Cross-cultural family ties

By Olivia Covington • ocovington@ibj.com

 

It’s a different world, yet many things are the same.

That’s the impression of Indianapolis attorneys Monica Foster and Bob Hammerle after a two-week visit to Saudi Arabia last month. The couple travelled to the Middle East to witness the wedding of their former foreign exchange student, Abdulazziz al Ayed — who they refer to simply as “Z” — and to take in the sights of a country whose culture has long been the subject of speculation and derision for some Americans.

When family and friends learned of Foster and Hammerle’s travel plans, they all asked the same question rooted in concerns about terrorism, gender inequality and other cultural differences: “Aren’t you worried?” Hammerle, however, said he and his wife chose to view their trip abroad as a unique experience that would shed light on a nation shrouded in mystery.

“I was even asked by some of Z’s father’s friends, … ‘What were your concerns?’” Hammerle said. “And I said, ‘Honestly, I had no concerns. I just viewed it as an adventure.’”

Beginnings of change

Up until mere weeks before Hammerle and Foster — who respectively serve as of-counsel at Hackman Hulett LLP and chief federal defender for Indiana Federal Community Defenders — were set to leave on their December trip, foreign visitors had only been permitted into Saudi Arabia on a work visa. The couple was able to secure the necessary travel visa that allowed them to enter the country in time for Z’s wedding, a fact that came as a shock to the Saudis who joined them on their flight overseas.

When they arrived, the Americans attended the second of three ceremonies to celebrate Z’s wedding to Mishael Alhumaimedy. A civil ceremony had already been held to legally join the couple, so the next phase in the celebration trilogy was the women’s ceremony last month.

True to its name, the women’s ceremony is a marriage celebration held only for women, while the men will mark the marriage at their own celebration in April. Hammerle, Z, now an international banker, and two other male family members were permitted to attend the women’s celebration just long enough to get their picture taken, then left the women to a party that lasted until the early-morning hours.

Though Saudi Arabia has historically treated women as second-class citizens, the women’s ceremony illuminated a slow cultural shift toward a more equal society, Foster said. For example, all the women attending the ceremony, including Foster herself, donned abayas, or loose-fitting coverings traditionally meant to conceal a woman’s body.

But the abayas featured at the wedding celebration were less about modesty and more about style, Foster said. Some women wore abayas designed around the latest fashion trends, she said, while others were completely sheer and highlighted the women’s clothes.

“Things are just loosening up dramatically,” Foster said.

Legal evolutions

The bride herself is a testament to changing views on the role of women in Saudi society. Alhumaimedy holds a bachelor’s degree in law, with an emphasis in commercial law, and has spent the last six months interning in DLA Piper’s Riyadh, Saudi Arabia office.

The Saudi government did not permit female colleges to offer law as a major until 2005, and when the first group of female law students graduated from King Saud University in 2009, they numbered only 49, Alhumaimedy wrote in an email to The Indiana Lawyer. Even after their graduation, those 49 women were not initially permitted to represent their clients in the courtroom, she wrote.

“Despite all of the negativity and struggle, some women were brave enough and they believed in what they wanted to strive for and achieve,” Alhumaimedy wrote.

That persistence began to pay off in 2013, when the Saudi Advisory Council officially recommended granting women law licenses that would allow them to practice freely. Those licenses are the equivalent of passing the bar exam and can be obtained after three years of practice, but without taking a test.

Alhumaimedy is now working toward obtaining her license as she builds her legal career in commercial law. Meanwhile, Saudi women continue to fight for their place in the legal community as they set their sights on one day being able to become judges.

Though Alhumaimedy is only six months into her budding legal career, Foster and Hammerle said her enthusiasm for the profession is already apparent. That enthusiasm for building a career is reminiscent of the attitudes of young American law students and lawyers preparing for their own futures, Foster said.

“I used to teach bar review and I used to teach at the law school, and she just reminds me of any other young lawyer about to embark on a career that’s a little scary,” she said. “She’s excited.”

More alike than different

Though Saudi women such as Alhumaimedy are still working toward equality both in the practice of law and in the laws of their country, Hammerle noted that the U.S. legal profession was in a similar state not so long ago. American women have enjoyed equal protection under the law for decades, but the demographic makeup of the legal profession skewed heavily toward males during the early days of Hammerle’s practice.

For example, when Hammerle was a law student at what was then the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis in the early 1970s, there were only three female students in his entire class. The gender gap in American law schools has since closed, but the profession continues to place women attorneys in leadership roles less often than their male counterparts.

Hammerle offered that comparison not as a criticism of the U.S. legal profession, but as a way of highlighting similarities between two cultures that, at least on the surface, seem very different. He and Foster began hosting Saudi foreign exchange students after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a step to bridge the divide between Americans and Saudis, and what they’ve learned throughout the experience is that regardless of cultural differences, people are the same no matter where you go.

“The thing that strikes you so impactfully is everybody wants the same thing in life,” Foster said. “We all want our kids to do better than we did, we all want to be safe and happy and secure and healthy, and that is just true no matter what culture you are in or where you travel.”

Now, several years into their foreign exchange student journey, the Indiana attorneys said they’ve gained more than insight from their relationships with the students — they’ve also gained family and a place to call home on the other side of the world.

While they were abroad, Z’s family hosted a surprise birthday party for Hammerle, who celebrated his 71st birthday while overseas. And if news of unrest in the region where Z lives ever reaches the United States, Foster said her mind immediately turns to concerns for the safety of him and his family.

Forging that type of relationship is something Hammerle and Foster never could have done had they not been willing to step into a world different than their own, they said.

“With Z, we are a part of their family, they are a part of our family,” Foster said. “It isn’t that they’re ‘like’ family — they are family.”•

 

Originally published in the Indiana Lawyer