Events and discussions | Republic Underground Editorial
March 17, 2021
Women and girls are challenged to define themselves even if they’re from only one society. What would you do if you were from two?
Najat Al Saied grew up in the United States and Saudi Arabia…With roots in the west and the Middle East, she had to learn to define herself as a woman, a professional, and a person.
The conversation opened with Dr. Al Saied’s experiences in the media. The event turned into a chat about Dr. Al-Saied’s journey as a successful woman. The event moderator Irina Tsukerman opened the event by asking Al-Saied more about her earlier years. The event opened the floor to let Al-Saied tell her personal and professional story as side-by-side components of each other.
Two worlds, two languages
Until the age of eight, she thought of herself as “completely American.” Up until moving to the Middle East, she did not know the Arabic language at all. In her mind, it came as a complete shock that her family was from both backgrounds.
Discussion point: How much does knowing a language impact culture? Why do westerners seem more reluctant to build bilingual skills,and what impact would there be on western society if bilingual skills became a more natural part of social discussion?
Polar opposite cultures
Dr. Al Saied was shocked when she arrived in Saudi Arabia as a young girl. The life of a girl in Saudi Arabia was so much different
“I was little so learning a new language wasn’t that difficult for me…” she remembered that she had some embarrassing difficulty with the language at the first, but it was the new culture that she had great difficulty adjusting to.
At Republic Underground’s Women’s Month Roundtable, Dr. Al Saeid caught up with us today. Today she is a professor and professional in the media and communications studies field. Watch the whole event recap above_
A background in questioning the cultural traditions of Saudi Arabia and why other countries around her were more open, gave Dr. Al Saied the mindset that would follow her into her media research professional life. When the revolution and strictness of the Islamic Revolution would affect the lifestyle in Saudi Arabia, Al Saied’s father decided to move them back to the United States. This is where Al Saied continued her education.
Coming to America, again
Al-Saied noted that, when she returned to America, she was faced with questions and cultural challenges from the west, after having spent so much time in the east.
“Even my Arab friends were asking me questions,” she recalled, remembering how, when she chose not to wear the headscarf, other Muslims asked her why. For some Muslims, this was a compulsory thing, and yet those who were asking Al-Saied were not themselves committed to the headscarf. She noted that this was because she was from Saudi, the region of the two holy mosques and that a more traditional commitment was expected.
For Al-Saied, who began life defining herself as an American, as western, her views were different. Despite the pressures from other Muslims, she reserved this different point of view. This would be something else she carried into her professional life.
“They expect a certain image. Not just for Saudis but Saudi women,” she said, noting how that because she was Saudi she was expected to look a certain way.
“You’re not asking the same thing from other Arab Muslim women,” she noticed.
“So this is something that most Saudis face.”
A natural attraction to diversity
Because her childhood was “so much into” the American system of thinking, when she returned as a grown-up, she preferred the social interaction of American culture, and also other nationalities.
“I didn’t constrain myself only with the Saudis. When I compare myself to other Saudis, you’re right. They are always hanging out with their community.”
Discussion point: This story gives us an example of diversity and inclusion being introduced from experience. Do westerners overly politicize diversity and “indoctrinate” rather than promote it by these political standardizations? How can we introduce cultural diversity in a way that people from mixed national backgrounds can choose to identify themselves based on their inclinations and not on societal “buzzwords?” In what way would this promote more natural affinity to diversity such as was the case here? Share your thoughts.
She even recalled the surprise she received from fellow Saudis when she would work with American ministries and graduated from American schools. They asked her why she was not choosing to work in the Saudi circles, as they did. Diversity was something she chose to do, not as a statement but as a natural progression of American roots. The pull and preference toward diversity led her to a self-defined career that raised some eyebrows among her community.
“‘My Dad is already in the embassy. Why would I go and join him in the embassy? I want to go and learn,’” Dr. Al-Saied recalls having told her peers. She remembered then that this natural affinity to learning from other nationalities drew her to Americans and through these experiences she fulfilled her learning wish.
She said that work was the catalyst that fully made her feel that she belonged to and lived in the United States.
She recalled how, in her early career, with the PanAmerican Health Organization, under the World Health Organization, she was in the middle of Washington, D.C. near the Pentagon. She was near the area where the terrorist attacks of the Pentagon happened on September 11 when Al Qaeda attacked both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
“The main thing that changed my life was 9/11, honestly.”
