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IU first lady shares thoughts on recent overseas trip

Nov. 19, 2014

In the span of 72 hours beginning Oct. 28, IU formalized a university-wide partnership in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with King Saud University and dedicated its IU India Office, a home base for university activities across the country and the first established of its two global gateway facilities.

First lady Laurie Burns McRobbie, who accompanied IU President Michael A. McRobbie on the trip, shared her thoughts:

Entering Saudi airspace

As we flew into Saudi Arabia, the desert landscape began to emerge below us, stretching out in all directions. With our landing in Riyadh less than an hour away, I began to prepare, slipping off my suit jacket and putting on the required garb for women.

When I stepped out of the Riyadh airport into the hot, dry desert sun, I knew immediately that no amount of appropriate attire could disguise my Western looks. But I also realized that I had stepped into a unique experience, one I had chosen to undertake. 

As Indiana University's first lady, I was in Saudi Arabia as part of an official IU trip to visit alumni and partner institutions. I was excited to learn more about a region of the world with a long and fascinating history. But I had also wondered how I would feel once I was really there, adapting to local customs that are very different than those in the U.S.

Saudi Arabia infographic

INFOGRAPHIC BY MILANA KATIC

Standing there in my abaya and matching hijab, I felt a sudden and unexpected sense of kinship with the women around me. This was their culture and how they lived, and I was about to learn a lot about the complexity, richness and dynamism of their lives, and about how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is changing.

Tying a headscarf

My pre-trip preparations were especially necessary this time, since I had a separate itinerary from Michael’s and the other men in our delegation. Several wonderful IU colleagues prepared and assured me well in advance. Abeer Bar, a doctoral student in the School of Education from Jeddah, lent me the necessary attire and a lot of reading material; May Al-Ani, spouse of Salman Al-Ani in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, introduced me to Arabic meal-time traditions, gave me tips for tying a headscarf and was with us in Riyadh; and presidential intern Rahaf Safi, ’14, traveled from Jordan, where she works with Syrian refugees, to accompany us on the trip.

I learned that wearing an abaya -- the ankle-length, long-sleeved, high-necked garment that is customarily all or mostly black -- is the basic requirement, stemming more from cultural traditions than the practice of Islam itself. As a non-Muslim woman, it was not strictly necessary for me to wear the hijab (headscarf) at all times, but it was also clear that doing so would be seen as a sign of respect. It was important -- for me, for our Saudi alumni and for our future Saudi students -- that I make the most of this opportunity.

Laurie Burns McRobbie

IU first lady Laurie Burns McRobbie wore an abaya -- the ankle-length, long-sleeved, high-necked garment that is customarily all or mostly black -- in Saudi Arabia, as well as the hijab, or headscarf. | PHOTO BY RYAN PIUREK

Meeting remarkable women

We were slated to spend two and a half days in Riyadh, where many of our over 600 Saudi Arabian alumni live and work. May Al-Ani, Rahaf Safi and I made up the “IU women’s delegation.” We parted ways with Michael and the rest of our male colleagues on Monday morning and only once or twice crossed paths with the men before we returned to the hotel at night. We spent our short visit meeting some of Saudi Arabia’s most remarkable women, each of them an example of how the country, and the lives of Saudi women in particular, are changing due to the power of education and philanthropy.

Lubna Olayan, charting business and philanthropic paths

Lubna Olayan welcomed us in her office at the Olayan Foundation, shaking my hand warmly and introducing us to her colleagues. She was the only Saudi woman I met who wore a simple pantsuit and no head covering in the company of men. An extraordinary businesswomen and innovative philanthropist, Lubna has charted her own path forward.

After completing her MBA from the Kelley School of Business in 1979, Lubna became CEO of Olayan Financing Co. and a principal of The Olayan Group, founded by her father, Suliman S. Olayan, in 1947. She is an active member of the World Economic Forum and serves as a trustee of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and Cornell University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts. Her success in business has landed her more than once on the Forbes list of most powerful women in the world, and she’s ranked No. 2 on the Forbes list of the 200 most powerful Arab women. 

Like many successful businesspeople all over the world and particularly in Saudi Arabia, Lubna is increasingly turning her attention to philanthropy. The Olayan Foundation has made a gift to IU to support scholarships, and Lubna herself has devoted time to a number of charities in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Currently, her interests are focused on Al Fanar, a venture philanthropy organization working exclusively in the Arab world, and Blue Rose Compass, which supports young refugees by preparing them for and securing college scholarships in the U.S., Canada and Europe. 

