Sunday, February 19, 2012

Saudi Arabia

Last week I attended a solid-state lighting symposium at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

KAUST was established in 2009, heavily funded by a Saudi oil company.  They have several well-equipped research labs and are currently reaching out to universities around the world to secure meaningful scientific collaborations, in hopes it will itself become a premier research institution.  Our symposium was prelude to such a collaboration and the first NSF-sponsored event ever in Saudi Arabia.

When I told people I was traveling to Saudi, they'd respond one of two ways: something along the lines of "OMG, that's awesome!" or what I can only describe as a mixture of confusion and horror.  The latter being at least understandable, as it's probably one of the last countries anyone would expect a female scientist to travel willingly.  It is still one of the most restrictive cultures for women.  I had reservations about going initially, but realized it was too intriguing of an opportunity to pass up.  Besides, I was traveling with a delegation of coworkers and knew we'd spend the majority of our time on campus, so all safety concerns were quickly mollified.

The KAUST campus is a huge, modernized compound, and well-shielded from the outside community.  They don't allow the mutaween (Saudi religious police) within it, and so the culture is very westernized.  Everyone speaks English.  The restaurants serve bacon and there's a movie theater.  Women are allowed to wear normal clothing, attend classes with men, and drive cars, for example, as opposed to the rest of the country which requires women to cover up in abayas (long black robes), and forbids them from driving or socializing with unrelated men, per strict Islamic traditions.

Although the campus was crawling with foreigners, it was obvious we were in an Islamic country.  There was a large beautiful mosque in the center of campus with calls to prayer broadcasted five times a day.  The gym had separate facilities reserved for women only, consisting of a weight room, class space, and their own outdoor pool (which I really liked the idea of, actually!).  The majority of women on campus and even those attending our symposium were Muslim, and wore black abayas to cover their clothes and hijabs to cover their hair, some even with the full face coverings, known as niqabs.  I definitely felt far away from UCSB, where female undergrads walk around practically half-naked all months out of the year.

Still, being the only female in our group seemed to carry more weight than usual.  I'm used to being outnumbered, but being the only one always feels different, especially on a trip such as this.  (Another female  was scheduled to attend but had to cancel at the last minute.)

I brought an abaya and hijab in case we had the opportunity to do some sight-seeing outside campus.  Unfortunately I did not get to put them to much use.  We only left campus once to grab dinner in nearby Thuwal with some grad students.  I wish we had the opportunity to explore the old souks in nearby Jeddah and get a more authentic Saudi Arabian experience. (We tried, but couldn't find an English speaking driver to take us!)  Next time?

This M.I.A. video for her new single "Bad Girls" shows off some stunt driving popular among young Saudi men.  I didn't get to see any drifting or car surfing in person while I was there, but our cab drivers drove over 100 mph, which was enough excitement for me.

Filmed in Morocco, and directed by Romain Gavras, who also directed "Born Free"

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