Monday, January 4, 2010

Saudi Arabia Needs Its Own Rosa Parks

Ihave been reading this fascinating book by Gail Collins called When Everything Changed, which follows the women’s liberation movement in the United States from 1960 to the present day. As I read along, it is strangely comforting to realize that it really wasn’t that long ago that women in America were treated like children, like property, like second class citizens, and as unimportant and unproductive members of society – much like the contemporary women of Saudi Arabia. There are so many similarities in the plight of Saudi women of today compared to American women just fifty short years ago. When you consider that Saudi Arabia is quite a young country - a unified kingdom only since 1932 and relatively underdeveloped until the oil boom of the 1970s – I guess the fact that the status of its women is still seriously lagging behind the rest of the world makes it all a little easier to swallow - although anyone coming here from a more liberated society would understandably wish for it to speed up a bit.

A part of the book revisits the 1950s Civil Rights Movement. When I read the pages about Rosa Parks, I thought to myself that Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks achieved iconic status as the spark that launched the Civil Rights Movement in the United States for refusing the order of an Alabama bus driver to give up her seat on the public bus to a white person or face being arrested. Mrs. Parks was not the first black person arrested for doing this - but for several years the NAACP had been searching for the perfect person to advance the movement and she happened to fit the bill to a T. Always possessing an air of dignity, Mrs. Parks was a middle-aged seamstress, of impeccable character and manners. Her own husband was terrified for her safety and begged her not to agree to be the test case for this landmark case. As a result of her simple act of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks was the catalyst that unified the entire black community to protest against racial discrimination – and the rest is history.

Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks.

This strict Muslim country imposes severe restrictions on its women – physically, socially, legally, and in marriage. Everything here seems to favour men and impede women. Every woman has her own mahram – a male guardian who has legal control over every aspect of her life, which in effect relegates her to the status of a child. Women in Saudi Arabia are restricted in their movements, while men are free to come and go as they please. Women cannot drive. They must be accompanied many places by a male member of their family. They must have permission from their male guardian to leave the country or travel. They are restricted from participating in most sports and from riding bikes, and while grotesquely hairy overweight men can go swimming in public wearing just swim trunks, women are not allowed unless they are Islamically covered from head to toe.

While the percentage of Saudi women enrolled in institutions of higher learning in Saudi Arabia is a whopping 70% compared to men, working women in this country account for a mere 5% of the work force, and that number likely includes foreign women workers. This figure represents the lowest percentage of women working in any country in the world. Saudi women cannot attend school or work without the express permission of their husbands or father or legal male guardian. Plus women here are restricted from working in many fields and are also prohibited from working side by side with men, with very few exceptions.

Saudi women face unbelievable discrimination within the Saudi legal system. They are forbidden from testifying in court (reasons include that they are too emotional, forgetful, or unreliable!). Saudi women are always somehow blamed when sexual offenses are committed against them. Divorce can easily be obtained by husbands against their wives, while women must go through difficult legal wrangling to obtain a divorce from their husbands.

“Sexual Apartheid” is a term that has been used to describe the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. There are many other areas where women are discriminated against here in Saudi Arabia - too many to mention in this post. One problem in advancing women’s rights here is the lack of organization, and I believe that apathy also plays a role. Many women here would never dream of standing up to their husbands or fathers and resign themselves to the lives that their guardians allow them. Many Saudi women seem perfectly content with their lives of leisure, shopping, cooking and making babies. But what about those who want more? I’m not advocating a revolution. But I am in favour of allowing women opportunities to do more with their lives if they wish and to be given equal freedoms as men - which most women around the world now take for granted - instead of being held back, forbidden, prohibited, and restricted from the most basic rights.

Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks.


  1. This is a great analogy Susie.

  2. Hi dearie. Love your entry. Full of substance as usual. I hope you get to read Nicholas Kristof's HALF THE SKY.

    That man is one of my heroes. Very few journalists such as him have a keen understanding of women's issues on a global scale.

  3. Interesting analogy, Susie. I am glad to see you included that the NAACP consciously used Rosa Parks as a test case, and that she had their backing which is how she was able to escape more severe treatment. The poster you reproduce is part of the standard narrative about her, idealizing the heroic action of the individual, which is a major paradigm of US thought and history teaching. I am sure you read that Rosa Parks and her husband were long time activists, and members of the NAACP, who had been trained specifically in civil disobedience strategies and how to deal with the police and arrest following passive resistance. In my opinion this makes her gesture more important, where the spontaneity was her deciding this would be the time to put the plan into action.

