Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Burden of Being Female in Saudi Arabia

I had read the following article back when it first appeared on Muftah in March 2014 and should have shared it with you back then.  But I just reread this piece again and felt compelled to share it this time.  Written by Bayan Perazzo, a young Saudi-American university instructor who is also a PhD candidate in International Law and Human Rights.  Like many young Saudi women, Bayan is well educated and well-traveled - and she wants more out of life for herself and her daughter.  I had featured another article written by Bayan last year called "Why I Refuse to Celebrate Saudi National Day" - another very powerful essay about problems in this society.

The Burden of Being Female in Saudi Arabia
By Bayan Perazzo


In an interview with the LA Times, Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the first Saudi film, “Wadjda”) made a very simple comment about being a woman in Saudi Arabia that rang very true for me. Al-Mansour said, “for me it’s the everyday life (in Saudi Arabia), how it’s hard…things like that can build up and break a woman.”  Despite what many in the international community may believe, there are no women being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, those outside the country   are absolutely right to criticize the state of women’s rights in the Kingdom though they may not realize how subtle the oppression can be.

Yes, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, subjected to an oppressive male-guardianship system and living on the unfortunate side of gender segregation. While these are major obstacles for women’s progress in the country, such an innately oppressive system naturally trickles down into smaller aspects of everyday life. These little indignities can indeed break a woman, and I confess I am a woman extremely close to being broken.

I never thought much about my gender identity until I moved back to Saudi Arabia as a young adult. Small instances of gender discrimination would take place last year regularly, but at some point in time those experiences built up to leave me feeling something I had never felt before: that being female is an absolutely exhausting burden to bear.



What exactly were these small everyday events that pushed me over the edge?

Perhaps it was the time I was lost in Riyadh and asked a man who passed me on the street for help with directions, and he looked at me in disgust, replied with a “tisk tisk” and an “astughfurallah” (a phrase often muttered when someone finds something sinful), and continued walking. He did not want to speak to a woman.

Or perhaps it was one of the many instances while flying domestically with Saudi Arabian Airlines, when the stewardess would come to me in my assigned seat during boarding and tell me to move because there was a man in the assigned seat next to me who did not want to sit next to a woman.

Perhaps it was the muttawa (“religious” man) who was screaming at me from across the room in an airport to cover my face and fear the end of the world that pushed me over the edge. Or maybe it was the man who witnessed this indignity and followed me when I went to complain to airport authorities in order to tell me to “calm down and not make a big deal out of it.”

Perhaps it was the countless men who assumed that since I was out in public on my own I clearly was asking to be sexually harassed. Or the young men who shamelessly threw their phone numbers at me, or followed me in their cars for long-periods of time despite my obvious lack of interest.  Or maybe it was the numerous times when these sexual-harassment car-chases became reckless and almost ended in accidents.

Perhaps it was during the two-hour argument I had with the sheikh who was performing my marriage ceremony. My husband and I had already agreed to put conditions in the marriage contract so that he could not take any other wives besides me. Right before my eyes, the sheikh tried his best to convince my husband this was not a good idea, and he should leave himself the option of entering into other marriages.  Or perhaps it was after acquiescing and including the condition in our marriage contract, that instead of giving us his best wishes, the sheikh expressed doubt about the future success of our marriage.

Maybe it was the man who was showing my husband and I a house for sale in Riyadh, who thought it was funny to make a joke right in front of me about my husband getting another wife. Or maybe it was that while showing us the kitchen he told my husband “how nice I would look cooking” there.

Perhaps it was the man who was smoking a cigarette in Jeddah, who came over to me as I lit up my own cigarette, took it from my hands, and threw it on the ground, telling me that women’s bodies could not handle smoking the way men’s bodies could.

Maybe it is the fact I am prohibited from driving a car because of my gender, despite having a valid license for over 11 years without an accident or even a ticket with experience driving in the rain, in the snow, in the desert, in extreme fog, and in multiple countries – even here in Saudi.

Perhaps it is the hours of my life that have been casually wasted away while waiting for a man to give me a ride somewhere.

It could also be the fact I have gotten more unwanted attention in Saudi while covering my head and entire body with an abaya, than I ever received while wearing a bikini in many Western countries.

Maybe it was the work meetings I was left out of about my future career at the university in Al-Khobar while the male administrators (who had never met or worked with me) were left to make decisions about my job without giving me a chance to speak to them or present my case.

These are just a few of the things that have happened nearly every time I step out of my house and into the streets of Saudi Arabia. The days I return home without being disrespected because of my gender are beautiful but extremely rare. Over time, these experiences have made it more and more difficult for me to step out of the comfort of my own home, even though as my true self, I cannot bear staying inside.

For a while, I had the courage to push back against all this, but for now, I must shamefully admit, I have been defeated.

23 comments:

  1. Societies don't change quickly. The Christian world only understood the evils of anti-Jewish bigotry during WWII. In the US the women's suffrage tended to be supported in the West and Midwest. In Saudi Arabia Islam is interpreted with a bias towards an older village society that does not exist. Maybe when the oil runs out they will discover that they need their women.

