Let me begin this particular post by saying that I am only reporting what Iíve seen with my own eyes. Anything that is speculation is stated as such. I am neither endorsing nor criticizing what Iíve seen, simply putting my observations to print.
One thing I want to make perfectly clear. The life of a woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not equivalent to the life of a woman under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Women work, if they choose. Those with children often choose not to do so. Women own businesses in the KSA, and many are very successful and very wealthy. The money that a woman acquires by her own efforts belongs strictly to her and cannot be claimed by the husband. Women can own property, and they have full rights of inheritance, which cannot be claimed by the husband. The husband, however, has the responsibility to provide for all aspects of the home life and well being of the family. The wife is responsible for maintaining an orderly and efficient household. I am told, and this is hearsay, that the women run the house, and itís a mistake to forget it. There is universal education for women, and it is expected that a man will do his utmost to send his daughters to University.
On the other hand, the life of a woman in KSA is not the same as a woman in the West or many Asian countries, or even in other Islamic nations. Women must wear a black abaya when they go out in public. This garment covers a woman from the neck to her feet. Islamic women, in general, wear scarves to cover their heads, and it is the custom for the women in KSA to wear veils. Women do not participate in politics. Women in KSA are not allowed to drive cars, nor are they allowed to converse with men outside their family without a proper chaperone. When they do work, they are only supposed to work and deal with women. There are exceptions, but few. I was reading an article about several women who had entered the journalism profession, and one of the difficulties they had was in interviewing men. Public interviews cannot occur, so they have to be creative in this regard.
King Abdullah has expended quite a bit of political capital with regard to expanding available professions for women. He wants to make it easier for women to work in professions they find useful. However, he has met a great deal of opposition from conservative lay Islamic leaders, as well as from the religious Wahabi clan who govern Islamic life from a religious perspective in KSA. According to a former expatriate (or more commonly, expat) with whom I spent an afternoon prior to coming over here, the most socially liberal among Saudis tends to be members of the Royal Family. I have seen nothing to dispel that theory Ė though there is a high degree of economic disconnect, but thatís a different post.
Women are not allowed to be in closed spaces with men. Even in the home, according to what Iíve read, women may only interface with men not of her family under extremely strict conditions and with the aid of a chaperone. Some of this seclusion dates back to the times of the nomadic lives of the Arabs, and are not necessarily, solely the result of the conquering Islamic religion. Islam does play the primary role in this, however. Sexual temptation of men Ė therefore, keeping them from their devotion to God Ė is seen as something to be avoided at all costs.
Interestingly, there are still religious groups in the United States that compel very conservative dress among its members. The Amish come to mind most quickly; however, there are Holiness sects of the Pentecostal denominations that also compel dress not dissimilar to those retained in KSA.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind here, too. KSA is a theocratic monarchy, not a democracy. The King must have the assistance of the clerics to get things done. The ruling Saud family made a deal with the ruling religious family, the Wahabis, in an effort to secure a stable kingdom. In return for ensuring that there was no religious fomented insurrection, the Saud family agreed to implement Sharia (Islamic law) and to rule as an Islamic state. With the exception of the Ottoman invasion, the Saud family has ruled since the 1700s. Also, the two most holy sites in the Islamic religion are located in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, and part of the Kingís full title states that he is the defender of the two holy mosques. Riyadh, the capital, is the most conservative of the cities in KSA, with muttawas roaming the streets to correct the impious. Other cities, from what Iíve been told, Jeddah being a prime example, are nowhere near as conservative as in Riyadh. Itís important to keep in mind, however, that Muslims tend to be pretty conservative anyway.
Of note, too, the idea of conservative dress carries over to the traditional thoub that the men here wear. The thoub is a long white robe that is worn with a headdress (the gutra, or shemaag), which is held in place by a black rope called an aqaal. The men wear these everywhere. For some reason, the muttawa tend not to use the aqaal.
There are several malls, all indoor, air conditioned, clean and very, very nice. The idea that women arenít allowed to roam around is proven incorrect with one trip to one of these malls. There are females everywhere Ė all in abayas. Any female who has entered menstruation must wear the abaya. Some of the women have abayas with a full veil over their entire heads (the hijab); others with it only covering their nose, mouth, and chin (the burga). There are even some who refuse to wear a veil Ė though I am sure they do in the center of the city. Islamic women not of KSA normally do not wear a veil of any sort over their faces. Western women donít wear scarves at all and look like girls in choir robes. Most of the Western women carry their scarves with them just in case they run across an especially aggressive muttawa; but, so far, Iíve not seen anyone corrected, and I have not seen any muttawa at the malls.
A lot of women are there with their husbands, but many more come with their drivers and their children. Most Western women come as part of bus trips, which have a male escort; however, they roam freely without any incident. Children run freely and just seem to have a blast. The malls have places especially for the children to play. There are food tables in the food court area Ė the vast majority of which are for family dining Ė the unescorted male area being much smaller. An opaque fence bounds the family section, while the male only section is bounded by a metal rail fence. Technically, when ordering and paying for food, women are supposed to use one side of the counter (separated by a screen) and men the other. In practical effect, no one pays attention.
On the street, I have seen women walking with their children to some place, usually one of the stores or shops. However, out on the streets, thing are much more strict. In the souks, and on the downtown streets, women are not allowed in closed-in spaces with men, and they may only enter if accompanied by an appropriate male escort. In the restaurants, they may only gain entry if there is a family section. Many restaurants provide family sections; many do not. The muttawa are thick down there, and they are pretty aggressive Ė not only with women, but with men, too. One Westerner who works on another project in my building was accosted by a muttawa who jerked a large and prominent gold chain from around his neck (gold is a big no-no for men). The guy grabbed the muttawa and threatened him; his efforts got him 90 days in a Saudi jail. One does not want to go to a Saudi jail, let alone spend 90 days in one.
Television, uncensored via satellite, is having an impact on the society as a whole. Things that wouldíve seemed out of place even ten years ago seem to be seeping into Saudi society. This is not unlike the influence of television on the West and the social changes that have been wrought since the 1950s. There are those who bemoan those changes, too.
Thatís an overview of a very complicated issue. I am not an authority on the situation, so I can only discuss what Iíve seen, read, or heard from others. I doubt Western women would ever be happy in this situation. Conversely, there are conservative Islamic women who donít want to see things change. Change is inevitable, so it will be interesting to see what things are like in KSA in twenty years time.
Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2006.