Tuesday, February 21, 2006
You've come a long way, Baby!

When I lived in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia was a rich but medieval haven in my alien eyes. I could not believe there existed a country in these modern times that would not permit their women to drive or vote and where women had to seek a husband's or father's "permission" for her to travel abroad! I could not comprehend why women couldn't work unless they worked as nurses or teachers in a "women-only" environment. But, most puzzling of all, I couldn't understand why the Saudi women were complicit in their segregation!

I still don't have the answers to any of my questions except to say, that contrary to my expectations, the Saudi women are a happy lot. They don't view their "abayas" or veils as a garment that restricts them, but rather as a garment that protects and shelters them. We as western women think it's an outrage for women to have to be all covered-up in this day and age, but if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, we will admit to having our own "veils", too. Our veils may not be made of chiffon or georgette and worn over the eyes, rather I see them as the pressure to remain a size 6 no matter what, or the pressure to remain a youthful-looking 25 no matter how old we get---this obsession with youth and weight is our veil and there's no denying that we women subjugate ourselves to it.

Anyway, today's Guardian has a more positive article on the status of Saudi women. "Although women still cannot vote or drive, the last few years have brought important changes, even if they stop well short of equality. Women can now officially exist in their own right with their own identity cards, rather than being included on the card of their husband or father. Travel restrictions have been eased, allowing them to get blanket permission from a male relative for travel abroad, rather than needing separate permission for each trip. They can also own businesses instead of having to register them in the name of a wakil, an authorised male representative or proxy."

That's all fine and dandy, but what about sexual apartheid? When will women be able to walk on the streets alone, without a male relative, without incurring the wrath of a mullah or religious police? Again, according to the Guardian, "The kingdom's sexual apartheid is enforced, in a crude fashion, by the religious police, the mutawa. Thuggish, bigoted and with little real training in Islamic law, they are much feared in some areas but also increasingly ridiculed. In Jeddah - a more laid-back city than Riyadh - they are rarely seen nowadays."
Phew that's a relief! And one of the ironies of Saudi Arabia's sexual apartheid is that women's parties are a no-go area for the men of the mutawa. They can't raid a women's party unless they suspect alcohol is present - and they are in serious trouble if their suspicions turn out to be wrong. So in that respect Saudi women's parties are a lot more fun than the male parties.
The Guardian describes them thus: "Men's parties tend to be dull affairs. In Riyadh, male partygoers just sit around. In Jeddah they play cards. In Ha'il (in the north), they may do a bit of sword-dancing. Then they go home, usually by midnight.

Women's parties are a different matter, and often carry on until 4am with dancing, female DJs and sometimes all-woman bands. "Even the most religious women, if it's only drums, they get up and dance," a lady Saudi National says. "In the west it's the young and beautiful who dance. Here, if you're overweight it's OK. The women are not doing it to show off. They're doing it to enjoy themselves."

Sooooo, who's having more fun now???


sruthi said...

heyy i used to live in the middle east too. And you're right, the women don't necessarily view the abayas as restrictive, and i actually think all the new things they're doing with the abayas now are nice, even though I wouldn't want to walk around in one all day!

Lotus Reads said...

I wouldn't relish wearing one either, lol, especially when they wear all those designer clothes under the abayas - I mean, what a waste if you can't show it off!

There's a book I've been dying to get my hands on, it's called "The Girls of Riyadh", heard of it? The author is Rajaa al-Sanie.

sruthi said...

Yeppp they spend way more on designer clothes than i can ever afford, and everyonce in a while you'll get a glimpse of it if they abaya swings a certain way.. I learned all this from a friend who's arab, who i went to school with lol

hmmm i'd never heard of the book, but i have this weird feeling that i just read about someone else saying on their blog that they wanted to read it too...maybe that'll be next on my list, i'm slackin on reading Pi!