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Muslim Ambassadors on an American Campus

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle.

You’re the only one, the Americans told Amnah Alkhan. We’ve never really talked with other girls who wear head scarves. Just you.

Arizona State University, where Amnah is a senior, has no shortage of observant Muslim women who cover their hair with the scarf known as a hijab. There are 775 students, like Amnah, from Saudi Arabia; most of the women, though not all, wear the hijab. Some are fully veiled.

Amnah is funny and frank and speaks with a directness that puts people at ease. She had agreed to survey Arizona State students for the Saudi women’s club on campus, of which she’s a member. But it can be tough to talk with Americans about their impressions of Saudi women when they don’t know any.

“They don’t know if it is OK to talk to us because they don’t know if they are welcome or not,” Amnah says. “They don’t know our culture.”

“People were saying that Saudi females by covering their faces or just wearing a scarf, they are building a barrier or building borderlines. They don’t want to step on the lines.”

The irony in that is that virtually all of the 60,000 Saudis on American campuses are here as part of a Saudi government program that has as a principal aim building bridges, not barriers, between Saudi Arabia and the United States and other Western countries. Conceived after the 2001 terrorist attacks, in which most of the perpetrators were Saudi, the King Abdullah Scholarship Program is named after its founder, the late Saudi ruler. It seeks to expose a younger generation of Saudis — nearly half the country’s population is under 25 — to the West as a way to combat extremism and to change Americans’ perception of the oil-rich kingdom and its people.

The ambition of the program makes the influx of Saudi students in America — whose numbers have increased almost twentyfold in the past decade — distinct from other large waves of foreign students, like those from China and India, where individual families sacrifice and save for a shot at an American education and a brighter future.

But cultural ambassador is not always an easy fit for teenagers and twenty-somethings. And for young women, who account for about a third of the Saudi students in the United States, the challenges can be especially tough. Too often, they say, Americans’ preconceptions of them — They all wear black! They can’t drive! — are simplistic and one-dimensional. When Amnah surveyed students about the conservative dress of some Saudi women, one replied that he thought they wore a “costume” so they wouldn’t be raped. “I was like, what, are you serious?” she says.

At the same time, students in the program, which pays all costs of studying abroad, come from a society with very real constraints on and expectations of women. Reconciling the rules with which they’ve grown up with a more-freewheeling American culture can be difficult. Just going to class with men is an adjustment after a lifetime of gender segregation. Some embrace the openness, while others struggle to hold onto their beliefs and identity.

And the United States today, with anti-Islamic rhetoric running hot, and politicians talking of barring all Muslims from entry, can seem not just strange but hostile. Even those Saudi students who embrace America, its society, its people, sometimes wonder if they are welcome.

Can Saudi women like Amnah thrive on American campuses — and then back home when they return with a degree? Can they change any minds, unwind stereotypes, or advance understanding? Can they span cultural divides at a time when the chasms threaten only to widen?

Seham Tomihi had her doubts about what people would think of her when she arrived at Arizona State, but now she rarely passes up an opportunity to reach out to Americans.

There’s Seham striking a tae kwon do pose and splintering a block of wood during a cultural fair. Clambering up Hole in the Rock, a butte with a popular hiking trail outside Tempe. In work gloves and a ground-skimming abaya, a cloak-like dress, picking up trash during a community-service day. At times it can seem as if she’s on a mission to meet all 82,000 students at Arizona State.

“If they can talk to a Saudi girl,” she says, “maybe it can change the stereotype.”

The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, which administers the scholarship program, has set up Saudi student groups on the hundreds of campuses across the country where Saudi students are enrolled. But female students can face special challenges — many feel isolated, and most must balance their studies with family obligations. At Arizona State, Saudi men outnumber their female classmates seven to one, and so a year ago, a handful of women there decided to set up their own club, with a mission to empower Saudi women. Though they often refer to themselves “girls,” they named the group Women on the Move.

