‘We women feel the male teachers are avoiding us.’ This was a student comment on an end-of-course feedback questionnaire. The women were from Saudi Arabia, and of eight in the group, five were veiled, only their eyes visible in mixed company. They would sit together in a protective little cluster and exude this air of noli me tangere and unwillingness to engage with males, including my colleague and me. I felt mild irritation at the comment, partly because students so often save their gripes for the end of course questionnaires when it is usually too late to remedy matters, and partly because I was thinking, well, darling, way you all carry on, what did you bloody expect, honestly?
I taught quite a few Saudi blokes in the eighties and I enjoyed their friendliness and humour. When they found out I am unmarried and live alone, they would disapprove. ‘Terrabel, terrabel!’ they said, with mixed amusement and pity. ‘Who clean your clozes? Who wash your house? Who cook you?’ I told them that I did these things myself and that for most of my life it was simply a process of elimination: the cat and the tortoise were useless at domestic chores, so of necessity they fell to me. Then they assumed that I would live out of tins, and shite you bung in the microwave, and were sceptical when I told them I am a pretty good cook. An English male cook? Impossabel. The English live on potatoes, or at least it seems Cambridge landladies in the 80s cooked nothing else. (‘When I am on bed’, Abdulrahman told me, in a discussion of his landlady’s unspeakable cuisine, ‘I put out from me gas.’) After they had quizzed me about my marital status, nobody ever put to me the question ‘so you’re a pouf, then?’, although it must have occurred to a few. Still, no one could get their heads round the lack of a female ancillary in my household.
It’s hard to take my present Saudi male students’ attitude to women, which seems to be that they are mostly flighty little airheads whose function is primarily decorative. They patronise them appallingly. The women in my group asked that their presentations be watched by a women-only audience and assessed by a female tutor, as the combination of smirks and ostentatious boredom from the men would make presenting an unbearable trial. Besides, with a mixed audience, one of the assessment criteria, eye-contact and body language, simply could not with propriety be satisfied. Saudi women do not hold eye contact with men they do not know. There is real risk in doing so.
I wonder what the Saudi men think when they see the brevity of western female dress for the first time in the blatant flesh. My female colleague, in clinging jeans and a blouse showing a fair bit of cleavage, might lead them to expect a display of pole dancing rather than a session on academic culture. During a lesson early in the last course, I looked down at the courtyard while the students were occupied with some task, and noticed that one of the drama students was preparing to do a bit of performance art. I was about to suggest we take five to go down and watch, when I saw that the actress was a biggish lass wearing only a leotard and that her props included a large number of wine bottles, from which she was sluicing down great gulps. I decided the spectacle of a near-naked female piss-head may be rather strong meat for young Saudi men but recently arrived, and so did not draw attention to it. Perhaps they’d be less offended by a beheading.
By the lifts, two parties of Saudi students are waiting, one male, one female, the latter all veiled and robed and looking like a set of skittles. The doors of one lift open and the ladies troop in. Noticing that I am hesitating because none of the men is entering the lift with them, one of the women says ‘come on, it’s OK for you, but not for them!’ So I go in, not sure whether to feel privileged or offended. I decide to take this as an overture, however, and in the lessons I make an effort to spend more time with the veiled women. Good move. They are intelligent, talkative women who love a good laugh, but some lack confidence in their abilities to a disturbing degree, unlike some of the boys, whose bumptious self assurance is just as unwarranted. So I regret my impatience at the comment about male teachers ignoring the women, and note its justice, and admire its boldness.
By the way, these women are quite strikingly lovely. You can only see their eyes, but such eyes! When the light allows, I try to discern the shape of the nose, the curve of the neck, the outline of lips in profile. I notice when a movement fleetingly reveals a womanly curve under the shapeless abaya. I am queer: if my curiosity is aroused, what effect does all this concealment have on the straight Saudi boys?