The things that Al-Saied experienced on the day of 9/11 changed her perspective of the influence she had on society. Before, she talked about how she was happy with her life and wanted to help others by being a good role model for them in their lives. Yet, when she witnessed 9/11, and she realized that she realized what sort of influence she had to explain the truth about Saudi Arabia itself, compared to the extremism that had caused the hostile attacks.
Making a choice
Al-Saied had lived a life in both worlds, and now she felt a duty to both. She belonged in the western world by heart, but she was faced with a choice, to speak out against what she called “the American carelessness” against the religious militias that had been tolerated in Saudi Arabia post the fall of the Soviet Union, until at last America was attacked by these forces.
Recalling the price of women’s rights
Al-Saied recalled the cost of women who had come before her, women who fought for civil rights, and women’s rights of women in Saudi Arabia. After the war in Kuwait, women marched for the rights of women to drive in the nation. She noted that the American government did nothing on behalf of these women, who were attacked by the radical religious militias that had targeted them with slurs, calling them “whores” and “sluts” in every mosque across the nation.
Discussion point: How can westerners better appreciate the cost of women’s rights movements in other regions? How can women’s rights movements learn from each other, that some methods that work in one region will not work in the other, and how can they adapt to make real change that impacts people-to-people over government-to-government interactions?
Al-Saied also noted how America had a disconnect between the truth of what the “regime” was in Saudi Arabia. The Americans at the time had an idea that the government of Saudi Arabia was the instigator of the religious institution that kept the people under their oppressive control. She stated that, despite the extremism, Saudi Arabia had “wise kings” and a monarchy that was not in agreement with the religious institutions and movements such as that which was launched under Khomeini.
“Democracy is not like a pill,”
Al-Saeid called out the American ignorance in trying to establish democracy in Saudi Arabia without understanding the proper way to introduce such a system into a society such as Saudi Arabia. She recalled the corruption that had caused Saudi Arabia to be a miserable existence, was created by the religious extremist institutions and not by the government. The situation required a better understanding of the completely tribal society of Saudi Arabia.
“We need a lot of openness to liberal ideas. You need to train the people how to accept people from other religions and sects.”
She stated that the United States had imposed its system into “this world.”
Discussion points: If we applied the same logic as we did to medical studies to societal studies, what would this logic do for social reform?
“This is like giving a treatment to a patient that is not suffering from your disease.”
She recalled how America failed by not building up a traditionally liberal understanding in the region post the regime of Saddam Hussein. She noted that the American influence, because it did not think deeply or research deeply about the society in Iraq, did not reduce terrorism. Instead, the American approach in Iraq failed. She stated that attempting democracy before enlightenment in the Arab region with the Arab Spring repeated the same mistakes.
Taking charge of her education
Al-Saied took a break between her master’s and her Ph.D. education, despite having a Saudi-funded scholarship to continue to pursue her education, and despite pushback from her circle. She knew that it was time to wait, and pursue work experience.
Her decision, instinctive as it was, proved to be the best decision for her life. Because, initially, she had planned to study democracy. After her mother’s passing, her father chose to move again, and she, following him, became involved in a program that introduced her to all of the Muslim world.
Discussion point: In this story, making a personal directive for her own education path changed the course of this woman’s social contribution positively. How can societies and governments cooperate to improve the selections of individual education paths? What impact would there be on society if educational programs changed from standardized to proactive student engagement?
Intermingling with people from all over the Muslim world allowed her to see just how far from a true adaption of democracy the Saudi people were, and this changed her outlook on democracy, and her outlook on what she in pursuit of Ph.D. education, and pursuit of influencing for better her two worlds, needed to be.
A different view
As a woman from two worlds, Dr. Najat Al-Saied knew she would have to take an approach that was different in all its ways from the standard problem solving of both her societies. This shaped her career and her success. The ability to love the cultural openness of the west and choose it, but also to understand the reasons why the western flagship democracy, in carbon copy form, does not work for Saudi, has given her a mindset of a change maker.
This Women’s Month, Republic Underground media challenges our readers to discuss the topics raised by the story of Dr. Najat Al-Saied. Democracy is a proven form of government, but its introduction, and how it is defined in a society, cannot be a cookie-cutter process.
What are your thoughts? Share them with us. Follow the link to the video above and leave us a comment right on our event recap forum. Questions in common, or a common thread of discussion, will make an appearance in our next Discussions from the Women’s Roundtable.