Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is It "Culture Shock" When Saudi Students "Behave Badly"?

In February 2009, a female exchange student from Japan was attacked in the women's washroom of the international student residence run by the YMCA on South Park St. in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She struggled, fought back and managed to break free of her attacker. Her screams alerted other residents and staff, who restrained her attacker until police arrived. Her attacker was 19 year old Khaled Al-Hardbi, who was arraigned in Halifax Provincial Court on charges of "assault, forcible confinement and wearing a disguise."

This past week, he was found "not criminally responsible" for the attack. As CBC News reports: "On Wednesday, Halifax provincial court Judge Jamie Campbell found that Alhardbi is seriously mentally ill, and sent him to the East Coast Forensic Hospital for a 45-day psychiatric assessment."

Al-Hardbi is a Visa student from Saudi Arabia, although this detail was conspicuously missing from the Metro News Halifax report in February. Not so for the reporting of this story in the English-language Arab media out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In fact, for The Arab News ("Coping With Culture Shock") this detail is not simply incidental, but rather germane to their story. Notwithstanding the recent determination in a Halifax Court that Mr. Al-Hardbi suffers from undisclosed psychiatric problems, Arab News reporter Laura Bashraheel muses about another troubling thematic pattern that she says the Kingdom finds "embarrassing". While her story begins with Khaled Al-Hardbi, it doesn't end there.

Another recent case in Bournemouth, UK, involves a 23-year old Saudi student who has been "found guilty of public intoxication, stripping naked and chasing a 36-year-old woman through the streets." He was sentenced to 24 weeks in jail.

Bashraheel is quick to point out that "criminal bad behaviour" is confined to a small minority of "bad apples" among the roughly 600,000 Saudi students who study abroad on generous government scholarships -- costing the Kingdom half a million riyals (about $1.3 million U.S.) per student. So it merits pointing out, by way of boilerplate, that not all male Saudi visa students behave inappropriately (or even criminally) toward women while studying in western countries. That said, it has become an issue of concern for Saudi authorities. Most Saudi visa students, according to Bashraheel's article, study in the United States, the UK, and Canada.

Bashraheel notes that when Saudi students get into trouble with the law abroad, there seems to be an almost predictable pattern of offense.

Most reported cases of Saudi students behaving badly abroad involve men who abuse alcohol or drugs and cross boundaries when relating to women. When it comes to women, they perceive the law (and the women) to be more lax in these countries than they are in Saudi Arabia.

In large part, Bashraheel ascribes this behaviour to "culture shock," suggesting that some young Saudi men are unprepared to cope with the more liberal social mores in Western countries, and mistakenly assume that anything goes. They would be wrong.

While some students receive orientation classes prior to leaving on "how Saudis should behave abroad," and some instruction on western customs and mores, these classes appear not to be universal nor required. In some cases, Saudi embassies in host countries may endeavour to provide a bit of orientation upon the students' arrival. Still, for young men who have had little exposure to outside cultures, who are unaccustomed to dealing with women in public, who are uncomfortable in the presence of women who don't 'cover up', and who are unfamiliar with western laws and customs, according to Bashraheel, the prospect of integrating can be daunting, and severe homesickness can easily set in. Or conversely, the newly-found 'freedom' can lead to all sorts of wild and eratic behaviour. (Take an ordinary North American frosh living away from home for the first time, and multiply it by a factor of 10.)

Of course, none of this excuses the bad behaviour, particularly as it relates to sexual crimes and assaults against women (unless, of course, a Court makes a finding of "not criminal responsible by reason of mental illness"). The Saudi Ministry of Higher Education advises students studying abroad that "while the government will provide legal counsel, students will be responsible for their conduct and will be liable for all legal expenses if they’re found guilty of committing crimes."

But as much as this rationalization of 'culture shock' attempts to explain, it also serves to evade. Missing in Bashraheel's report is any discussion of the attitudes toward women that are implicit in these sorts of bad and criminal behaviour, usually toward women. The 'culture shock' argument avoids any discussion of the real attitudes about women that may be fostered in Saudi society -- for instance, a predisposition to regard women as subordinate to men, in the service of men, for the pleasure of men. The sorts of behaviour described by Bashraheel seem to signal an astonishing misunderstanding of the autonomy and the self-sovereignty of women that has evolved in the West. Sexual assault for instance, being at its core a crime of violence, is rooted in a misplaced sense of male privilege, entitlement, contempt and misogyny. Sexual harassment (in public or private) is similarly rooted. While Saudi society, like western society, does not tacitly tolerate sexual offenses against women, the Shariah courts treat it very differently from secular courts in the West.

If these are cases of 'culture shock', then surely the shock for some of these offenders must be that their acts are actually considered serious criminal offenses, and that they (and not the women they assaulted) will ultimately be punished.

That must be a real shock. After all, that's not quite the way it works at home.


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