Last September 11, a half-dozen Women on the Move members fanned out across the Arizona State campus, their arms filled with white roses. Each flower had a note attached. “Think positive,” some read. “Nothing is impossible,” said others.

Shyly, the women handed out the flowers, 150 in all, to administrators, office workers, students, a startled Taco Bell cashier in the Memorial Union.

The floral giveaway was Seham’s idea, a way, she says, to “spread peace” on the 14th anniversary of the terror attacks in New York and Washington. “I know this day is really hard for them,” she says of Americans.

Some of the volunteers were nervous about the plan, worried, Seham recalls, that they would be blamed for events that occurred when they were young children. “We have to be brave and do it,” she told the group. “We have to let them feel that we are so sad and that we love and respect them, too.”

But Seham, who first came to the United States to study English and now is about to start a master’s program to teach it, wasn’t always so brave herself. During her first months in America, she had no local friends. She thought they wouldn’t like her because she wears aniqab, a veil that covers all but her eyes.

“I was afraid,” she says, “of what people will think of me.”

Finally, at the prodding of her sister, Tahani, who had been studying in the States longer, she agreed to go to lunch with one of her American friends. Seham was so nervous she insisted her sister come along.

Once at lunch, though, the conversation flowed easily. They talked about their families and food and holiday traditions. Soon it no longer mattered that one was Saudi and one American, that one was veiled and the other uncovered.

After that, Seham, who is 26, started to meet other Americans. She made it a point to choose them as partners for group proj­ects in class. She and Tahani invited friends and acquaintances to dinner almost weekly, eager to share their food and their customs. Sometimes, in private, she even would literally let down her hair, removing her veil.

Seham sees reflections of her old self in other Saudi women; it’s something she hopes that Women on the Move can change. Only by getting to know one another can you combat the misperceptions that exist on both sides, she argues. Some mistaken impressions are relatively harmless, like the idea that Saudi women are bald under the hijab (they aren’t) or naked under the abaya (nope). Others are more pernicious. Many Saudis imagine the United States is a dangerous place, where every citizen packs a gun. Americans often think Saudi women ignorant and uneducated. In fact, although the first Saudi government school for girls opened only a half-century ago, today women outnumber men on college campuses there, just as in the United States.

“People hear stereotypes,” she says, “and they trust them.”

Still, Seham worries that too few Saudi women make friends with Americans — scared, like she was, of being judged. And Americans, she fears, see a woman in a veil or head scarf and assume they have nothing in common with her.

For Maryam Alsuwailem, her worry in coming to Tempe was that being exposed to American culture would weaken her identity.

Instead, being away from home has strengthened her beliefs. And that has driven her engagement with people on the campus. If Seham is dedicated to bettering connections between Saudis and Americans, Maryam’s passion is fostering greater ties among Muslims on campus.

One recent day, she was cutting across campus when she saw another student, also wearing a head scarf, coming down the path toward her. Though she didn’t know the woman, she paused to greet her: “As-salaam alaikum.” Peace.

The woman smiled. “Peace on you and mercy and blessings from God,” she replied in Arabic.

Maryam is slight and shy, with a stutter that can kick in when she gets nervous or excited. Approaching strangers doesn’t come naturally. But since the start of the semester, she’s made a point whenever she sees a fellow Muslim — not just another Saudi, but any Muslim — of extending the traditional greeting.

Not everyone has responded. “Some have looked at me like I’m a crazy person.”

Though the side-eyes were difficult to take in the beginning, Maryam has persevered, enlisting other Saudi students at Arizona State in what she’s dubbed the Salaam Campaign. Eventually, she hopes, through social media and a network of Muslim student organizations, to extend the effort to campuses across the United States.

It’s easy to feel unmoored and alone when you’re studying abroad, she says. You need your support group, your community, your tribe.

Saudi society is rooted in Bedouin tribes that long ago spread across the Arabian Peninsula. When people meet there, she says, “almost the only thing we are talking about is, what is your relationship with me and how close we are.”

