No, I am not a government official and have absolutely no status to speak of. But while I am a post-graduate student at the University of Newcastle, I and many of my Saudi classmates believe we have a duty to present the best possible face of Saudi Arabia.
To that end, I make it a point to meet and socialize with my British hosts, other international students and enjoy the northeast English lifestyle as much as possible while at the same time remembering who I am and where I come from.
The hijab makes me stand out more than most international students, so already there is a spotlight on me and my fellow Saudi female colleagues.Given that every day I am faced with challenges of being a Muslim in Western society, I considered it a blessing and a privilege to meet last weekend in Glasgow with Princess Fadwa Bint Khalid Bin Abdullah, wife of HRH Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf Bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland.
I must admit that leaving Newcastle for Glasgow early Sunday morning didn’t seem like the brightest idea. To tell you the truth when I left the warmth of my apartment and felt my cheeks sharply kissed by the cold wind of winter, I wondered why someone like me would be interested in an all-women gathering, even if held in a fancy hotel. I would rather spend that time drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book under my dear blanket on my comfortable couch.
But encouraged by a friend of mine, I went to the railway station to meet five other Saudi women students. Once we arrived in Edinburgh for a short stop, we had to disembark and stand in the cold for another 40 minutes before boarding again. I asked myself why a Madina girl used to the arid, dry weather in Saudi Arabia would make such a trip.
But with warmth and passion, Princess Fadwa greeted each and every one of us after we arrived. She wanted to hear about our experiences in the UK and whatever complaints we had about our studies and our scholarships. Naturally, being scholarship students, we never have enough money and we never feel that the Saudi Cultural Bureau is responsive enough to our needs. So the complaints poured forth.
Yet Princess Fadwa was patient with us. And all of us were in for a surprise. At the hotel when they announced her arrival, I expected to smell Oud and see at least a half-dozen companions hovering around the princess. To my surprise, an elegant lady who looked as young as many women in the audience entered with a wide and attractive smile.
She apologized for being 20 minutes late, and insisted on being seated in a place where she could see and hear every single person in the crowded room.She engaged in a lively dialogue with the attendees that not only included Saudi female students in the UK, but the wives of male students as well. She discussed our problems with each person individually.
Citing the example of her own life as a working mother, she encouraged us to learn and get the most out of our stay in the UK. Nevertheless, she was keen to remind us that we should work hard to achieve the right balance between the increasing demand and challenge of our lives and our families.
She encouraged us to get out of our shells and get to know the local people and their culture. She asked us to maximize the benefit of being in such a beautiful country where civilization and modernization meet.“You have to learn about culture as much as about science,” she said. “Go out, go to theaters and museums, and get along with your neighbors, teachers and classmates. I want people to get to know and love you for who you are but always keep in mind that communicating with others does not necessarily mean changing your skin or adopting new values. Do mix but keep your culture and religion intact.”
She said that no matter what officials do to promote the social and cultural aspect of Saudi Arabia, the Western media will perceive it as propaganda. She also said that what she cares about is people-to-people interaction.“I want the people here to see the humanitarian side of Saudis,” she said.
It was a relief to me, but not unexpected, to hear Princess Fadwa confirm and endorse what I and my fellow female Saudi students already believe in. Some of our harshest critics are other Saudis who give us disapproving or harsh looks and mutter to themselves when they see us socialize with Westerners or enjoy a movie at the cinema.Princess Fadwa put me at ease and made me less self-conscious about how I conduct myself in my host country.
The princess was accompanied by Dr. Elham Danish, head of the women’s section in the Saudi Embassy in London, and Sawsan Jad, female students coordinator in London, who both introduced the group to the Tawasul volunteering program. The program was launched three years ago in London to connect Saudi families - and in particular women - in the UK and Ireland.
The program aims at raising women’s awareness of the available social opportunities. It also focuses on tackling women’s social, financial and health problems.One important lesson I learned from the gathering is that behind many Saudi women on a scholarship there is a sad story of injustice, divorce or separation from the ones they love.
I have come to learn that Saudi women are real fighters and they deserve society’s care, respect and trust.The sacrifices they have made to obtain a university scholarship are worth acknowledgment both locally and internationally. The determination that I saw in those women’s eyes has assured me that this is their time and they will be the new leaders of positive change that our present leaders are seeking.