O ne step forward. Two steps back. This could aptly describe Saudi Arabia's attempt at growing and changing with the modern world. Technologically speaking, the Kingdom voraciously gulps down the latest in electronics and communications. Astronomical oil revenues outfit Saudis with the latest in gas guzzling luxury SUVs, haute couture fashions from Paris, and the gaudiest furniture and jewelry imaginable. But amidst the glaring opulence, one fact still remains evident: Saudi Arabia continues to waste, oppress, and ignore possibly its most valuable natural resource - its women. Saudi women are either kept hidden at home or hidden in public beneath loose fitting black cloth, cloaking them from head to toe. They are invisible. They are unapproachable. They are inaccessible. And this is exactly the way the men here want it to be.
Anything Saudi women do must be done with the consent of their Mahrams, or male guardians, usually their fathers or husbands. This includes traveling, education, and working, or something as simple as going to the mall. It seems that the more women try to push a little for their rights, the more religious clerics push back with even tougher stands and rulings. Now mind you, these are the same religious leaders who also recently upheld as perfectly permissible the marriages of eight and ten year old girls to old men. These leaders are deathly afraid of Western influences on social behaviors of Saudis, so much so that they try right and left to control many aspects of people's lives that most Westerners would consider outrageously intrusive and ridiculous. It always comes down to the religion - they say the religion says that women must be controlled and behave in these ways, but more than the religion, it is cultural, really - strictly Saudi culture.
In previous posts I've written about the extreme censorship here, the strict segregation of the sexes, the restrictions on women working and not being allowed to drive, and so on. Well, now the latest controversy to hit the newsstands is one forbidding Saudi women to appear on television or in print. This effectively prohibits women from, among other things, reporting the news or hosting shows - not that they ever DID here in Saudi Arabia anyway! The reasoning behind this is that the images of a woman on TV or in a magazine are too tempting for rational and god-fearing men to be expected to control themselves. No matter how conservatively a woman might be dressed and even with her hair covered, just the sight of a woman on TV is deemed obscene by the religious clerics. Claiming that they are merely trying to preserve morality in Saudi Arabia, this pretense is a lame excuse for oppressing women even further in this male-dominated society.
What I don't get is why nothing is ever said about all the violence on TV – and there is plenty! Isn't violence immoral? So in essence, the morality police say that a man shouldn’t see a Saudi woman's face on TV because he might get aroused, but it's perfectly okay to see all the blood and gore and guts and heads blown off he wants - and that’s just fine and dandy. But don't a lot of men actually get turned on by violence? All of these religious rulings seem to be directed at punishing and oppressing women. It’s as if men can do whatever they want here but the women always have to pay the price.
This latest absurd ruling comes on the heels of the appointment of the first ever woman official to the Ministry of Education. Wow - such progress! But, the woman’s photo was run in the newspaper without her permission, and she voiced her own objections about it. Of course in her position with this government agency, she will only be allowed to attend meetings and work with the rest of her “colleagues” by proxy via closed circuit television! It really makes me wonder how effective she will really be cut off like this from the rest of the good old boys.
Another recent inane fatwa (religious ruling) attacks women for riding in vehicles with their drivers, saying that it is highly immoral since intimate conversations in the car can easily lead to immoral conduct. Since women in this country are not allowed behind the wheel in the first place, hiring drivers is the only way for women to get around. Women are forced into this situation but now are being criticized for doing so. In addition, paying for drivers causes additional expenses for the family. But some wise old religious leaders are now saying that Saudi women - are you ready? - should just stay home; there is no need for them to go out! Can you imagine?
There are many Saudi women who get advanced college degrees but then never enter the workforce. I read somewhere that there was something like five million foreign workers here in Saudi Arabia. Many of them are drivers. Many work in restaurants – you won’t find any women working there either. Many of them work in shops in the malls as salesclerks, positions that women are forbidden from holding. So women are again forced into uncomfortable situations where they must purchase their undergarments - from strange men. Does this make any sense at all in this prim and proper society?
I can only imagine the vast improvements in customer service and the efficiency of day to day business operations that would be possible if women were allowed to take their rightful places alongside men in the workforce here.
When will Saudi Arabia wake up and realize that it is suppressing and wasting one of its largest natural resources: ITS WOMEN. Women are the most under-used and under-productive members of this society. Will Saudi men ever stop treating and looking at Saudi women purely as sex objects? Why can’t Saudi men be expected to exercise self-control around women and behave in a civilized manner as men in most other countries of the world do? When will Saudi women be allowed to work, or to manage their own affairs, to drive, or to have their voices heard?
It all makes me wonder: What am I doing here?
UPDATE: Arab News just published an interesting but sad article on the status of women "business owners" here in KSA.
Want more? Please read American Bedu's recent post about how women's gyms in Saudi Arabia are the next item on the KSA's hit list - yet another ban aimed at women.
For a more optimistic view of feminism in Muslim countries, please read Sand Gets in My Eyes's post.