“This is what I want to feel here. Because I need you guys. We need each other.”

Maryam, 20, grew up in the eastern Saudi city of Al-Hasa, the youngest girl in a family of 10 children. She was a top student, especially in mathematics. Some Saudi parents have hesitated to send their daughters abroad because to allow a young, unmarried woman to live in a foreign, and more liberal, country would violate their sense of propriety. But Maryam’s father, who owns an energy-consulting business, thought she could get a better education in the United States and pushed her to go.

Maryam’s interests lie in architecture and graphic design, but the scholarship program restricts students’ majors to certain marketable fields; until recently, in fact, women in Saudi Arabia could work in only a handful of jobs, like nursing and teaching. Maryam was steered to biomedical engineering.

She came to Arizona State with her brother, Abdulrhman, who is year older and studying geography. Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to travel overseas without the permission of a male guardian, or mahram, and the government scholarship requires that female recipients be accompanied by a male relative, usually a father, brother, or husband — though some students have gotten around the constraint. In the United States, Maryam, like most Saudi women, has taken on the responsibility of cook and housekeeper.

Maryam initially balked at going abroad. “I do not think I am strong enough in my faith to face the weird ideas and bad ideas in American society,” she says. “I might become weak.”

As a high-school student, Maryam says she wasn’t especially religious. Observant Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, but back then she sometimes would pray only three times a day or two. Now she finds herself regularly logging onto Islamic websites, looking forfatwas, or opinions issued by Islamic legal scholars, to help her to try to navigate life in the United States. Last fall, for example, in her first semester, she was assigned male lab partners. Education, like much of life in Saudi Arabia, is strictly separated by gender, and women have little contact with men who are unrelated. Just flashing a smile can appear forward and flirtatious.

Going online, Maryam found that a wife of the Prophet Muhammad had talked with Muhammad’s male companions. That suggested, she thought, that she could work together with classmates of the opposite sex, but she shouldn’t be overly familiar. She doesn’t laugh or joke around with them. When a partner offered a high five, she demurred; touching is not allowed. “I have my limits,” she says.

Not long ago, she found herself in an energetic discussion with a student from Iran — something that is unlikely to happen in the Middle East, where the two countries are on opposite sides of a regional rift — about why she wore the hijab.

“I love this kind of discussion. I like ‘why’ questions,” she says. “I like thinking about why I am doing this. I do not think I would have this great opportunity to think about myself and my habits if I didn’t come to the U.S.”

Perhaps nothing draws more attention to the differences between Saudi women and their American classmates as the hijab, a word that refers not just to the head scarf but to the act of covering itself.

As part of its outreach efforts, Women on the Move has held get-togethers where Americans can try wearing a hijab and ask questions.

It’s like a social experiment, Seham says. Students trying on the head scarf examine themselves in a mirror; nearly everyone takes a selfie. Many quickly uncover, but others keep the scarf on longer. “Some of them say that they really love their faces when they are no longer framed by hair, Seham says. She’s even been asked where to purchase a hijab.

But whether to cover, and how much, divides Saudi women, too. Some see hijab as a religious obligation, others as an artifact of Arabic culture, where modesty is prized. For some Saudis not to cover is a sin. For others it’s a matter of style or even a political statement.

When Seham came to Arizona State, three years ago, few Saudi women on campus wore a veil. But for Seham the idea of appearing in public without the niqab makes her feel exposed. Only her eyes, with lashes so long they sometimes strike her veil when she blinks, are visible. An abaya conceals her street clothes.

Seham sees dressing more revealingly as a distraction. “I want people to judge my mind,” she says, “not my style.”

Still, the covering singles Saudi women out as Muslim in a way that their male classmates are not. Saudi men can be mistaken for Indian or Italian or, in the Southwest, Hispanic. Saudi women wear their identity on their bodies.

