December 2017

Women in Saudi Arabia wear a loose robe called an abaya and a face veil called niqab in public. © Mehmet Salih Guler

Women In Black

OBSERVATIONS BY A MALE VISITOR TO SAUDI ARABIA

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just entered Saudi airspace, if you need to change into the appropriate clothing, now is a good time to do so.’

I had been told that this announcement would be made on the flight, but I had cast is aside as one of those travel myths; I knew from other places I’d visited that the reality rarely fitted what the media, or other people told you. As several women got up and headed towards the bathrooms to change, I wondered how many others things, that I had heard about Saudi Arabia, would turn out to be true.

The two week trip, visiting Jeddah, Abha and Riyhad was organised by the Saudi British Sports Co-operation Programme (SBSCP); a reciprocal agreement between the two governments to allow young men (due to cultural sensitivity no women are permitted) to experience each other’s countries first hand. ‘All you know is what you see in the media’ was the mantra repeated by Bernard Warden, the co-ordinator of this particular group, and was repeated by many of the Saudi’s we would meet.

The media had already had its inevitable impact on the group; four having pulled out after a British man was shot in Riyadh a week before our departure. The British Delegation, as we would be known in the Kingdom, consisted of just five: three students, including myself, a linguist from the Royal Navy and an instructor from the outdoor pursuits company Outward Bound.

After we had landed in Jeddah and boarded the terminal bus, a Saudi man caught my attention; he rose from his seat and gestured to a woman who was standing. After she had refused his seat with a polite shake of the hand, he asked another, refusing to sit until a woman finally accepts his offer. Any Muslim man will tell you that they have a great deal of respect for women, yet in previous travels in the middle east I have witnessed an array of lurid comments and gestures towards western women. I was pleased to see an example of this respect, but the monotone clothing of every woman present somehow overshadowed the moment.

Every woman now wore a black abaya, covering them from head to toe. The few women I had seen on the plane were all in western clothes, and while a few wore headscarves, I wondered if they would prefer to remove their recent adornments, rather than have a seat.

The terminal building was awash with white traditional thobes, and red chequered khiefahs of Saudi men, the only women were those westerners I had seen on the plane; now pushing their luggage towards awaiting cars. It was a brief introduction to what I would see in much of the kingdom. The black figures that walked around the Saudi streets were to be a constant reminder of one of the most debated issues by westerners and one that I would struggle to understand.

As I was walking along the seafront in Jeddha on the first evening, I was surprised to see a busting social scene among the locals. Men and women walked together along the Cornice, other brought blankets and small picnics and would lie on the beach as the sun set. Children screamed with delight as they enjoyed the camel or donkey rides, with their parents looking on close by. Some couples walked along the sea front, others sat on the sea wall while their children played on the beach. Were it not for the abaya covering each women, this could have been anywhere in the world. ‘It is just clothing’ Khalid, on of our escorts in the kingdom, said ‘it doesn’t affect what’s underneath’. However, I still found it difficult to see beyond the abayas and what they represented.

There was no shortage of women on the streets, shopping or going about their daily activities, yet only a few showed as much as their eyes, others completely covered their faces. Signs declaring Family Entrance, Singles Only and Strictly Men Only appeared in almost every public place. Restaurants would often have separate doors so men and women would not share the same room. Looking down from the third floor of a local shopping centre I was surprised to see how strictly, and obviously this rule was enforced: white filled one side of the seating area, and black on the other. I found a small irony in the colours that so obviously divided the Kingdom.

The delegations itinerary upheld the Saudi customs of men and women not mixing and as such, I had to search for female opinions elsewhere. As I searched the Internet for outspoken Saudi women, I found there was surprisingly little debate. The treatment of Afghan women, women in Iraq and even America gave more returns than that on Saudi. Was this because of social pressure, or did the majority of Saudi women not feel repressed?

A letter in the English newspaper Arab News provided me with one insight:

‘Music, socialising… men and women in the same place’ wrote a female university student about coffee shops such as Starbucks ‘with so many sins in one place, I think they should be banned.’

I began to realise that trying to console my own views, with those of Saudis would be a fruitless exercise; ‘you can’t compare Saudi to Western states’ was a phrase repeated in many texts on the region, but among the statements of devotion to Islam, were those whose meanings could be clearly understood.

