COLUMBIA – A black Toyota Camry creeps around an empty lot at Cosmopolitan Park on a late October evening.
After parking the car at a cockeyed angle between two painted yellow lines, Haneen Mohammed takes her foot off the brake and her hands off the steering wheel.
She lets out a sigh.
"It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be," she said with a laugh.
Although she had driven a couple of times before, this was her first opportunity to drive without a parent in the car. It was also the first time she could drive in a country that openly accepts women behind the wheel.
Gender gap at home
Haneen's home country, Saudi Arabia, prohibits women from driving. Last year her father taught her to drive in the middle of the Arabian Desert, where she had an empty landscape to navigate.
Driving is one of many ways she's embraced the opportunities of spending a year at MU.
Before moving to Columbia as a foreign exchange student, Haneen, 21, had spent her entire life in Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the largest gender gaps in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. She said the gap is enforced by Islamic customs, which encourage the social separation of men and women.
Haneen was itching for something new, so when she was given the chance to study abroad, she took it.
"If any other place would have been available, I would have gone," she said. "Every young Saudi secretly dreams of traveling outside of Saudi — or maybe it's not so secret."
Life in the United States has been a series of firsts for Haneen, who is studing computer engineering. She has seen autumn for the first time and sampled traditional American experiences — an MU football game, the Renaissance Festival in Kansas City and the City Museum in St. Louis.
Her experience has also been challenging on some levels. She's a practicing Muslim in a nation that doesn't prioritize it the same way her country does. She also attends classes with male students. Schools in Saudi Arabia, both private and public, are segregated.
Daily routines such as walking from her dorm room to the shower worried her at first, but she was comforted when she discovered she would be living on an all-girls floor.
But in the midst of embracing a different culture, Haneen has learned to better appreciate her own.
"I love it here, but recently I've found myself missing home," she said.
The Saudi gender gap
The World Economic Forum's 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, released Oct. 25, ranked Saudi Arabia No. 127 out of 136 countries for gender equality. It is the first time since the report began in 2006 that the country wasn't in the bottom five.
Women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive or vote, though the king has decreed that they can participate in the voting process in 2015.
In attempt to find a balance, Haneen joined Saudi Students Association, an MU co-ed club, but she discovered that some of the members still have what she perceives as "a Saudi state of mind."
"They are nice, but I think the way they were raised taught them to avoid talking to girls," she said of some of the male members. "So even here, there's still a barrier."
Under Saudi law, women in public places must have a male guardian, usually a father, brother or husband. Hospitals, police stations and banks uphold that law. A woman may need permission to travel, marry, divorce, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, depending on the guardian.
Having a guardian isn't meant to be oppressive, she said, but rather as a way for men to protect their families.
"I like having a guardian, but it didn't have much effect on me because I have an open family," she said. "I know it affected other families, the most close-minded families."
Haneen's father, Abdurashid, was planning to stay in an apartment in Columbia to ensure her safety while she was at MU.
"We trust her, but it was her first time to go outside the country without us," he said during a visit with his wife to Columbia this semester. He gave up on the idea after he realized his daughter would be safe in Columbia.
A tradition for herself
The toughest part so far for Haneen has been meshing her school schedule with fulfilling one of Islam's five pillars of worship — salat, a ritualized prayer performed by Muslims five times a day as they face Mecca, Islam's holy city.
Children are hushed, shops are closed, and streets are emptied when it's time to pray in Saudi Arabia, but life doesn't stop when it's time to pray in Columbia.
Haneen uses the compass on her phone to turn herself toward Mecca and prays as her class schedule allows, rather than following the standard times. The times are calculated daily for specific locations around the globe using astronomical measurements.
"You have to put in extra effort over here at the beginning, but then you get used to it," she said.
She has been pushed to determine the best way to practice her religion in other ways. For example, Haneen was told that wearing a hijab in Missouri might be problematic.
She braced for the lack of acceptance, which sparked an internal debate over whether she would wear it. Since arriving, she's come to realize the importance of her hijab: Wearing it serves as a reminder of the social and physical limits she has set for herself.
"I feel more comfortable with it on," she said. "It's a tradition for myself now, and I'm mixed with boys here, so I think it's good to have it on."
Family supports decision
Haneen's family has long supported her dream to study in the United States. They encouraged her to travel, work hard in school and become an independent woman. Her mother, Aisha, said Haneen was quiet but wise growing up.
"She never depended on someone else to teach her how to do things," her father said.
In high school, Haneen focused on her studies. She won international chemistry and physics competitions for high school students in the Arab nations and earned a full academic scholarship to Effat University in Jeddah, her hometown.
When she told her parents she wanted to study abroad, they supported her through the application process. They knew a year in the United States would strengthen her English, which they believe will help her career down the road.
When Haneen forgot her I.D. card necessary to take the test for acceptance into the study abroad program, her entire family drove eight hours across the Arabian Desert, so she could take the next available test.
"Whatever she wants to do, we like supporting her," said her father.
Learning from the present
Although it's been an adjustment, Haneen said her time outside Saudi Arabia has helped her better understand her home country.
"I used to hate that place, but now I realize (the lack of social opportunities is) not anyone's fault," she said. "It's just life there. We don't have many places to socialize, but ... there's no one to blame for the way that life is in Saudi."
She said she's starting to grasp the social gap between men and women there, as well.
"Saudi men are raised to avoid talking to women unless they have to," she said. "I think it's out of respect for the women, and sometimes women take it the wrong way when a man approaches them.
"They might think a man is hitting on them when they aren't," she said. "So there are two sides to it."
Hassan Al Majed, an MU student who attends the same mosque in Columbia as Haneen, agreed that most Saudi men have a high regard for Saudi women.
"On the east side of Saudi Arabia, when males see a female being bothered by another guy, the males will approach him and the law will stand with the female," he said. "Whatever she wants, she will get."
Haneen said she'll view Saudi social life in a new perspective when she returns, approaching it with a more outgoing attitude.
"I changed a lot when I went to college, and I changed even more when I came here, so maybe people back home won't know me anymore."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.