For the most part, that means just fielding the occasional curious glance. It’s become easier, says Seham, because more students at Arizona State now wear the niqab, making them a more common sight.

One day late last fall, though, Seham found herself on the receiving end of more than harmless stares. Three weeks earlier, coordinated attacks by Muslim extremists in Paris had left 130 people dead. And just a few days before, a Muslim husband and wife in California had opened fire an office party, killing 14 in an act of homegrown terrorism. The woman was veiled.

Seham was taking the light rail to campus when a stranger approached her and demanded she remove her veil. “Why are you wearing that?” the woman said. “I can’t see you.”

The entire car was looking at her, yet no one spoke up. Seham tried to explain herself — that she dressed as she did because of her religious beliefs, that she’d come to America for a better education — but the woman persisted. “You’re scaring me,” she said.

Seham got off at the next stop and waited for another train. Hours afterward, she was still replaying the confrontation in her head. “I just think about it, think about it all day,” she says.

The United States had been her home, but suddenly it had come to seem less accepting. “It’s not your fault,” she confided to an American acquaintance, “but to live in peace, maybe I need to go to Saudi Arabia.”

Seham did return to her hometown, Jeddah, this semester, though not because she felt unwelcome. A visa glitch delayed the start of her graduate program until this summer.

The incident on the train was one bad experience, she decided. An aberration.

The America that the Arizona State students find themselves in is a country in which anti-Islamic sentiment is running higher than at any time since the 2001 attacks. A recent poll by the Brookings Institution found that 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam. On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, has called for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. “I think Islam hates us,” he told an interviewer.

“I’m not sure if it’s right,” says Maryam, who has been watching the political circus with some bemusement, “that everyone has the right to vote in this country when everyone is not wise or knowledgeable.”

When the governors of more than two dozen states declared that they would block the resettlement of refugees from Syria’s civil war in their states because it could open a back door to potential terrorists, Amnah was shocked to see Facebook posts applauding the governors’ position. “We should stop those animals from entering the country,” one read. At first she tried to ignore the comments, but then she saw other people, non-Muslims, speaking out against the hateful rhetoric.

“I thought, they are defending me,” Amnah says. “So I started fighting.” She spent hours online, sparring with Islamophobic posters.

Confrontations have occurred on Arizona State’s main campus, here in Tempe, which is open to the city around it. The local mosque sits just across the campus’s northwestern edge. Protesters — and everyone agrees they are outsiders, not students — have periodically picketed on campus or close by.

In an incident last spring, one man ripped, kicked, and stomped on a copy of the Quran, screaming, “You wicked Muslims!”

“The lies, the lies,” he yelled, as onlookers and police had to hold some irate students back. “You are going to hell, you sick, sick religion of hate!”

Video of the episode circulated among Arizona State’s Saudi students. University administrators condemned the incident, as did the student government.

When Amnah has encountered protesters, she has been tempted to stop and argue, but she reminds herself that they aren’t interested in real debate. Also, they have bullhorns.

Amnah, who is in her final semester, says she has always felt accepted by students and faculty members at Arizona State. But the tone in the United States is noticeably different than when she first came here, five years ago. Now, when she passes through American airports, her Saudi passport seems to ensure that she will get extra screening, with security workers pulling her aside to swab her hands and examine the insulin pump she wears to treat her diabetes.

It’s frustrating to be viewed with suspicion, especially when Saudi Arabia itself has cracked down on Islamic militants, and Saudis, too, have been victims of terror attacks.

And though they are often painted as perpetrators, Muslims been the target of violence in the United States, Amnah points out. A year ago, three Muslim students in North Carolina were shot to death by a neighbor. While the wife of the man charged in the killings has claimed they were the result of a parking dispute, Amnah, like many, sees the murders as hate crimes.

This semester Amnah is taking a course in African-American studies. Discussion has turned to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested racial injustice and police brutality.