I was impressed by her commitment to education, expressed in her many philanthropic and voluntary roles, and her sheer ability to manage multiple obligations while also getting her last child, the youngest of three, through college at Brown University. Support is increasing for women’s employment and career opportunities in Saudi Arabia, and Lubna will surely inspire others to follow her path-breaking lead. 

Dania Almaeena, empowering women and youth

Dania Almaeena, a friend and colleague of Abeer Bar, came to our hotel on Monday afternoon to share her story. Though not an IU alumna, Dania was educated abroad in the U.K. and in the U.S., receiving her Bachelor of Arts in psychology from George Mason University. Her passions for giving back revolve around social work and helping the underprivileged in Saudi society, specifically through the empowerment of women and youth.

She is the co-founder, along with her sister, of the Jeddah United Sports Co., which focuses on increasing opportunities to play team sports for women. Dania loves basketball, and even with a job in the Ministry of Labor and two young children, she plays whenever she can. When she moved to Riyadh from Jeddah, she started Riyadh United, where women and girls can play basketball, volleyball, and soccer. 

“Maybe someday our members can even compete in the Olympics!” she said. 

The McRobbies on TV

The McRobbies were interviewed for a Saudi television show during their recent trip overseas. | PHOTO BY RYAN PIUREK

Her work in the Ministry of Labor is also a reflection of changing societal norms. At the Ministry, she is the manager of the Mini Jobs program, which focuses on creating part-time jobs for Saudi youth. Just as in the U.S., the era of finding a job straight out of a college and then staying at the same firm for one’s career is fading, and the idea behind Mini Jobs is to give young Saudis some workplace experience that will help them compete more successfully for jobs once they’re out of school. 

As our conversation ranged across her work interests, her passions for social improvement and her commitment to her children, I could have been talking to any other early career woman, faced with work-life balance issues and navigating societal expectations. I discovered that much like in the U.S., philanthropy and volunteerism are becoming pathways into public life for Saudi women. Although a generation apart, both Lubna and Dania are examples of how norms may be changing.     

Huda M. Saleh Al-Ameel, educating the next generation

Our visit to Princess Nora University on Tuesday morning was one of the absolute highlights of our time in Riyadh. At a capacity of 60,000, it is the largest women’s university in the world, and easily one of the most beautiful educational facilities I’ve ever seen. Higher education for women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began in 1970 with the first College for Education for women, and in 2004, the Riyadh University for Women united that college and five others into the first all-female university. 

In 2008, the university was renamed Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, after the sister of the country’s first king, King Abdulaziz. Along with the name change came a new campus, which opened in 2011. Covering 8 million square meters (about three square miles), it includes 600 high-tech buildings; a medical school and 300-bed hospital; a state-of-the-art library; a mosque, dormitories and recreational facilities; housing for faculty and their families and pre-K, primary and secondary schools for faculty children; and a monorail to get people around. 

We met with Huda M. Saleh Al-Ameel, the rector, Nailah Abdul Rahman Al-Dihan, the vice rector, and Abrar AlMuhanna, who serves as deputy director of international cooperation for Princess Nora University and gave us an excellent overview of the university. We talked for over an hour, exchanging information on respective university programs and potential areas of cooperation.   

Laurie Burns McRobbie

At the end of a tour of the National Museum in Riyadh, a guide asked McRobbie to sign the guest book and talked about how she’d like to send her daughter to the U.S. for intensive English instruction. McRobbie said, "On impulse, I reached under my abaya and removed the Saudi/U.S. flag pin I was wearing from my lapel and gave it to her. We always have the relevant flag pins for the countries we visit, and I had worn mine expecting that I would be taking off my abaya so it could be seen. But despite being covered up, it more than served its purpose of signaling good relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. And who knows, we might see her daughter at Indiana University!" | PHOTO BY RYAN PIUREK

Because Princess Nora University is still a relatively young institution, Dr. Al-Ameel is focused on building up the quality of some of its programs, particularly in design. They are also very interested in developing their alumnae giving programs and already knew about the strength IU has in its Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and The Fund Raising School.  We left with mutual expressions of hope for future interactions and collaborations.

