Browsing Tag

women’s rights

Editorial, Society, Where Am I (Going)?

3 Myths about Women in Saudi Arabia You Should Stop Believing

December 30, 2015
3 MYTHS

Back in July when I was at my family’s house in Florida, desperately seeking employment for the fall semester, I would occasionally scroll past a job ad for teaching positions in Saudi Arabia. For a couple weeks I clicked on them just out of curiosity, noting the good pay and benefits, but ultimately deciding that I could never live in such a place. Americans, and I’d say Westerners in general, don’t have a very good perception of Saudi Arabia. Some this is just pure islamophobia. For me it was the assumption that living as a woman here would be next to impossible. I didn’t want to walk around covered up all day in triple digit temperatures. I didn’t want to be treated differently because of my gender. I didn’t want to have my personal rights and freedoms taken away.

Though some of what I assumed is true, over the course of the nearly five months that I’ve been here, I’ve learned that the western public’s perception of daily life in Saudi Arabia, especially life as a woman, is somewhat exaggerated. Now that I’ve experienced life here for myself, and I know better, it’s annoying to see common misconceptions about women’s lives here. For women, living in Saudi Arabia is far from perfect, but it’s also not as bad as you’d think. 

Hiking near Riyadh a couple weeks ago. #Riyadh #saudiarabia #KSA #hiking #solofemaletravel #girlswhotravel #desert

A photo posted by Set A Course For Home (@setacourseforhome) on

Myth: Women in Saudi Arabia can’t leave the house unless accompanied by a male guardian.

Fact: Women can leave the house alone (but guardians and sponsors do have some legal authority over women and expats.)

I’ve seen this myth in several articles, including here and here. And it makes perfect sense under two conditions. 1) Everything you know about Saudi Arabia comes from the media and 2) you think that Saudi men have nothing better to do than to escort their wives and family members to work, the grocery store, and the salon.  

It’s true that, under Saudi laws and customs, Saudi women must have a guardian, a male family member or husband,  who has certain legal responsibilities and rights over her. Foreigners like myself don’t have guardians, but the companies we work for act as our “sponsors” who have similar legal rights over us. For example, I had to ask my employer for an exit visa so I could leave the country, and could not open a bank account with a letter of permission from them. A Saudi woman who wanted either of these things, or to get married or go to school, for example, would ask her guardian. (Most sponsors/guardians are more then happy to help with this sort of thing.) If you’re a dependent expat here with your family, your sponsor could be your husband, father, wife, or mother (yes, women can be sponsors too). Whether a woman has a guardian or a sponsor, she is legally allowed to leave the house, alone, whenever she wants.

I leave my house on my own all the time, and so do other expat and Saudi women. It is true that women cannot drive, so they must rely on family members to take them around town. But women can also go alone by taxis if they want. (Personally, I use Uber several times a week.) Or perhaps they can go by camel, though this isn’t recommended on the busy highways of Riyadh.

A camel outside Riyadh. Still faster than rush hour traffic. #Riyadh #saudiarabia #camel

A photo posted by Set A Course For Home (@setacourseforhome) on

Myth:Women must always be covered from head to toe.
Fact: Women must wear an abaya in public/around non-related men, but covering the hair and face is not required.

All women must wear an abaya in public, or when around non-family members. Many Saudi women (and some expats) in Riyadh also cover their heads and wear a niqab, which covers their face except their eyes, however this is not necessary. The only piece of clothing that is necessary is the abaya.

So while I do have to “cover up”, it’s not my entire body, and it’s not all the time. Having to wear an abaya isn’t the worst thing in the world. They’re very light, and I don’t have to worry about getting dressed up if I’m just running errands. The most annoying thing is when I trip on them when I’m walking up the stairs.

At home and in female-only spaces, like schools, universities, female-only gyms, or private parties, women don’t have to wear abayas, niqabs, or any sort of head covering. (In an interview at SXSW with Fast Company, Princess Reema described the abaya as the equivalent of formal wear—something you wear to look presentable in public, just like a suit.)  Abayas are usually black, but they can come in any color. In less conservative cities like Jeddah, some women can be seen walking with their abayas open and without a niqab.

If you’re wondering what Saudi women wear under their abayas, it’s really none of your business. But just to provide some perspective, Saudi women love shopping, and the malls here carry clothing and accessories of all kinds and many different brands, including international brands such as H&M, Zara, Marks and Spencer, and Victoria’s Secret. They love fashion just as much as women anywhere in the world. 