“It would be extreme if that we should be like, Muslim Lives Matter,” she says. But, at the same time, Americans need to see Muslims more fully, not just as terrorists or bogeymen or Others who need to be feared.

“I just think a lot of Americans need to open their eyes. They need to educate themselves,” Amnah says. “They need to make their brain do the thinking.”

As for themselves, the Saudi students wrestle with what it means to be a modern woman in a traditional culture.

Amnah can get impatient, even angry, with Westerners who see her as a second-class citizen. “I have rights,” she says. “The government is paying my scholarship!”

Saudi women, of course, don’t speak with a single voice. They vary in their beliefs and their convictions. Some embrace their country’s customs and conventions. Others chafe in a society that they feel is overly prescriptive. They call themselves feminists; they advocate for social change.

Still, issues that outsiders emphasize aren’t always what Saudi women say matter most to them. Prohibitions on dating might not seem like a big deal if you’ve grown up with the expectation that your marriage will be arranged. Videos of veiled women flouting the kingdom’s ban on female drivers gained Facebook likes, but even some women who, like Amnah, have gotten a driver’s license when studying abroad, say they wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia — the drivers are just too crazy.

As graduation ticks closer, Amnah, who is 24, is grappling with what returning home will mean. She’s gotten used to being on her own. If a problem arises, she has to fix it. “If I don’t do it,” she says, “nobody else will.”

Back in Saudi Arabia, as an unmarried woman, she’ll live at home. There’s a maid to do the housework. To open a bank account or renew her passport, she will need her father’s permission. Walking alone on the street is out of the question. What will it be like to lose her independence?

Though she does not date, Amnah has struck up friendships with men. She finds them easygoing, likes that they’re less emotional than women. Almost daily she meets with her study partner, a guy who happens to be from her hometown, Al Khobar, in the eastern part of the country. When they return, she wonders, will they be able to say hello if they run into each other at the mall?

The late Saudi king, Abdullah, was seen as a modernizer, if a cautious one. He extended to women the right to vote in local elections, though the first women did not cast ballots until months after his death, last year. He sought to bring more women, who make up just 16 percent of the Saudi work force, into the workplace, ordering open a number of professions — from retail to law — that had been closed to women. The government began licensing day-care centers to serve working mothers.

And the scholarship program itself has the potential to be a great moderating force, exposing a generation of young women as well as young men to outside ideas and ways of thinking.

But reform may be stalling under the new ruler, King Salman. The country’s lone female minister, in the education ministry, was replaced, and hard-liners have been named to government roles. The religious police are cracking down more aggressively on mingling between the sexes and on women they deem to be dressed immodestly.

Even the scholarship program is expected to be overhauled and curtailed. With the price of oil — the engine of the country’s economy — tanking, it’s likely that fewer students will be subsidized to study abroad and that most of that support could go to those pursuing graduate or professional degrees that meet the kingdom’s economic needs.

Though the scholarship’s rules stipulate that recipients return to Saudi Arabia, many students have gone on to graduate school, extending their stay abroad after earning undergraduate degrees. Amnah has thought about remaining in the United States. But the prospective changes in the program could make it difficult for students like her to earn multiple degrees.

American visa rules would permit Amnah to work in the United States for at least a year after graduation. But her brother hasn’t finished his degree at Arizona State, and jobs in her major, biomedical engineering, are scarce in the area. Without a mahram, a guardian, she can’t move to another American city.

Besides, Amnah says, part of her is ready to go home. A job is waiting for her, she’s sure. While unemployment among Saudi women remains high — above 30 percent — and many fields continue to be all but off-limits for female workers, she says her specialty is in demand.

And like many Saudis, Amnah is close with her family; it’s been hard to be apart.

“I will miss the life here,” she says. “I will miss having friends from different cultures, different beliefs. If I hadn’t experienced this life, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference.”

With her presence here, with the bonds she has formed and the ties she has forged, she hopes some Americans have noticed a difference, too.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is [email protected].


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