A post by writer, teacher, traveler, and friend Gwen Bellinger:
Last year while visiting my parents, my mother invited me for a lunch with some of her friends. It was here that Barbara first told me she had started a painting class. About six months later, Barbara had a whole collection of paintings. The lively colors and imaginative subjects give her paintings a playful and quixotic feel. My favorite is a bright purple hippopotamus drinking coffee in front of the Burwell School, a famous historical building in Hillsborough. I have many memories sledding down that hill at the school on snow days.
As much as I love this painting for its vibrancy, its quirkiness, and the nostalgia it brings me for childhood, Barbara’s paintings represent something so much more important for me. In the United States, and around the world, there is a stereotype that “empty nesters,” women whose children grow up and move away, are lonely and bored. I have friends who tell me they can’t move away from their home city because it will destroy their mothers. I don’t know their mothers, but it seems slightly offensive they think their mothers have nothing but their children.
In my experience, women have much more to offer. I think my mom was sad when I went to college, and I know she wasn’t thrilled when I moved to India, but I never got the sense that she suffered serious emotional distress when my sister and I left home. In fact, I think she really blossomed in her creative endeavors. She started making jewelry which she sells at the Art’s Council downtown. She, like Barbara, was a great mother, but also had many individual goals and hobbies.
Currently I am working as a freelancer. Sometimes I refer to this as “my business” (after all, I am registered as an LLC) and sometimes as “my hustle.” “Hustle” is an apt descriptor as generally I am completing various editing projects for a number of clients, writing, teaching children English in China from midnight until eight in the morning, and then working with adults across the world to help improve their English conversation.
I have one long-time student, Loay, a man in his thirties originally from Syria and currently living in Saudi Arabia. I consider Loay more as a friend than a student and look forward to our twice weekly conversations. Loay is the type of person I wish everyone could meet. He’s incredibly friendly and open-minded and we’ve had conversations about romantic relationships, the future of online learning, and gender relations in the workplace. He can talk about anything.
We recently discussed women and education in the Middle East. Loay is a huge supporter of gender equality. He told me that when he gets married he will work very hard to make sure he can provide for his wife and make her feel like a princess. At the same time, he wants to be very supportive of her and her career goals. “I don’t want to force my wife to be a housewife,” he told me. He wants his wife to be able to chase her dreams and have a sense of purpose in life.
“Arab culture focuses on the success of the domestic life, the family life. Business life comes second,” he told me. Unfortunately, this means many women who are working have a double responsibility. Their primary charge is the home, then their business. Loay believes men have a responsibility to help their partners achieve success in the working world. Some of his friends in Saudi Arabia have helped their wives establish their own businesses.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reforming the country. This year, women will finally be able to drive.
In a country where women need permission to travel, work, marry, and study, the independence of movement is a huge gain for women’s rights. In January, women were finally allowed to attend soccer matches. The country’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development concluded that the number of women working in the private sector has increased 130 percent between 2012-2016.  They now represent 30 percent of the private sector and the government has spearheaded many initiatives to support working women.
Loay often reminds me that Saudi Arabia is not Syria. In other parts of the Middle East women enjoy many more freedoms than in Saudi Arabia. I’ve seen this from personal experience. In Lebanon, many women were driving, working, completing their Master’s degrees, and living alone. Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East. Loay has also reminded me many times that this conservatism and view of women is not inherently Arab or Muslim. It’s the culture of Saudi Arabia, not the entire region.
He concedes though, for all the ways that Saudi Arabia is progressing, it will take a long time to change mentalities. “Businesses prefer men,” he said. “The perception of the society is that business woman are not strong enough to have a great business.” He reminded me this was not his personal view. But due to this mentality, he said, it will only be with government support and much time that things can change. Many still believe a woman’s place is in the domestic space.
These cross-cultural conversations are important for a number of reasons. For one, it helps break down stereotypes and reminds us that the world is a dynamic, changing place. Women are fighting for their rights globally and their male allies can come from many walks of life. It also makes me appreciate my mother and her friends. I told Loay about how these “empty nesters” are so involved in their communities. They are creating art, participating in plays, helping the elderly, running local organizations, writing blogs, volunteering with their churches, tutoring students in French, and helping out with the grandkids.
Women of all ages contribute to society and have so much potential. I’m grateful for the opportunity to know my mother’s inspirational friends, breaking the stereotype that “empty nesters” have empty lives. I’m also grateful for Loay and my other students from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East who can help break the stereotype about gender equality and male mentalities in the Arab World.
Saudi Women Top: https://www.flickr.com/photos/92278137@N04/13421558713/ (Flickr, Tribes of the World)
Women2Drive: https://www.flickr.com/photos/92278137@N04/10755435936/in/photostream/ (Flickr, Tribes of the World)
Saudi Women Bottom: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women2drive_by_Latuff.gif (Carlos Latuff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)