I hate that whenever Westerners talk about the abaya, hijab, niqab, or any similar type of clothing, they use it as an example of how Muslim women are oppressed. Let’s make a couple things clear: As I said in an earlier blog post, clothing alone doesn’t make someone oppressed. Feminists need to stop obsessing about what Muslim women wear, and instead focus on real problems facing women.

Myth: Women in Saudi Arabia must be so miserable and oppressed.

Fact: Many women here, Saudis and expats, are very happy. They lead interesting and full lives just like women anywhere else.

Saudi women are mothers, sisters, business owners, and as of December 12th, voters and elected officials. They go shopping, meet friends for coffee, take Zumba classes at the gym, edit newspapers, write novels and poetry, direct films (including the first feature made in the Kingdom, Wadjda), run ophthalmology departments at major hospitals, promote breast cancer awareness and break Guinness World Records, go to work, blog about women’s issues, train for the Olympics, tweet, and Snapchat. (Here, Hala Abdullah, a Saudi poet, performs “Woman”, a piece in the form of a letter to her future daughter.)

My students are outgoing, funny, stubborn, sassy, and talented. They love YouTube, Whatsapp, and Lebanese food. They want to study abroad in Europe or the US and become teachers, doctors, and businesswomen. They whine when I give them homework and laugh when I mispronounce Arabic words. There are many words I could use to describe them, and Saudi women as a whole, such as vibrant, complex, intelligent, and warm. But I hesitate to use the word “oppressed”, an overused term that the Western feminist world resorts to for a lack of deeper context or understanding of Saudi culture. It’s an accurate descriptor, but it’s also appropriate for women all across the world. The difference is when we talk about women’s oppression in the West or in some other countries, we also assume these women have more complexity and agency than Saudi women do.

And sure, the law does take some agency away from Saudi women. But Saudi women have their own ways of reforming their country as they see fit.  They love their lives, religion, country, and culture, and have no desire to imitate women in the West. Princess Reema, for example, had led efforts to promote breast cancer awareness and increase the number of Saudi women in the workforce. Activists such as Manal Al-Sharif have been arrested for protesting the driving ban. Change in the status of women in KSA, although slowly, is happening on their terms. They don’t need to be saved by Western feminists.

The purpose of this blog post is neither to overlook, nor to excuse the human rights issues in this country. Rather, I want people to broaden their understanding of what it’s like to live here as a woman. It’s very easy to stereotype an entire country and culture when you know so little about it. Some of the things you hear and see about women in Saudi Arabia are true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead of constantly talking about what women here can’t do, or how little power they have, let’s talk more about what they are doing and the power they do have. 

EDIT 31 Dec 2015: For further reading, check out this piece by NPR: In Ways Big and Small, Saudi Arabian Women are ‘Pushing Normal’

Society

Saudi Girls Surrounded by Street Harassment Mob, Are Blamed For It

July 27, 2015

If anyone ever says to you that women should dress properly in order to avoid sexual assault or harassment, please send them the link to this video, which shows girls in head-to-toe Islamic dress being harassed by a mob of males.

A street harassment mob seems like the most terrifying thing ever.

From Al Arabiya News:

Police in the Saudi city of Jeddah arrested on Sunday one man suspected of harassing two girls on the city’s Corniche after a video of a group of teenagers and young boys collectively harassing the two women was circulated on social media.

Authorities launched an investigation into the incident and are in pursuit of the remaining harassers, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.

The video shows a group of teenagers and young boys collectively harassing two women along a park in Jeddah’s Corniche. It is unclear when the video was filmed, however it was uploaded to YouTube in the past week.

A police source told Al Arabiya that authorities in Jeddah are analyzing the video to identify those involved in the incident and summon them.

Here’s the video:

At one point it seems that they are completely surrounded and cannot move, and one of the girls seems to be clearly frustrated.

If you’ve never experienced street harassment before, it’s a mix of feeling unsafe, objectified, anxious, and dirty all at the same time. I don’t know what I’d do if I was ever surrounded like this. I probably wouldn’t leave my house again for days.

