In the animated film “The Swallows of Kabul” the Taliban force a man to pray in a mosque and his wife must wait outside in the hot sun wearing a suffocating cover-all burqa. We see the world as she does: through the grill of a veil. And we hear her laboured breathing as she nearly faints from the heat. In “Teacher, We Girls”, author Katherine Dolan relates a similar experience waiting outside a restaurant. Her husband is inside ordering takeaway, but as a woman, she’s not allowed in the door. She stands sweltering in a full-body abaya but thankfully finds some shade. This first-hand account brought home to me one way hardline Islamic nations can be uncomfortable for women. On occasion, I’ve seen women wearing black abayas or burqas that cover them head to toe, but I’d never really considered what it felt like to wear one.
Katherine Dolan and her husband John spent a year teaching in Saudi Arabia – a challenging mission at the best of times. Making matters worse, after arriving they are sent to the small, ultra-conservative Najran in the south of the country. This memoir is a searing criticism of the Saudi oppression of women. It also portrays other head-scratching aspects of life in the kingdom. Chief among these is the Saudis death-wish style of driving. Pedestrians take their lives into their hands every time they cross the main street in Najran. The Dolans weekend trip away in a hired car becomes the stuff of nightmares as drivers speed down the highway with their headlights off at night.
“John’s knuckles were white from gripping the wheel, and he kept glancing at the rear vision window with a hunted look.”
Katherine could not share the driving with her husband, women were not allowed to drive in Saudi until 2018. And so it is comical when she teaches her students the vocabulary for the parts of a car. The girls in her class complain that the activity is not relevant to them. However, the textbook must be followed, teaching the girls other content is forbidden. Especially anything to do with sex. Why do the Saudis keep their woman under such tight control? It’s only one interpretation of the Quran that dictates this. Is it a fear of female sexuality? Outright misogyny? Or a misguided attempt to protect? Whatever the reason, when sexuality is repressed and pushed underground, usually there will be some unhealthy consequences.
Spending one year in Saudi Arabia, Dolan can’t give us all the answers. But she took careful notice of what was said by the women she worked with – generally Muslims from other Arab nations or Asia somewhat adapted to life in Saudi. While some writers may have used exposition to explain life in Najran, Dolan uses the staffroom conversations – a sound writing technique. One of her colleagues, Dama from Jordan, gives us an idea of just how much power men have over their female relatives.
“In Saudi Arabia now, it is forbidden for a girl even to meet with a man who is not related to her. In 2007, a man murdered his daughter because she chatted with a man on Facebook. According to the law, it was OK for him to murder her.”
This is also a story of English teachers abroad. Typically books on this topic feature some serious oddballs – often they are alcoholic – but that’s not an easy thing to be in Saudi, where alcohol is illegal. I wasn’t disappointed though. At one stage Fleur, an obese blond woman, turns up at school and starts talking to Dolan about the homosexual love affair of a prince and how her friend worked as a prostitute in the capital, Riyadh. Dolan cringes as she knows the other teachers are listening. The filter-less Fleur does not last long and gets fired. Fernando, a teacher who works with John, also provides some humour with his wry comments on the foolishness of certain colleagues, referring to one as nuttier than a squirrel’s pantry.
At the street level, things are hot and filthy, full of stray cats, rats, and depressed Asian immigrant labour. Dolan is forced to see a lot of this because the city is bereft of public transport. As she walks, she is watched by eyes that disapprove of a woman out alone. I did question why Katherine Dolan went to Saudi Arabia in the first place. She did seem well informed before going and it’s not a place you’d think a person with strong feminist ideals would want to go to. At one stage, she admits she thought wearing the abaya would give her a kind of desirable anonymity. Whatever whim or financial goal took her to Saudi, the production of this book made it worth it. I’m surprised no publishing house in her native New Zealand took it on. It’s well-written, very informative – and while sometimes grim, not without its lighter moments.