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    1. Hi Jerry - Wasting the talents and productivity of one of their most underrated natural resources - Saudi women - is a huge mistake being made in Saudi Arabia.

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  2. Hey Susie....it's been a long time. Hope all is well with you.
    Another sad story. Has this woman written any other pieces since this one? I can certainly understand why she felt defeated. How is it possible to take this kind of treatment over and over and over? In order not to fight it, you have to be broken. It really bothers me that men can have such power and women have very few rights. It's 2015. How can this be? In general, do you think most of the SA women accept this because it has always been this way, or do you think they long for a different lifestyle? Do they ever dare to talk about it?

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    1. Hi Lori - The author of this piece lives a very busy and full life, despite being hampered as a woman in Saudi Arabia. She is working on her PhD, teaching at a university, and takes care of her family, which includes a new baby.
      As far as whether most Saudi women accept their lot in life or want change, I cannot speak for them - but I do know that their opinions vary greatly from one extreme to the other and everywhere in between.

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  3. Hi Suzie,

    Thanks for posting this, its great to get primary source accounts from those on the ground, rather than have it filtered through media. I hope Bayan manages to push forward with it and wish her all the best, for whatever little that is worth.

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    1. Hi Tacobat - I have no doubt that we will be hearing a lot more from Bayan. Thanks.

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  4. Great post. I am going to send it to all my women friends. Even leaving out the driving, much if not most of it is so familiar...

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    1. Hi Trygve - Women have always been marginalized throughout history, although I would imagine more subtly in some areas of the world than others.

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  5. Susie, because I haven't been writing much on my blog until just recently, I hadn't read yours in awhile. I had forgotten how much I enjoy reading what you write. Now that I am almost done in "D", I will be writing a lot more so I will be keeping up with you! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Cheela - Thanks! I am sure you will have more time for writing once you retire!

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  6. And I love what you wrote about people's comments. Wish I could have used and had it work for me these past three years!!

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  7. No stoning in Saudi Arabia? There is this year old piece which gives what appears to be an authentic account of a stoning in Hofuf:
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9225151/witness-to-a-stoning/

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    1. Stoning is not common in Saudi Arabia any more. There was no date given as to when the Hofuf incident took place, but this is from Wikipedia: between 1981 and 1992 there were four cases of execution by stoning reported (in Saudi Arabia).

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    2. What about adulterers, they let them off? Or maybe people are too wise to get caught?

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  8. I like your blog so please don't take it badly but I don't like your attitude your husband must really be sad to always hear you complain and criticize his country it's not that bad I think you're exagerating a lot, I'm french living in saudi and had only good memories I don't feel the restrictions in a negative way like you, you should try to be more positive.

    p.s. : married to a saudi too and living in Riyadh (not in a compound).

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    1. Hello Anonymous - What exactly are you talking about? What attitude? Could you be more specific about what I am supposedly complaining or criticizing about KSA? I clearly did not write this post myself, so I am not exactly sure what you are referring to. I have posted many positive things about living in Saudi Arabia - have you even read anything that I have written? I have been with my husband since 1977 (probably since before you were even born), so for you to assume that I make my husband "sad" is quite a stretch for someone who doesn't even know me.
      There is something that you need to realize though: Everyone's experience is different. I'm happy that your life in KSA is so peachy keen, but you cannot discount other people's experiences.

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  9. Let's hope the next generation coming up does a better job on equality. Some of my daughters Saudi classmates thought the situation with lack of women's rights was ridiculous. Plus, they even got bagged on by other Middle Easterners.

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  10. I used to live in saudi arabia and I saw so many of the women living in utmost material comfort and luxury. loads of cheap staff catering to their needs. Maids, nannies, drivers and cleaners, even if they were not working outside of the home. If a Wiman worked outside the home she was handed promotions and raises on the basis of being saudi while expats did the hard liftning. Most of the free time was spent shopping while maids watched the kids and carried the bags. where I am living now I see how a majority of women are struggling with the double work of demanding Jobs and raising families (and actually doing the physical work it entails). I am not so sure many Saudi women would want to switch. I am sure their pain is real and the injustices are undeniably huge, but It seems to me that they are also envjoying the other "perks" of their undemocratic society. Maybe when the oil dries up things might start to change in saudi but until then the suffering is cushioned by opulence.

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    1. Hi Ubuntu Has - I agree that there are many spoiled women in Saudi Arabia, but at the same time, there are also many hard-working, talented, motivated, decent Saudi women as well.

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  11. Wow. That's exactly how I felt when I lived there. It's not one big thing you can point out, it's the build up of little things. I felt like I was in a box, getting smaller and smaller.

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    1. Hi N - The trick is to try not to let things bother you here, which isn't easy to do all the time. Everyone's experience is different, but it's how we handle it that can really make the difference.

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