have more exposure to how the rest of the world approaches racism and discrimination. The Internet has definitely made it a lot better for everyone."

How do you feel – as a Muslim immigrant – about being in the US?

Jude: "I actually feel very welcome here. When I first got to New York, the immigration officer asked me ‘How was your trip? Are you happy to be here? We’re so glad you’re back!’ And this happened in the spring when the travel ban first happened. Saudi Arabia wasn’t affected by the travel ban, probably because we signed a military contract with the states and our biggest export to the U.S. is oil and education."

Many think the Muslim ban is outright racist, and others think that if any country should be banned, it should be Saudi Arabia because that’s where most of the 9/11 terrorists originated. What do you think about the ban the view that Saudi Arabia should have been included?

Jude: "When the travel ban first came out, my family and I had just received our U.S. visas. We were taken aback when it first came out, but it turned out that the ban targeted countries whose citizens already had a near impossible chance to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place. I can understand the frustration of those who think 9/11 was caused by Saudi Arabia because that is what the media tries to point, but I don't see how banning Saudi Arabians from entering the U.S. could be of any use.

I believe all those who lost anyone due to 9/11 have the right to find justice, but don’t hold a whole nation accountable, unless of course the nation supports it. That is not the case with Saudi Arabia, which strongly stands against claims they supported the attacks. No country should be the target of discrimination. A travel ban shouldn't exist, but thorough background checks should be in place. The entire world suffers greatly from terrorism, so the ban won’t prevent acts of terror."

Will you stay in the U.S. or return to Saudi Arabia after graduation?

Jude: "I want to go back, just like my parents before me. My father studied in the U.S. and my mom studied in Riyadh. They both worked for the government for a very long time and have paid back in their own way. I definitely want to do the same, especially with the chances they’ve given me as a young Saudi woman."

Do you have more opportunities than most Saudi women?

Jude: "I know so. I know that sounds bad, but that’s the case. Most Saudi women – no matter how smart, educated or ambitious – have their liberty tied to their male guardian. A woman should take ownership of her life. I want to get to a place where a Saudi woman has her own rights. The Islamic religion values this, but the culture doesn’t. There’s a big difference.

Our religion does not limit women by any means; it gives her a privilege. In my religion, a woman technically doesn’t have to spend a penny. Her male guardians are mandated to support her financially, emotionally, in any way she desires. Even if she were a billionaire, she is not allowed – unless it’s what she wants – to spend a penny. Saudi culture is an interpretation of the religion. That’s the main thing I want my culture to improve. If they claim they rule by Islamic law, they should walk the walk."

Since you were applying for colleges during the 2016 election, did the state of American politics concern you?

Jude: "My parents were concerned, but I had this gut feeling I would be fine. Towards the end of the application process, I got many letters from universities saying that even if I wasn't granted a visa, they would make sure I got my four-year college education whether it be through them or another university. I wanted to be here. When they sell the U.S. as the land of opportunity, they’re not kidding. You strive for more, you get more. You work harder, you get what you want."

Is Donald Trump what you expected from an American president?

Jude: "I wasn’t surprised. His persona is one of riches. He’s a white Republican. I thought he was going to win because people in the U.S. aren’t ready for a woman president yet."

How would you define American values?

Jude: "From my understanding, our culture thinks America has no set value. It’s the individual’s understanding of what their own values are. I, however, see American values tied to migrants, diversity, history. A first generation immigrant’s definition of American values is different from an immigrant who came here in the 60s or an immigrant who founded this country."

How would you define Saudi Arabian values?

Jude: "I know my country stands for Islam. This image of Islam can get distorted because we're trying to keep up with everyone else in the world, but we still need to value religious understanding. Globalization is moving forward and forgetting about religion, and that's not how it's supposed to be.

Our religion stands for understanding and acceptance. Believe me, I learned religion through school, but I was still able to make up my own understanding of Islam. Islam is this very beautiful, open, loving, peaceful view of the world. I only hope that my country will be able to rise above the turmoil and persist with their image of this. People have to have patience.

Islam is not terrorism or extremism. It's way more forgiving than it seems. I want people to know Saudi values are not only tied to religion, but they're also tied to family, love, history, poetry, art. We're strong women and men. We're well educated, we're hardworking. We're just not viewed in the best way. People should be open to change and try to view the 'other' as kin, rather than as an opponent."

Lead Image Credit: Thad Zajdowicz and Iqbal Osman via Flickr Creative Commons

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Gari De Ramos - Clark University

Gari De Ramos is a sophomore at Clark University where she is double majoring in Political Science with a concentration in Comparative Politics, and her student-designed major in Human Security. She's a third culture kid (Philippines, Hong Kong, New York), a lover of jaywalking, and is dreaming about a gender-swapped production of Hamilton.

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