    You also emphasized that Saudi needs its own Rosa Parks, which is important, because the contemporary Saudi context is different than the civil rights movement--whether for blacks or women in the 60's was in the US.

    A thought provoking post, thanks.

  4. I guess what's scary with any "revolution" are the casualties that come with it. But, this is what it takes for any change movements. I'm so happy that Rosa Parks lived to see the movement she started to fruition.

  5. my son did a report on Rosa Parks...she was amazing.

    even though i've never been to KSA, from everything i've read...and heard from friends who went to work their....the conservative part of the country has less to do with religion and more with culture. however the goverment...or men in charge use relgion as a way to keep things the same.

    when i visited Kuwait it was very liberal...and of course in Lebanon life is very much more liberal weather one is Christian or Muslim.

    ...blah, blah, blah...:)
    i think a saudi Rosa Parks would be a god send for the women.....
    i do think with social globalization women will have more rights....but still hold strong to their culture .

  6. If women won't stand up to their husbands are there no men who want to be relieved from this role of "mahrem" who can start speaking out on their behalf? Get the ball rolling...Seems it would be difficult to have a "child" to have to take care of all your life. I understand that there is male privilege but surely there must be some men who would like for their wives to drive and take care of their own affairs...even their sons and daughters grow up and they are relieved of that responsibility at some point.

    Or is that just too much to hope for?

  7. An excellent post Susie, but some questions remain, at least fo me.

    Given the diverse racial make-up of the US, and the lack of what is essentially a theocratic form of government (as is seen in the KSA, even though it is technically a monarchy), what are the odds that a Rosa Parks-like woman would succeed in the way she did? As bad as things were, women still had seemingly more freedom even in Ms. Parks day than what is seen in modern day SA life.

    In short, just how far would a woman need to go to achieve the same result that Rosa Parks did, without running the risk of things such as treason, or Sharia law violation that might put her life at risk?

  8. You are so right Susie. It must be very intimidating for a woman to stand up for herself over there...very sad (and wrong).

  9. Great post. I do hope that life will improve for the women of Saudi Arabia.

  10. What a wonderful post! You have the power to write emotions. This post really stirred some emotions for me.

    Do you think that there are women who'd sport a Saudi Parks? I feel that there are many women who are actually very happy in their situation. I met some who said they way they are is the way they are supposed to be because that is what Allah wills.

  11. Susie,
    We already have a Rosa Park.Her name is Wajeha al Huwaider and she did do the civil disobedience thing several times. And also I remember an unnamed woman who would drive her kids in Riyadh to school and have the police stop her everyday. It was only reported that she did that but how it was resolved never made it to press.
    The problem is not lack of brave women, it's the cooperation of the media and society in repressing these acts. For example Wajeha has been banned from writing in Saudi media siince 2003.

  12. Eman--thanks for giving the concrete example I was looking for in the ways in which the Saudi Rosa Parks must be a Saudi and yet the contextual difference would make the fruitfulness of gestures of civil disobedience distinct. It is one of the reasons that I like to emphasize the breadth and depth of the organization behind Rosa Park's planned action (though spontaneously executed on that day).

    Significantly the people behind Rosa Parks were mostly men and the gesture was for all "Negroes" not women only. I think that makes a huge difference, because women's rights are always gained, to my knowledge and in my experience, with the considerable aid of men, who are most likely to hold the positions of power where they can effect the changes.

    Hmmm maybe if I were a little less sleep deprived I would have remembered all your excellent posts on Wajeha.

  13. Oby--it will take men as well as women to effect significant social change. However, as annoying as it can be to have a pre-age of consent adolescent for life, it can be more challenging to many to have an adult, with a mind AND rights of her own, on their hands. This is in part because the social system is set up such that men do have extra responsibilities, and giving women more rights without having their responsibilities increase commensurately would be unfair. However, it is also because like everyone, men learn from their ambiance how to consult women about decision-making or not, and how to share power in the couple or not, etc and modifying traditional paradigms in this area is hard even in the West which has been working at it longer.

  14. I'm with Eman on this there is no shortage of Saudi Rosa Parks there have been many.. from the famous women who rode their cars in Riyadh to the woman who tries to pass the causeway to Bahrain every single day. I think what is missing are 1. the collective support that Rosa Parks did she was in the height of the civil rights movement the support she received made the impact and change. 2. Rosa Parks had a system on her side she could use to change things even if the people were unwilling. This doesn't hold true for Saudi which is why the Saudi Rosa Parks aren't getting as far as we would like to see them go at this time.

