Do you know who the first Italian woman was to hold a driving licence in Saudi Arabia?

When integration is woman: a beautiful example of perseverance and cultural adaptation.

On 24th June 2018, the ban on driving for women in Saudi Arabia was officially lifted, and already 2000 driving licences have been issued to women resident in the country. One of these is Margherita Di Paola who, it would seem, although we have no official confirmation, is the first Italian woman to have passed the driving test in Riyadh, on 24th June 2018.

After a friend published a post on the social networks, and moved by curiosity, I asked him to put me in contact with her to be able to interview her. I shall now try to summarize my long talk with Margherita and lessons we can learn from it when focusing on integration and interculturality.

Margherita, originating in Palermo, after having lived in Rome for over 20 years, arrived in Riyadh two years ago with a 13 year old daughter. The only foreigner in her department, she works as a neuropsychologist at the largest hospital in the Middle East, a hospital solely for the Saudi population. "In my line of work, I rely on a translator (Feryal, a Saudi), so that I can relate to my patients", Margherita commented to me, "but with my Saudi or foreign work companions who are in other departments, I speak in English".

Margherita’s enthusiasm surprised me from her very first words. "This country has given me a great professional opportunity, I feel enormously thankful towards this country. The best way to thank them is to embrace this country and its culture, observing the differences, not to criticise but to learn. Finding out about the norms of behaviour to follow has happened as a matter of course, I am a guest here and it’s up to me to adapt. When they invite me into their home, I avoid dressing in an inappropriate manner (dresses with a low neckline or tightly fitting clothes), although I have to make it clear that, personally, I prefer long clothes, I have always dressed this way".

In her work environment, Margherita feels like any other professional and is not discriminated against for being a woman. But however, despite never having had any great problems, she says that people’s attitude on the street varies depending on your social standing. Never a critical word leaves her lips; she tells me about the similarities with her paternal education received in Palermo, where unwritten laws discouraged girls about going into a bar where there were only men. And smiling, she adds, "When all is said and done, we were 100 years under Arabic rule and certain behaviour patterns, for me, are not very different from what were instilled in me".

Nonetheless, after almost two years, she is happy to have taken back her freedom of movement thanks to the driving licence. "Now I can also decide at the last moment if I go out, if I’m going to a party, without depending on a driver and without having to always programme everything". One important step forward, besides the reduction of powers of the "religious police" which, up to about one year ago checked for compliance with another highly restrictive norm on the street: the veto for women to go outdoors accompanied by men and not by family members.

Analysing Margherita’s testimony, an expat in an objectively context that is not easy for a western woman, which implies a complicated cultural adaptation, we can turn over in our mind what the most appropriate type of attitude is to encourage an expatriation experience that is as positive as possible.

  • Suspend judgement

    The concept of just or unjust, if it is applied or otherwise, is educated or is not, cannot be absolute, but rather at all times related to a certain culture, i.e., that series of norms and rules of behaviour shared by a given group of people. Each culture is based on a series of values, symbols and beliefs that define what is just or unjust, depending on that given culture. Suspending judgement means, then, provisionally putting aside the underlying values particular to the culture, avoiding passing judgement on the host country’s culture based on one’s own cultural paradigm.
    This does not mean abandoning one’s own values on which one’s own identity rests, but rather to try to understand the values underlying the other culture in order to have an ideal interpretative key to behaviour patterns which, when examined in the light of one’s own values, might seem "incorrect".
    Thus, one could talk of integration when we manage to integrate, adding in our values to those of the host country’s culture, broadening our own outlook and multiplying the number of viewpoints from which we observe the same phenomenon.
    For instance, if for an Italian or a French person it is bad manners to ask a question directly, but rather asking bluntly, for a German, it would be bad manners to use so many words instead of explicitly asking for what you want. If the underlying values of one or other culture are not known, there is a risk of misinterpreting the intention of the contact person.

  • Be genuinely curious

    If you manage to suspend judgement, it will be far easier for you to be available, to be curious and eager to discover the culture hosting you. If your contact person notices that, behind your questions, there is a real will to get to know, rather than a wish to judge, his attitude with you will be one of a greater availability and generosity.

  • Never stop learning

    Curiosity and the pleasure of discovery leads us to the next step: learning. The adaptation process often leads us to learning a new way of life, acquiring behaviour patterns that had never crossed our minds we would be able to adopt.
    Margherita explained that in those two years, she has learnt to be patient and feel confident. According to our western concept of time, where the criterion of everything and immediately take pride of place, not receiving an immediate answer means that the other is not doing anything that we have asked for. Which is not true, for example, in Riyadh, where long silences are followed by effective interventions that come, from our point of view, in a totally unexpected way.
    "What challenges do you still have to deal with in Riyadh?" She replied, "Learning the language. I am making an effort to learn Arabic, and still can’t manage to communicate, but I feel confident, I don’t give up, and with patience, I hope to be able to learn it".

I wanted to explain Margherita’s experience because her story can be a source of inspiration for many expats who are coping with cultures very remote from our own and for which the effort of adaptation is undoubtedly tremendous.

So what attitude have you adopted to become integrated in your host country?

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