‘Western clothes can make young girls appear “sexy”‘ wrote one man in the letters page of Arab News going on to say that the abaya should be worn by girls as young as six, to avoid this distraction. In general, families wait until a child is close to the age of puberty before expecting them to adopt a strict Muslim way of life.’ Children are not sexy, they are children’ was the simple comment from Mohammed, our second guide. I felt somewhat ashamed to have judged all Saudis on one newspaper article, but I was often reminded that a lack of understanding was not only on my part.

‘Before I went to Britain, all I knew about Western women was what I saw in the movies. You know what I mean?’ said Wahid, who had visited Britain a few years ago with the SBSCP ‘I now know women in the west don’t always think about sex. I know there is more to them than that’.

While I would have normally associated such a comment with blatant sexism and brushed it aside as such, as Wahid offered his opinions on women I felt offended that he thought my own girlfriend, even my mother, thought of little but sex all day. However having experiences the Saudi way of life (albeit for just a few days) I understood in some way the reason behind such assumptions. Most unmarried men in Saudi will never see the face of a woman they are not related to and with arranged marriages the norm, a groom will see his brides face for the first time only after the ceremony. To see women in short and T-shirts walking the streets of Britain must indeed come as a shock and for devote Saudis to understand our culture must be as difficult as it is for me to understand theirs.

Just a short drive from the city of Jeddah is a series of private beaches. With high walls and private security, ex-pats can enjoy a days swimming and sunbathing without adhering to Saudi’s strict dress code. During a visit to one of these beaches to snorkel in the Red Sea, I was glad to see that none of our Saudi guides leered at the women that walked around in bikinis. I did not even see them glance in their direction while the British Delegation, with our first sight of female flesh in a week, could barely look away. Mohammed took the opportunity to redress many of the preconceptions that the group had of the Kingdom.

‘I think British people do not understand about the role of women’ he said ‘ my wife is a director of a children’s school’. ‘Women are allowed to work and can be managers or directors as long as only women work in that place’ he explained.

Whaid had said: ‘a good Saudi woman belongs in the home. She enjoys to cook and to sew. Why does she need to go out, play sport or drive? She enjoys a life with her family’ and I asked Mohammed what he thought of this.

‘I think some people think women do not need to work, the culture isn’t that they should not work’. He went on to explain many of the restrictions placed on Saudi women: They cannot drive and must only travel with other family members (a single woman booking into a hotel in the Kingdom is forbidden and even western women face huge problems if they wish to travel alone). Despite these restrictions, women now carry ID cards and have the opportunity to access their finances: Several ‘women only’ banks operate in the kingdom whereas before, only male members of the family would have access to their savings. Establishing a woman’s identity can be difficult when she cannot show her face; the solution has been to cover the windows of these banks so no one can see inside. Women are also running in local elections and more women are in the workplace than ever before. For the majority of women, it seems, their lives are not spent in the home, as I had previously thought.

‘Do you think’ I asked Mohammed ‘that one day the princesses will be allowed to play a role in the government?’

‘No’ was his very simple reply. With a royal family of over 4,000, there are plenty of princes to go round. While there appears to be a slow process to give Saudi women more opportunities, the concept of equal rights, as it is understand it in the west, will probably never become part of life.

As we arrived in Riyadh airport for the flight back to London, the sea of white thobes once again surprised me. As I sat on the plane, I tried to imagine myself in the place of a typical Saudi man. Fasting during Ramadan (and more often if I so wished), praying five times a day (which includes an early morning prayer call at around 5 am), daily visits to the mosque if possible, abstaining from alcohol and excess, not being able to date (unless I was in a particularly liberal family) the constant expectations of religious and social duty… I imagine it is a hard to maintain such a lifestyle. I began to wonder how the women felt about such as life, but as we took off my mind turned to other matters:

I looked at the lights below stretching into the dark night of the desert, indicating a vast city that rose from a few mud buildings just a few decades ago. While Saudi Arabia was one of the poorest countries in the world at the start of the last century, it has now grown into one with a government budget that is too large to spend. A man that was born in a Bedouin tent, is now father to one of the richest and most powerful families on earth; sitting on top of the largest oil field on the planet. In just over 50 years, the Kingdom has achieved as much as many western nations have in centuries. It is a shame that society and opinion has not progressed as fast.

Matt Scott

February 5, 2010 by admin · 219 Comments 

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