  15. A Century of Women is another outstanding book around the struggles in America for women's rights. It includes the effects that birth control had in allowing women to move forward in the working world. The video is narrated by Jane Fonda with amazing details that EVERY WOMAN should know. Sending love and cudos for the New Year, Susie. Tons of hugs, Lawana

  16. Even if Rosa Parks herself went to SA nothing will change.... they'll kill her a million times before anything will change. Muslims all over the world need to put pressure on SA! I don't understand why people put up with such dysfunctional and sick society.

  17. One way of dating the modern civil rights movement would be the founding of the NAACP around 1909. That was 44 years after the end of the Civil War. It took the ending of WWII for that movement to show real results. The US had mature institutions and laws. I can only imagine getting the same thing done in Saudi Arabia. Even if there were a Saudi Rosa Parks, I don't see the organizations behind her that would be able to use civil disobedience as a fulcrum to move the legal system. Saudi Arabia is still run on personal and tribal relationships. There is no real constitution. The state needs to be divorced from the royal family.

  18. Hi Susie,
    I am a Saudi my self, and although I believe in the need to change some lows concerning women in KSA. However, I would have to disagree with you that the situation is not as bad as you have described it in your post . because surely , you can't compare women status in KSA with that of say Afghanistan! where girls struggle just to go to school. We have invested tremendously l in educating our girls and as a result you will see more Saudi Rosa Parks in the future . Dr.Hayat Sindi is a good example of what a saudi women can achieve once given the opportunity . I would say give us another 50 years which is the same period the U.S. took and I can assure you that the changes in our society will be significant!

  19. well although this woman was to be admired, changes are not reached by a single person showing how wrong the system is but by the support the rest of the population will give to this single person, unfortunately for the case of saudia and most of the middle east, this support doesnt exist, in fact MANY people believe everything is ok just the way it is, its a shame but truth...

  20. There is absolutely no one who would always say flat wrong claims. Obviously, no one would believe. Instead, they would mix truth with falsehood. And that's what you did.

    Because women cannot swim in bikinis, Saudis should start a social revolution??

    Give me a break!

  21. Susie pls read this article,it has nothing to do with Rosa park,but it's sad.

  22. Thanks for all the comments. Sorry for not addressing each one individually...

    To Oby & MrNighttime - Nothing will ever happen here in furthering this cause unless enough men in this country come out in support of women. Wishing for this sadly is probably idealistic and unrealistic. Why would men want any change when they hold all the cards? A woman here would likely be at risk if she were willing to go the distance, but with backing from other women, and more importantly MEN, I think it would be possible to achieve success.

    To Suroor & Eman - Al-Huwaider is to be admired and applauded for her efforts, but unfortunately she has not been able to gain the necessary support from Saudi women and men to help the cause. She has been squashed at every turn. And apathy is a big problem here when you have many fortunate women who like letting men be in charge of them.

    To Jerry - One of the big problems here is the inability to organize. But if enough people did, I don't see how it could be ignored.

    To Sami - I do hope that change will eventually come, but I'm here now, I'm impatient, and I probably don't have another 50 years! lol

    To Anon @10:45AM - You accused me of falsehoods but you didn't refer to anything specific. What exactly did I say that isn't true?
    Why is it okay for half naked men letting it all hang out to enjoy the surf and the sun and women cannot equally enjoy it? I AM ADVOCATING EQUALITY.

  23. Excellent post, Susie.

  24. To say that men are happy with the current situation is unfair statement. Saudi men are as miserable as Saudi women , for many reasons.

    And I would like from you Susie to tell me what do you want Saudi women exactly to do ? You as an American who lived in a modern society for 50+ years couldn't be strong enough to do something with your Saudi husband and you continue living miserably here against your own wish, what do you expect then from Saudi women who don't have other choices like you do ??

    Words are always easier than actions !

  25. Here you go, Susie:

    Eman, thanks for the referral to the blog above. Is it yours?


  26. To 2cents - I didn't say that all men are happy with the situation. I said that men hold all the cards here so why would they want change? My own husband, who spent 30 yrs in the states, thinks that things are just fine here the way they are - I can talk to him about the status of women here until I'm blue in the face and he still thinks women have it good here - and many women do, but they are still not in control of their own lives. I have said repeatedly that I am not miserable here - it is not my #1 choice of where I want to live in the world, but neither was So. FL and I lived there for 15 yrs. I don't have all the answers - I would like to see changes here for women. I don't like being so dependent on my husband for everything, but many women and men here obviously like things the way they are. The "extremes" to which this country has gone to to keep women in their place is what I have a problem with. At least I can write about it here on my blog...

