Western woman teaching Saudi men. Should I be concerned?
May 9, 2014 6:34 PM   Subscribe

I am a young Canadian woman and I have been asked to organize an academic workshop for a group of Saudi Arabian men that are on a month-long summer school exchange at my university (in Canada). Given the gender segregation in Saudi Arabia, I am wondering if there are any specific things I should be concerned about, prepare for, or otherwise watch out for.
posted by Bobka to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I worked at a small college with a number of Saudi students. They generally treated staff and student workers as "the help," didn't have a strong work ethic ("Here, fill this out for me."), and came on very strong to the young ladies - sometimes to the point a male staff member would have to step in and politely but firmly tell them to shove off.

Not to make you go into it expecting to be treated poorly, but that was my experience.
posted by codswallop at 6:45 PM on May 9, 2014

I am a white American women and I have taught classrooms full of Saudi guys. Most of them were total sweethearts as long as you didn't bring up sensitive topics...which could be almost anything related to women's rights or gay rights. So if you're as fired up about those things as I am, I would avoid those topics. Is this their first time out of SA? If so, remember that they are from an extremely repressive culture in which it is actually a crime for them to speak ill of their government, to drink alcohol, have premarital sex, or do basically anything that your average Canadian person might take for granted. On the other hand, most were fabulously wealthy in a way that made them pretty out of touch with reality.

As far as classes go, my students had a very relaxed attitude towards punctuality and rules, which could be frustrating. Set firm expectations and bring them up frequently. Happy to answer more specific questions if you have them!
posted by chaiminda at 6:47 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I taught college prep ESL classes at a Canadian university. Seconding the punctuality issues. I found that the younger Saudi guys, maybe 25 and under, were pretty adaptable and relatively willing to discuss cultural differences in a way that respected students from other cultures. There were some issues with older men from the Middle East accepting my authority as a younger white female teacher, and being willing to engage in respectful discussion.
posted by bluebelle at 7:25 PM on May 9, 2014

A friend of mine had to teach Saudi men in a similar program. I didn't get many details on her experience, but she did mention what bluebelle said. That they had some problem accepting a female as an authority. In Saudi Arabia it is a crime for a woman to not be chaperoned by a male family member. And this male family member can even be her own 12 year old son or nephew. So even a 12 year old male has more authority than an adult female there.
posted by manderin at 7:54 PM on May 9, 2014

While in Saudi Arabia many yeas ago, I had to teach some Saudis about a technical system I had built for them. Class was supposed to last all day, but they never seemed to ever come back from lunch.

They didn't learn much, and didn't need to because the ex-pat contractors that actually did all the work took care of everything for them. Even VIPs at the minister level had a contractor (German, British, American, etc.) who shadowed them and advised on every step. But Saudis had the job titles and signed on the dotted lines.

Utterly surreal.
posted by intermod at 8:33 PM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

In my teaching experience, the Saudi students had a higher-than-normal level of honor code issues. Cheating was overt until punished, and covert as I turned the screws.
posted by joedanger at 8:49 PM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have taught students of all nationalities and I'm rarely tempted to generalize about entire cultures based on my relatively few interactions with the college students I work with. That said, I've had few Saudi students, but they've all had very strong personalities and character traits and are the one culture I have to stop myself from generalizing about.

In ESL/English classes or tutoring writing, Saudi students plagiarized far more often than other nationalities. One (a student who was otherwise fantastic--engaged and engaging, actively thinking about social and cultural issues and contexts, totally respectful in the classroom, really smart and sweet) actually strung together an entire essay on why he admired his grandfather using sentences from across the internet, all of which he had been very careful (it later turned out) to make sure were true in their depiction of his grandfather. I'm sure this took him about five hours longer than it would've to write a decent essay of his own. When tutoring, even graduate students would hand in term papers printed in blue script with clip art images of butterflies or flowers dispersed throughout the text. I teach at an art school, and find that Saudi students have more trouble offering and accepting critique based on aesthetic issues--which is neither here nor there in your case. Some Saudi students came across as demanding and pushy, or genuinely unaware of how much space and time they took up in the classroom. Others--men, not women--skipped multiple classes in a row, then showed up with music blaring and took phone calls in the classroom. Still others have been lovely (that egregious plagiarist above was one of my favorite students ever, despite).
posted by tapir-whorf at 9:02 PM on May 9, 2014

It is my custom to always offer a handshake when I'm introduced to people - also to new students. After an embarrassing incident in Kuwait (where I later heard that I had offered my hand to a very stictly religious man who had shaken it but then had run off to wash) and advice from colleagues I try not to offer my hand to men from these culture anymore.

It feels very impolite and I'm still wondering if I'm doing the right thing, but I'm just teaching a class of Libyan gents now and they didn't seem to think there was something missing when I introduced myself without the offer of a handshake.
posted by Skyanth at 6:51 AM on May 10, 2014

I've done business with Saudi clients, and my daughter taught a group of engineers from Saudi Arabia on an exchange programme for a few summers. She's blonde young and cute.
No concerns other than the ones above, time-keeping and the flexible interpretation of cheating on a homework assignment or test. However, I have noticed a change over 20 years, in that the more religious and observant are more likely to identify themselves. I have noticed a change for example I handing over documents/papers. More people avoid even accidental contact with an unrelated female than in the past. As Skyanth observes above I would never offer my hand immediately, I look for the body language cues to see what is expected but generally I give myself an out by holding documents, laptop, iPad etc., and generally smile and incline my head. I also find myself making far less direct eye contact than I do in general.

One small tip, I don't wear clothing in a block colour of Kelly/Emerald green, like a dress or tunic. While most Muslims believe any over-reliance on images or symbolism to be Shirk some young Saudis I know associate it with the Prophet. YMMV, it's a question of how you would make any other group in your class comfortable really and apply the same principles (unless, you hug and kiss all students as they enter and leave the class! ;) )
posted by Wilder at 6:54 AM on May 14, 2014

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