Maha Alenzy and Nora Aladwani, creating change in Saudi society

Two other accomplished Saudi women, Maha Alenzy (IU ’04 B.S. in biology and ’06 M,S, in language education) and Nora Aladwani, an education faculty member at King Saud University, hosted dinners for our women’s delegation. The dinners were both wonderful examples of Saudi hospitality and very welcome immersions in women’s culture in Riyadh.

Inside Dr. Maha’s and Dr. Nora’s houses, guests removed their abayas, hijabs and the occasional niqab (face veil, with or without eye slits), revealing attire one would see at any gathering but also more classic Saudi dresses, which are long, modestly cut and very beautiful. 

The dinner Monday night at Dr. Maha’s included both IU alumnae as well as a number of her friends and colleagues, many of whom are professional women in medical fields, like Dr. Maha herself. In fact, medicine is one profession very open to women, given that female patients need female doctors. 

The alumnae present were eager for a chance to reconnect with IU, and all guests wanted to understand more about American higher education and my own role. We discussed a wide range of topics, including the issue of whether women should drive. At least for some in this group of women, the question had logistical as well as political significance, although they recognized the importance of having the choice. As one of Dr. Maha’s colleagues put it, “Who would want to drive in Riyadh? The traffic is terrible!”

Several women echoed this same sentiment at Dr. Nora Aladwani’s dinner on Tuesday evening. In this case, though, the context was also political. Dr. Nora’s guests included several of the first women to serve on the Shura Council, a legislative body created in 1926 and revived in 2000 after a period of inactivity that is charged with advising the King on legislative proposals as well as recommending legislation. The ability of women to drive is important for both symbolic and practical reasons; finding a reliable driver is not always a given, and a robust system of public transportation, including a subway, is still under development. 

But there are other, even more pressing issues for women in Saudi Arabia, such as the lack of rights for divorced women. In September 2011, King Abdullah, who has introduced many reforms to positively affect women’s education and employment, had announced that women could vote in municipal elections for the first time.

He also announced that the Shura Council would be opened to female members. In January 2013, he decreed that a minimum of 20 percent (of 150 members) would be women and set about appointing the first 30 for four-year terms. One Shura Council member described the experience of hearing the king’s announcement. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said, “and I began to cry. It was such a momentous decision!”  

It was an honor to be able to talk to this group of pioneering women, of which Dr. Nora herself is one, who are helping to create change in Saudi society and culture at a very high level.

McRobbies in Saudi Arabia

During the trip, President McRobbie presented Sami Baroum, a 1992 Ph.D.  graduate of the IU Kelley School of Business and one of the Middle East’s leading business executives and entrepreneurs, with the Thomas Hart Benton Medallion, given to individuals who have achieved a level of  distinction in public office or service and have exemplified the values of IU. From left are Laurie Burns McRobbie, President McRobbie, Baroum and his two daughters and IU professor Salman al-Ani. | PHOTO BY RYAN PIUREK

Leaving Riyadh

We left Riyadh on Wednesday morning, heading for New Delhi and the opening of our second Global Gateway Office. I shed my abaya and hijab with a sense of relief (yes, they can be hot!) but also a little wistfulness. 

I had speculated that I might find a very different reality “beneath the veil,” and indeed, I had. In the U.S., we are still working toward a more equitable society where merit matters more than gender, and I found that regardless of where Saudi Arabia is today, we have much in common and much to learn from them as they forge a new way forward.  

A perfect final experience

As we left New Delhi for home, I had one last experience that made a perfect final act to a trip whose purpose was building educational bridges. 

Women going through airport security in India, as in Saudi Arabia, are sent through separate lines to private screening rooms. In a tiny curtained booth, I stood before a young Indian woman who, in a rather bored monotone, began to ask me the standard questions as she wielded her wand: “What was the purpose of your trip?”  “Business,” I answered. “What kind of business?” “We’re from a university in the U.S., here to build our relationships with Indian institutions and meet our alums.” 

She stopped and looked at me, and then leaned toward me as she quietly asked, “Do you have engineering programs?” Ever the loyal Hoosier, I told her about both Purdue and IU’s existing and planned programs in engineering. She put her wand down and gave me her phone so I could enter IU’s website address. Before I left the booth, she excitedly shook my hand and thanked me profusely, clearly a young woman ready to make a leap into her future.

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