    To Anon @8:15AM - Yes, Eman writes the SaudiWoman blog and it's excellent. Deena Al-Faris is a perfect example of things that women here can do. What really bothers me is the way the men reacted to her showing up at their meeting, which was neither "normal" nor "necessary." Women don't have cooties! I applaud Mr. Riza for his quick action to allow her to stay and speak.

  27. Hi Susie! I came across your blog by accident and I just love it. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I was in Saudi Arabia recently and I'm blogging about my experiences in a series of posts. I just had to reference you in my recent post =) Warm regards to you and Adam (he's such a cutie for a 16 y.o.!)

  28. Hi Susie,I'm sure eventually KSA will have their Rosa.It's just going to take time.

    As far as women's rights go my grandmothers never drove. My mother was always a home maker.The message I got growing up was that education was fine but after one married you should stay home and make a home. Honestly I was always pretty much content with that until the last few years and the recession which have caused me to re-evaluate and what if. Oh well, at this point it's water under the bridge and hindsight.

    I can't imagine what it would be like to be in KSA without male relatives to support me.If they die what do the women do?Who would support you? Who drives you around then?

    As always a very thoughtful post.

  29. I must say, it's not all bad here in Saudi.

    My mom is a hard working woman raised me and my two younger brother on her own, best school, best education, me in Bahrain, my younger brother in UK, my dad was happy not to be in the picture.

    I think their are more then one Rosa in Saudi, my mom is one Rosa, my uncles wife is another, and most of my friends are all ROSA's.

    As women movement goes, it's much easier for women here in Saudi then a year ago and would be more easier the next year.

    I was talking to one high government official one time, and told me that as a government policy goes, there is nothing against women, in matter of fact you see the government do support women when it see the right type of woman to lead.

    there are many women right issues, and some are far more important then driving and wearing swimsuit.

    I must add the most reasons are social not religion,

    I was in Riyadh when I invited my sister's to a restaurant "half sisters" while eating, they had some trouble eating as the waiter passed they would drop forks to cover.... I told them its okay if the remove it from their faces and eat, the waiter won't bite, my sister said she could not! that made me think was the answer coming from a religion prospective or habit?

    I'm with giving women the choice, not to force things on her blindly...

    women to make such movement need the support of men, walking in the market while her face is not cover, approached by religion police, just to find the husband,brother or father their and they are okay with it, nothing he can do ^.^

    a women movement is coming sooner or later, don't worry...there is many ROSA Parks out there.


  30. I read your blog with mingled fascination and horror. My father was stationed all over the Middle East. He originally came from a Lebanese family which had emigrated to the US in the 1890's. We got in touch with our relatives and I've visited parts of the Middle East many times and taught English in Turkey. I have watched the rise of right wing religious bigotry in Turkey, saw Syria take over Northern Lebanon in all but name and been saddened by the desperate poverty and ignorance of so many in that region. Yes, you need a Rosa Parks, an Abraham Lincoln - heck, you need a George Washington to lead the country into some sort of democracy. But I think that the forces of theocracy and despotism are too strong -- and that makes me worry about you. I know that you say that you have a loving husband but I sure hope that the Saudi religious police don't start coming after you because so much of what you write about is a criticism of their country. Take care, stay safe and find a solution that allows you to live up to your full potential - where ever that might be.

  31. I guess the woman would have to ask the husband or her son to drive her to the Million Woman March?

  32. datesandclementinesJan 11, 2010, 12:03:00 AM

    good one, llse

  33. Susie, I love your blog, but I don't agree that Rosa Parks could have made a difference there. Without a Dr. Martin Luther King, a free press, the rule of law vs. religion, a Supreme Court not based on religion, etc., I believe that Rosa Parks in KSA would have been sentenced and punished. Peaceful protests of massive numbers of women would probably be the only way (using the internet to help publicize it). What you need is a female Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi - or a man who is willing to stand up and be counted for women who is revered religiously. Then peaceful protest might have a chance.

  34. nice post. thanks.

  35. The USA should be trying to get these educated smart Saudi women to move to the US... their own country doesn't want them except in the kitchen and bedroom.

    And there must be a mountain of wasted human talent right now...
    It must be extremely frustrating.

