I thought I would post this very interesting article from a friend’s secret blog He’s an American Muslim who recently changed careers and moved overseas (unfortunately for him without his wife) to Saudi Arabia in order to teach English. I found his perspective on women there very interesting. We could also apply this to Muslim society in the US where seclusion and separation can go to ridiculous extremes (even in our Mosques/Mosque boards).
The Role of Women in Saudi Society
I’m finally writing this. Let me preface this with the obvious fact that I’m biased. Having grown up in America, that is the culture I learned from birth. I’ve tried to be as objective as I can be, however.
All too often, when people in America think about Saudi’s, they think about women, dressed all in black, with only a slit where their eyes show. Well, for the most part, that aspect is true. Saudi women do tend to dress in abayas. Abayas are black over-wraps which button in front, allowing a woman to wear basically whatever she wants underneath, and still look like she’s wearing a dress. They’re loose, flowing, and usually silk. This is complimented with the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Almost all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence emphasize the use of the headscarf. Most, but not all, Saudi women also use the niqab. This is a face covering of some sort, ranging from total concealment, including the eyes, to simply covering most of the face, and leaving a strip or gaps for the eyes.
Where does this dress come from? Well, there are some sections of the Qur’an that advise both sexes to be modest, and for women to cover their hair. The idea behind all of this is to reduce sexual desire, to focus on the person as opposed to their dress or their body, and to remember Allah (God) in all things.
There’s certainly, in my opinion, some justice to those ideas, as you can walk in any shopping mall in the USA and see young ladies showing enough skin to have given housewives of the 1940′s and 1950′s heart attacks. Blatant sexuality is prevalent in American culture, from advertising, television, movies, and pornography. But, is it necessary to adopt the abaya and niqab? Is it necessary to wear a burqa, which is even more concealing and restrictive for movement, as women in Afghanistan were required to under the rule of the Taliban?
There’s a huge debate among ‘modern’ and ‘conservative’ Muslims about what constitutes modesty in dress, and whether modesty in dress is accompanied by a corresponding modesty in behavior. Recently, a very important shaik (wise man/sometimes a religious leader often written in English as sheik) in Egypt told a woman at university there to take off her niqab, as it was purely based in culture and had nothing to do with Islam. There was a big uproar in response. Such things are obviously not said here in Saudi, the heartland of conservative Islam.
Here, the abaya and niqab are facts of everyday life for a woman, with even girls as young as eight or nine wearing abayas, and teens commonly wearing niqab.
Women are not allowed to drive here, ride bicycles, or generally be in places where they are alone with men they are not related to. That means they cannot work in the same areas of a building with men, in fact businesses where women work, are usually all female. It means they have their own banks, own entrances to mosques, and that there are family sections in restaurants. Of course, practical reality forces strange situations, where women will be in the back of a taxi, when the driver is obviously unrelated. Other strangeness are the family sections at large malls, where its basically the same as it would be in the US, just there’s a small barrier around this section. Just as noisy and communal as the single section, though. The oddest thing is that since most women don’t work, most tailors and lingerie salesmen are men, forcing women to be closely examined personally by men who they are not related to. In Jeddah and in one mall in Riyadh, it is possible to go to womens only floors of the mall, which specialize in clothing and undergarments, preventing this problem. Still, here in Khobar, it’s the norm. Theoretically, all of this is to protect women and their modesty.
It certainly does that, but at what cost? What does Saudi society lose?
In the Western workforce, women participate in all sorts of roles. In fact, some roles are commonly filled by women, over men. Why? Some people argue it has to do with the ability of women to “multi-task” better than men. I’ve heard references to medical studies that say women have more connections between their right and left brains, and this is what allows them to process faster than men do.
I think Saudi culture loses out on that ability of women. The males I’ve seen in secretarial or administrative roles tend to be far worse at them than examples I’ve seen in the West. I typically prefer female managers, as well, because of their skill at consensus building, as opposed to direct rule.
I think there’s another loss as well. Without women, men tend to be more aggressive, more confrontational, and cruder.
Here at the Institute, the teachers room can sometimes seem like a high school locker room instead. Conversations just devolve, conflict can be abrupt and open, and there’s a lot of political maneuvering.
To paraphrase my friend Kevin who once put it like this, “Women are the glue that keeps society together.” I have to agree. Women keep men from being crass, from being focused on competition to the exclusion of all else. As a man, I have to say that women remind us of what is better in life, and that there is more to everything than banging our chests.
There’s a deeper, greater problem that results from the seclusion of women in Saudi society. If you’re under 18 and not accompanied by a parent, stop reading now.
Saudi men do not get exposed to women, at all, other than their mothers and their sisters. They don’t spend time with them, understand them, or appreciate how wonderfully different they are. Saudi men spend their formative years around other men. Saudi men typically don’t get married until their late 20′s, because there is an expectation of being able to provide for the wife, to have a job and career, and more importantly, a dowry. In Islam, when a man wants to marry a woman, he must offer her a dowry. This money is hers in perpetuity, he is not allowed to touch it or use it, and even if she is divorced, this is still hers. In the past, it might be camels, or sheep, or land. These days, it’s rings, jewelery, cars, and money. From discussions with my students, Saudi dowry’s range have a starting base of 40k SR, in order not to appear poor. That’s 10k USD, cash.
They tend to marry younger women, usually 18-22. Beauty is prized, and the marriage is approved by both families.
Anyway, the result of all this is a hidden problem of homosexuality. It’s very commonplace, to the extent that our desks at the Institute have carved hearts, or comments bemoaning “How could you leave me, ‘Khalid’.” I’ve had some very obviously gay students. Other teachers have told me of conversations they’ve had with students, where they make statements like this. “Oh, I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is.”
The stigma of being homosexual apparently only attaches itself to the recipient of homosexual intercourse, not to both parties.
Outsiders, particularly Westerners or Filipino men, are also aggressively sought after for homosexual encounters. This past summer, Ian was walking to work one day, and a Saudi man drove up in his car, and offered him a ride. After declining, the man asked if they could go for coffee, and after that was declined by Ian, flat out offered sex. I had an encounter myself with a man who pulled up and offered me a ride. Having hopped in many different cars since I’ve been here, there was a clear difference in attitude between this man and the many others. I declined, and after enough refusals, he drove on. He didn’t come out and say anything directly, but I was pretty sure what was going on.
Here in Khobar, Bahrain is only 30 minutes away. There, Saudi men supposedly go and hire prostitutes of both sexes, and I’ve been told there is a growing problem with AIDS here. Of course, all these problems are blamed on Western culture, and outsiders. That said, every Westerner who comes into Saudi has to undergo a full blood analysis, not once, but twice. So, if AIDS is being spread, who is spreading it?
Saudi culture loses by separating its women so entirely from men. It loses half its workforce, which then must be made up by men from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, etc. It loses the brains of potential women scientists, managers, engineers, and doctors. I think, however, that the biggest cost will come from the sub-culture of teen homosexuality. While trying to preserve Islamic values, Saudi Arabia is creating a situation which simultaneously erodes it.