They say that the abaya, or other types of Islamic dress is supposed to protect women from the male gaze, or keep men from being tempted by women. But here these girls are, covered from head to toe except their eyes, and they are not protected at all. Street harassment can happen to anyone, whether they’re wearing a bikini, or pajamas, or an abaya with a head scarf.

A few days ago, Arab News reported that there is new information about events that led up to the harassment mob. Apparently, there’s a new video, shown below, which shows the girls acting “provocatively“:

 

The new video showed the two girls driving a quad bike at the seashore, waving their hands and gesticulating at the boys.
A number of people condemned the provocative behavior of the girls. A few called for accountability of the two girls as they started it; others said that it doesn’t justify their harassment and that punishment for their harassers should be stiff…

Musa Kalo, a Saudi journalist, said on his WhatsApp account that the video shown on the channel and posted on social media revealed the true character of the girls, who provoked the boys in the first place and showed “immoral behavior” while riding the desert bike on the Corniche.
“Most of us watched the video of the harassment that occurred in Jeddah, but the video shown on MBC revealed the real reason for this harassment; I hope quick sanctions will be launched against the girls and boys who showed immoral behavior,” he said.
Another social media user, Shazia bint Abdat, said the video showed the immoral behavior of the girls. They started harassing the boys first and were trying to grab the attention of the young men, while riding on the bike which was also improper behavior.
“We wear abya to cover and protect ourselves. It doesn’t mean that after wearing abya women are allowed to move around among men. Not only this, they were totally wrong in their behavior which showed that they were trying to catch the attention of the boys. The girls are the main culprits here,” said Abdat.

Ah, ok. So it’s the girls’ fault. Even though they live in a society where men have much more power over them. Even though there were 20-30 boys and 2 girls.  I guess the boys simply could not control themselves and just had to form a mob around a them. They had no other choice, right? And how dare these girls ride bikes, I mean, how immodest of them to think that they can have fun. How dare they try to catch the boys’ attention, something no girl in the history of the world has ever done.

It’s the girls’ fault. They were the ones being provocative. Boys will be boys. The girls shouldn’t have been there. They were asking for it.

Sound familiar?

Here’s another terrifying video of women getting harassed in Saudi Arabia.


Street harassment is common in KSA, and people are using social media to fight back. Al-Monitor reports:

In Saudi Arabia’s virtual world, which is way ahead of its reality, a Facebook page titled “Childhood without harassment” was created to shed light on the issue of child molestation. The page was created after an incident in which minors were raped in the city of Jeddah and in response to the light punishment given to the criminals. The punishments were limited to several lashes and short prison stays against perpetrators who caused great psychological and physical devastation to the victims.

A study conducted by a female Saudi researcher about “sexual harassment of women” on a sample of women aged between 18 and 48 has shown that 78% of respondents claimed to have experienced sexual harassment directly, while 92% said that sexual harassment is on the rise. The study found that 27% of them have been subjected to verbal harassment; 26% were subject to “tarqim” attempts, which is the attempt to pass on a phone number; 24% were subject to harassment by looks; and 15% were physically touched…

In a study of 24 mostly Western countries, Saudi Arabia was ranked third in the rate of harassment.

Third out of 24 countries. Wow. My first thought is to assume that the high rate of harassment in KSA has something to do with women’s oppression and sexual repression. But given that street harassment is also very common in places where women are supposedly less oppressed, and where sexual expression is allowed, like the US and Europe, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think what it comes down to is patriarchy. Sexual harassment, and violence against women in general, is just another way for men to control women. No matter what women wear or do, no matter what our religion or culture is, patriarchy will find a way to hold power over us, and a reason to blame us and shame us for it.

Society, Where Am I (Going)?

I Wore an Abaya and Didn’t Feel Oppressed

July 25, 2015
his is me in an abaya. Still need to learn to tie the scarf right. And yes, that's a new hairstyle.

So I ordered an abaya from Amazon, and it came in the mail today. If you still don’t know, I’m moving to Saudi Arabia in just a few weeks. I decided to just get an abaya now so that I can wear it as soon as I get off the plane. I’ve read that sometimes people go straight to the mall after landing to get an abaya, but now I don’t have to worry about people staring at me as I walk through the mall to get one for the first time.

First, lets get something straight. An abaya is not a burqa, is not a chador, is not a hijab, is not a niqab, is not a…I know it’s a little confusing. I think this page on BBC explains the differences well enough. (If you know of a better resource, let me know.)

When I got back from DC today it was sitting on my bed in a DHL package. I immediately ripped it open and tried it on. It’s actually not bad. It’s like a long loose fitting dress. It’s very comfortable, not too heavy, and I like how it flows, though I don’t know how I’ll like it in 40 degree (C) desert weather. But if women in that part of the world can put up with it then I’m sure it’s doable. It covers my arms up to my wrists, and my legs down to my ankles. It has breast pockets, and pockets near the hips (YAY for pockets in women’s clothing!) and buttons from the collar bone to the waist.

So this is something I’ll have to wear anytime I’m in public or around men. I’ll be working at an institution for women, so when I get to work, I believe I’ll be able to take it off. Also, I think in the Diplomatic Quarter, a very nice part of town where all the foreign embassies are, I won’t have to wear it. But I’ll be wearing it much of the time. Being able to wear literally anything underneath is very convenient. I’m sure I’ll be doing errands and going to the mall in my pajamas.

I got my abaya from a company called East Essence. They have a website, but you can also order from their Amazon store. It came with a belt, but I don’t think I’ll wear it with the abaya. The city of Riyadh seems to be quite strict about the dress code, from what I’ve been reading on blogs and forums. From what I understand, abaya’s are about hiding skin as much as they are about hiding a woman’s figure. A belt would give me too much of a waist so it wouldn’t be culturally appropriate.

The abaya I bought. $27.99.  lLink

The abaya I bought. $27.99.
lLink

East Essence, and similar stores, have clothing and accessories that come in many styles and colors. They’re really beautiful, but in KSA, especially in the capital Riyadh, which is very conservative, only black is culturally acceptable. So I got a black abaya and a black pashmina scarf that I’ve been practicing wrapping as a hijab. But to be honest I’ll probably just end up throwing it around my head most of the time. I hear that foreigners are cut a little slack when it comes to the head covering.

So yeah, I kinda like the garment, and the only thing I’m worried about is the heat, especially since it’s black. And no, I don’t feel oppressed when I’m wearing it.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that. As an American, non-Saudi, non-Muslim, non-Arab woman, this garment has no cultural significance for me. I only bought so I can respect the culture that I will soon be living in. Otherwise I wouldn’t wear any sort of Islamic garment, not necessarily because I don’t like them, but because that would be cultural appropriation. As someone who is not culturally connected to the abaya, my opinion on how I feel when I’m wearing it is, in most cases, irrelevant.

But in this case, since I’m going to have to wear it, I thought I’d give my opinion for a couple reasons. 1) It might be helpful for future expats who are moving to KSA. 2)To highlight that it’s silly to call a woman oppressed based on what she wears, something Muslim feminists have been saying for years. (Side note, Femen can go to hell.)

I would guess that because it’s a part of their culture and something they grew up wearing, Saudi women love abayas. I came across this piece in the Huffington Post about a Saudi woman talking about her experience with abayas:

At one point in my teenage years, my gang of close friends and I designed and tailored our own special abayas with our logo — a small cat’s paw print on the back next to the letter of our first names. Mine had a huge purple “R” across the back, made up of shiny purple Swarovski crystals. I even wore a matching purple cap over my headscarf just for kicks.

But at the same time, we wanted to wear them when we felt like wearing them. Anything that is forced is hated and eventually people rebel against it.

One of my religious teachers in Saudi Arabia used to tell us: “Great fruits, like an apple, wear a protective cover to protect their insides from the harm of the outside.”

Of course, being teenagers, we would all protest that we were not fruits and we should be free to customize our abayas to reflect our personalities. There were times when my friends and I would get told off by the tough morality police in Jeddah for our more outlandish abayas, and, on one occasion, a whole group of us were chased down the street by a car packed with stick-carrying religious police because we were running to our cars (we were late — as usual) and our legs were showing as we ran…

Even though it doesn’t stop men from staring and cat calling, I do feel that an abaya somehow empowers women in the Gulf.

While I have no idea who decided that women should be in black and men in white, I have no complaints. Black has remarkable slimming powers — and it goes well with any purse or pair of shoes.

I’d say that clothing can represent oppression, but they do not equal oppression. Lets take bras, for example. From when we’re preteens with boobs the size of mosquito bites, we start with training bras, then we upgrade to regular bras, and we wear them for the rest of our lives. They’re uncomfortable as fuck, and many people, including myself, would rather not wear them. But for some reason, our society thinks that free flowing, slightly droopy boobs rolling around under your shirt are indecent.  Now what if an alien race from Kepler 452b (aka Earth 2.0) came to Earth, saw that many people wear bras, and deemed us all oppressed just because we do? Same thing with high heels. I mean these are shoes that are so damn uncomfortable because they literally force your feet into an awkward, unnatural shape, yet people wear them all the time, to feel sexy, to be professional, to be accepted. Maybe you can say that bras, high heels, and certain types of clothing are small examples of women’s/feminine presenting people’s oppression as a whole. I honestly think that’s fair. What’s not fair in the case of Islamic clothing is putting so much emphasis on this article of clothing when we talk about oppression, avoiding nuance when talking about Islamic clothing and oppression, and ignoring/silencing Arab/Muslim women when talking about oppression.

To reiterate, when talking about oppression of Saudi women, I think it’s important to:

1) Don’t put so much emphasis on what they wear. 
So, we should recognize that abayas are just one part of Saudi culture, as high heels are just one part of female/femme culture. There are other ways that women in both these groups (which may overlap, btw) are oppressed, for example: street harassment, rape, and domestic violence.

Also, we shouldn’t hold prejudice or assumptions against people based on what they wear. Unfortunately, since 9/11, we do. Which is why France has bans on face coverings, and hijabs for girls in school. And why Muslims in the US, or those who are mistaken for Muslims, are victims of harassment and hate crimes.

We shouldn’t assume that women in KSA don’t want to wear islamic clothing, something that has cultural and religious significance for them. People like the activists in Femen, who believe in “liberating” Muslim women by getting them to remove their clothing, are being disrespectful to their culture and speaking over the people they are trying to “save.”. Femen, and I think many westerners, equate oppression with clothing, and that’s wrong.

2.)Nuance is important.

We should acknowledge that many Saudi women love wearing abayas, and they love their culture the way it is. If a Saudi woman says that she believes it’s right to have to ask her husband if she can get a job, or go to school, guess what, that’s her opinion. And if another Saudi woman says she wants more gender equality in her country, but she also loves wearing abayas and going to sex segregated restaurants, guess what, that’s her opinion too. One Saudi female activist, Manal Al-Sharif, who was jailed for driving, told Fox News host Sean Hannity, “if freedom is wearing a bikini, I don’t want that, to be frank with you.” She both appreciates the modest dress of women in her culture, and thinks that women should be able to drive. It’s possible to believe both of these things at the same time.
3. They don’t need to be saved.

Muslim women don’t need to be saved by benevolent westerners. Believe it or not, there are some great Muslim activists and feminists, like Al-Sharif, who was mentioned above. In Saudi Arabia, there are women who are working to gain voting rights, the right to drive, the right to participate in politics, among other things.

Note: I’m not trying to pretend that Saudi Arabia is a leading example for women’s rights; of course it’s not.  But I do think it’s important to counteract the dominant media narrative that #AllSaudiWomen or #AllMuslimWomen are oppressed and trapped. Just from watching a few YouTube videos, I’ve learned so much that has changed my perception on women in Saudi Arabia.

In this interview with Sean Hannity, Manal Al-Sharif dispels some common stereotypes about Saudi life, while recognizing that the country has a long way to go on women’s rights. She also talks about how it’s not fair to compare Western women with Saudi women, and rightfully takes offense to Hannity saying that Western women are more liberated than Saudi women.


Just an update about my job: Today I went to DC to get my medical exams done and get my visa application started. I think my ETA is still mid August. If you’re wondering about the degree attestation, medical check, and visa process, don’t ask me because my company arranged for a visa agency to take care of everything for me.

PS, is it weird that I feel less anxious about moving to Saudi Arabia than moving to Korea? (I’ve never been to Korea, but before this job came along, I was sure that my next teaching job would be there.) I think I know why this is, but I’ll save it for another blog post.

In the comments, tell me:
Would you ever live in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or any place where there is a strict dress code?
Do you think that western media generally gives a far and accurate presentation of Saudi women?
What is your first impression of me in an abaya? Weirded out? Disgusted? Indifferent? How do you think I look? Should I bedazzle it to spice it up? (probably not).

If aliens from Kepler 452b came to Earth, what do you think they’d think of us?

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