  36. Great post hopefully saudi women realized that soon that they need to stand together and do whatever to get their freedome back.
    Thank you
    Daughtrt of Arabia

  37. Hi,

    First, I am very impressed by your blog and appreciate your efforts but I have view on
    Saudi Arabia Needs Its Own Rosa Parks" subject I hope that you accept it "

    First, what if we say that women in Saudi Arabia treat like a queen has the right to everything she sitting in her palace and ordered the man to go bring everything that she need and if she wants to go out she will have a driver from her family led her to where she want ,,
    About "They are restricted from participating in most sports and from riding bikes", who said that ?!the women can do all her activities but not with men, the reason we all know or we should know- it is the same reason that women cannot go out alone and they have to cover from head to toe-. if we ask our self Why increase the percentage of rape in foreign countries like America where women have full freedom to go out and wearing clothes? We will know the reason.
    I can not elaborate on this subject in here, but I explained my point of view and I hope that you accept it.>>Hanan

  38. Dear Hanan - I would respect your opinion more if you would try living like the women you describe for a month and see how your frustration and impatience grows when you wait or don't get things that you want when you want, when you have to wear something that you didn't choose, and have someone else in complete control of what you can do or when you do it. Men are not servants to their wives and daughters in KSA (which is what a queen has). That's not to say that some women in KSA aren't very happy. It does mean that their options to gain that happiness are not within their own control.

    As for rates of rape in Western countries or America being higher, rape is a crime of power. It happens whether woman are clothed or not - even in Saudi Arabia. We used to have lower reported rapes in America. Most people who are victims of any crime often feel that they did something to cause it to occur. Here, police, medical personnel and counselors work hard to convince the woman that's not true and to get her to report the rape so that whoever the person is can be stopped. Are our rates too high? Absolutely!! Does a low rate mean that rape is not occurring in KSA? I don't think so. I think it is under-reported. I also don't think that requiring the potential victims to change what she wears and how she acts is doing anything but rewarding the aggressor. If men can't handle being around women who are wearing less clothes, I think that we should keep men at home and away from women with only their wife or mother or another female relative to drive them around and keep them from being a problem in public(just kidding - but it's just as true).

    A queen has power. Many women all over the world do not. As for America, many women do not have the power that they need also, but it is less institutionalized by laws and custom. So the option to gain equal power and make your own choices is much more possible in other parts of the world.

    Long post - sorry, but just had to respond.

  39. I do agree with you
    WE are so happy here(in saudi) and we do not need freedom
    The debt has given us our rights
    Study or the work of both men and women at great risk to society and this is what we have seen in more advanced countries
    But that some countries have already started to separate women from men as she saw the negative consequences
    Women in Sadudi have a high profile so it was ruled that preservation of the

  40. The answer to your prayers??

  41. Another Saudi women's rights activist and journalist Nadine Al Bedair

  42. Thank you for all the interesting comments! Sorry to not address each one individually...

    Nasser - I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the links. I think these women can stand with the likes of Rosa Parks. Please feel free to send me as many links as you want!

  43. Your welcome! :))

    More of Wahija Al-Huweidar

  44. We know that women have many rights under Islamic law, but until Saudi women are ready to fight for their rights nothing will change.
    In Europe and America, men didn't wake up one day and decide 'lets give women the right to vote' those women, like Emily Pankhurst, fought and in many cases died for for their rights.
    In any society, religious or not, men will happily continue to exploit women, as long as they are allowed to.

  45. Anonymous - you are absolutely right. I thought that some of you might enjoy reading some of the things written before women in the USA were given the right to vote. They are so funny to hear now, but so similar to what you are hearing in KSA.

  46. [ ... ] link is being shared on Twitter right now. @zenx, an influential author, said RT @1ndus: Xtreme [ ... ]

  47. Hi Susie, i read your story and im so sorry..but im so desperate for help.. its so hard to get it though.. I was wondering if you would please be able to give me some advise about visiting saudi with my daughter.. im an Australian born maltese girl and my 3 yr old daughters father is Saudi Arabian.. he came to Australia in 2005 on a scholarship and we met in 2008. we married in 2009. He wants us to go there for a month or 2 for a holiday while he is giving service for his education for the next year. 1 year has already passed and he has 1 year left. We are hoping to get pregnant over there and if i time it right he will be due back when the baby is due.. He has never given me any reason to doubt him and his family have accepted me as a non muslim.. our marriage has been approved over there, he has sent me the document.. I asked him to do a binding agreement to allow me and my daughter to leave the country freely.. and he has done the agreement he understands what im afraid of and swears he would never hurt me as its harum.. im so confused.. we are going in on visitors visas. please help me i beg you for your help..

    1. Aussie girls - You can email me privately at: