RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Teresa Malof knew she wasn't in Kentucky anymore when a cleric issued a fatwa against her secret Santa gift exchange.
Malof proposed the idea at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital, where she has worked for more than a decade. It was supposed to be discreet, but rumors were whispered amid veils and hijabs that the lithe, blond nurse, raised on farmland at the edge of Appalachia, was planning to celebrate a Christian tradition in an Islamic kingdom that forbids the practicing of other religions.
"Even though I'm a Muslim too, I like to celebrate the holidays and have gift exchanges," said Malof, a convert to Islam who is married to the son of a former Saudi ambassador. "But word got out, and the religious people came with a fatwa (or edict) against the Santa party."
For American women married to Saudi men, such is life in this exotic, repressive and often beguiling society where tribal customs and religious fervor rub against oil wealth and the tinted-glass skyscrapers that rise Oz-like in the blurry desert heat. This is not a land of the First Amendment and voting rights; it is a kingdom run by the strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, where abayas hang in foyers, servants linger like ghosts, minarets glow in green neon and, as a recent court case showed, a woman who is raped can also be sentenced to 200 lashes for un-Islamic behavior.
"Haram, haram" (forbidden, forbidden). American wives know the phrase well. It is learned over years of peeking through veils at supermarkets or sitting in the back of SUVs while Filipino drivers glide through traffic.
Freedom lies behind courtyard walls, where private swimming pools glimmer and the eyes of the religious police do not venture. Rock 'n' roll (haram) is played, smuggled whiskey (haram) is sipped, and Christianity (haram) sometimes is practiced.
"American women get together and we talk," said Lori Baker, a mother of two who met her Saudi husband at Ohio State University in 1982. "We ask one another, 'Where are you on your curve now? Have you hit bottom yet?' We all go through the highs and lows when it comes to moods and tolerance. ... When I first got here, I felt naked without my head scarf."
As the wife of a Saudi living off a busy Riyadh street, she said she's not completely embraced by Americans living in gated communities, but she also feels estranged within Saudi society.
It is a strange place, Bakersaid, to live between two worlds, one of quilting clubs and cookouts, the other of prayers and isolation. "You have to do soul searching and really define who you are," she said.
"My husband is the man of my dreams, and I decided to go wherever that took us."
shes a dumbass for wanting to be part of any religion that would treat women so poorly, i have no sympathy.