Mournful Ghosts or Uncovered Meat?
The "Saudi Woman" Effect
By Arwa Mahmoud
Additional reporting by Ahmad Al Amoudi - Jeddah
"Stop! Stop it NOW!"
"I don't know how to!!"
"Jump from it!!"
The sound of a big splash combined with a loud engine overrode the girl's screams as teenage Hoda, dressed in a T-shirt and swimming suit, drove into the Red Sea with her brother's motorcycle in a public seashore in Jeddah.
Today, Hoda is 41 years old, married to an imam, and runs a self-development center specialized for women and children.
"Jeddah's sea resorts have always attracted young men and women from different nationalities. Back in the late '70s, it was never an uncommon thing to see a foreign woman on a boat in her swimming suit. Today, many girls continue to find their ways around these places," said Hoda.
Saudi Arabia is a place that surely challenges a journalist's professional ego. The common image of it being a desert with rich princes and women in black cloaks covering them from head to toe often tempts a writer to write about it with a great deal of sensationalism. Some of the Western literature on Saudi Arabia gives the immediate impression to an insider that the author has chosen the easy way: entering the country with a previously established idea, being guided throughout with selective perception, and eventually writing what sells.
BBC correspondent Rachel Reid's recent reflection on Saudi, initially titled "The First Woman to Swim in Saudi," and then changed to "Making a Public Splash in Saudi," is reminiscent of such literature.
"Reading through Reid's article, it was as if she wrote about Saudi some 50 or more years ago… women are depicted as subjects, recipients. Expressions such as 'folded away' and 'ushered' draw a dim picture of oppressed women beaten around like cattle," commented Hoda. I listened to her as I looked back into the article, up to the third paragraph, where I reread her description of Gulf women in abaya as "mournful ghosts."
As a half-Egyptian, half-Saudi woman, my life has always been divided between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, I drive and I wear whatever I want. In Saudi Arabia, I can't drive and I have to wear an abaya on top of whatever I'm wearing. I switch between both modes naturally. I hardly give it a thought.
The black abaya that women wear in public places in Saudi has always been in my wardrobe. I put it on as I go to the airport to take my flight to Jeddah or Riyadh, always have it on as I walk in shopping malls or in the streets of Makkah and Madinah, and sometimes forget I have it on when I go visit a cousin and immediately start catching up with old conversations. Sometimes it gets in the way as I come out of a car, sometimes I trip over it when I come up or down the stairs, but I always attribute it to malpractice. As I try to hide my embarrassment, most of the women around me always seem to walk in it with grace and ease.
It never occurred to me once that I looked like a mournful ghost - no child ever screamed when they saw me.
Members of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry
You can never enforce a single uniform on people, let alone women. The Saudi abaya does appear to be a hassle to any foreign woman used to more overt expressions of her individuality. But many Saudi women still manage to find their ways around it. Walk in any fancy mall and you will be stunned by the variety of fabrics, designs, and decorated color appliques, not to mention the high heels, luxury bags, and full makeup that nearly always come with it. So even as the abaya is an enforced uniform on women, it never snatched away their personal taste or preference. Saudi women who do cover in plain black, head to toe, are culturally accustomed to it. In fact, some of them continue to wear it even outside the country.
The Private Public
Saudi women do not have to be escorted by men everywhere they go. Any visit to a "family" section in a restaurant shows it. Yes, they live segregated lives, but this has created a parallel public world with its own social codes and standards. It is also a world of ease and luxury that can easily get you into thinking that it is unsurpassed even by the Saudi man's world.
There is very little that Saudi women cannot do in their own world. As a practicing Muslim wearing the hijab, I find my clothes nearly have no place in Saudi. I catch myself digging for jeans and dresses each time I have to travel there. Underneath the abayas, women there wear anything they please. It even gets competitive.
Saudi women practice a variety of sports
The busier women are always caught in their work, and in their leisure time they practice a wide variety of sports ranging from martial arts to horseback riding, the latter often taught by a male trainer.
"Saudi Arabia is loaded with a number of social and sports clubs that offer special services for women, and swimming is no exception," commented Maida Zaazou, a Saudi poet and writer who takes swimming as a primary sport.
"My best friend goes swimming with her children every week in Al-Bilad Hotel. It has a certain number of hours for ladies. Most hotels here do," added Hoda. "What the hotel provided for Reid was a private hour. This wasn't so public. They just gave her another private public space, something normally offered in many other hotels."
Reid created a catchy story from a single incident in one of the hotels, and she fit it perfectly at home with what many readers want to read about Saudi.
Saudi women's roles are not necessarily confined to the "private public" sphere. An increasing number have joined the workforce, and many of them can be seen in less "scary" abayas, smiling, and joining male counterparts in meetings and discussions.
Currently, there is a large number of women members in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "There are four women in the board of directors," added Salih Al Turki, the chairman of the board.
Segregated life in Saudi is still not easy. Especially as a woman who does not live in the country, I sometimes find it frustrating to constantly be interrupted by figuring out where to sit, or having to rely on someone else to drive me to the place I'm going. Also, Saudi society has started to develop its own list of problems and complications that many Saudi youth are now trying to find solutions to. However, the problem is far from being the old cliché of a suppressed, covered woman always in the shadow of a ruthless, selfish man. A closer look at the society exposes a whole new set of issues that are by far more real and more pressing.
The Controversial Vote
With the image of the covered Saudi woman and her imaginary male escort still fresh in Reid's mind, she concluded her piece with a reflection on women's rights in Saudi Arabia, with special attention to voting. She commented that if women were allowed to vote in the 2009 elections, it would be a "revolution."
"What revolution? We have an existing problem with the voting system itself! Even men suffer from inequality in this regard," Hoda giggled. "Did everyone forget that we live under the most tyrannical monarchy in the region? Focusing on voting as the sign of women's liberation is laughable. It simply does not apply."
She added, "This country needs serious human development, good education, more social awareness and cohesion, and professional training in order to reach a phase in which voting is actually efficient and effective."
How Far Can Labels Go?
Reid's reflection story promises problematic reporting. Because it is an opinion piece, Reid has unknowingly given her prejudice so much liberty that she easily used terms and labels that are culturally offensive. She equaled herself to Australian imam Taj Din Al-Hilali when he labeled women who did not wear the hijab as "uncovered meat," which was equally offensive.
"It's about what people are culturally used to and how they conduct their lives accordingly," said Nadia El-Awady, a half-Egyptian, half-American journalist. "In some beaches I see topless European women tanning or having cocktails with great ease, an uncomfortable scene for any person who is not used to nudity. It's the same feeling others get when they see women covered head to toe, which is an opposite extreme. In the end it is what each of those women is culturally used to."
One of the key skills journalists often feel compelled to learn at the very beginning of their career is the ability to detach themselves from their personal prejudices and cultural standards, to be able to take a clear and pure look at everything new a foreign society has to offer them. The further journalists manage to go down that path, the more they will be able to mirror what they find as accurately and as credibly as possible.
Arwa Mahmoud is an outreach and cooperation officer for IslamOnline.net. Formerly managing editor of the Muslim Affairs section, she holds a bachelor's degree in political science and an international relations diploma from the American University in Cairo. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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