SAUDI ARABIA: Women Behind Walls
Saudi activist Farona resists restrictions on her freedom, insisting that women's participation in public life is not only a right, but a necessity for her country's development.
“Not allowed,” he said.
As I slowly lowered my camera, I looked across the street and saw a few ordinary men and government officials taking photographs of the area.
“Not allowed for me,” I sighed to myself.
The police officer seemed like a young man in his early 20’s, perhaps a recent graduate of the police academy. He sounded both assured and confused. Assured about stopping a woman; confused about stopping a woman for something men were openly doing too.
I took a few more photographs while he stood there looking bewildered.
With traffic malfunctioning on a dangerously busy road, I wondered why he was stopping me instead of regulating traffic.
“Photography in public areas has been allowed in the country since 2006,” I said politely. “This is an underpass of an affluent area which has been flooded. As a team member of a social media disaster project, my duty is to document the area.”
I went back to the car, my dad’s car. My dad, as usual, had left his work to drive me. He drives me most of the time willingly, though sometimes he wishes women could drive or there was suitable transport for women.
As I walked across the road, I saw eyes gaping at me. I overheard a group of men exclaiming, “A women with a camera roaming on the street?!”
I kept walking…
Men and women once feared the devil. Now men fear women in public spaces more than the devil.
Behind the walls and inside the buildings things are changing. But my country is still, officially, conservative. Saudi Arabia's population is over 49% women, nearly 70% under the age of 30—and there are still spaces where women cannot be. As my country battles between tribalism, nationalism, globalization and religion, I do not know what role I can play when I am physically barred from so many physical spaces, when there’s limited space to debate or express ideas.
The Great Wall of Arabia: Gender Segregation or Seclusion?
Saudi Arabia pursues a gender segregation policy that prevents unrelated men and women from ‘mixing’ in public space. This gender segregation serves to exclude women from mainstream public life altogether. The official version of segregation reflects a unique Saudi interpretation of religious texts, and it does not reflect historical Muslim communities in our country.
Princess Fatima, who ruled the province of Ha’il as an administrator from 1911 to 1914, graciously commanded the now demolished 300,000 square meter Barzan Palace. She not only received foreign guests, but allowed guests to photograph her as well.
So why in the 21st century is a woman with a camera considered as dangerous as an anarchist with a gun?!
With very little exception, whether it is an authorized institutionalized sphere, quasi-public, or leisure space, the moment a woman steps out, she has to walk through a barrage of landmines erected to prevent her from deviating from restrictive gender roles.
There are libraries, museums and other public areas where women are barred legally or by social attitude. There are many women-only sections of banks, restaurants, government offices, and stores, but very few are exclusively operated by women. The first women-only hotel, established in 2008, is one example of a business operated solely by women, but it’s still men who decide where and how women-only places should be created.
Excluding women from the public domain contradicts religious teachings and practices. Some believe that a woman’s religious devotion and piety is demonstrated by the length of her abaya (cloak) and the duration of time she remains inside her home. Others believe she should abandon her abaya and leave the home to prove herself as a progressive woman. Nobody asks what she wants.
In my country, women outnumber men in university and higher education. However, Saudi labor law only permits "women to work in all fields suitable to their nature,” and forbids women to work at night or in “hazardous jobs or industries.” 95% of working women are in the public sector: 85% in education—in both teaching and administrative positions, 6% in public health, and 4% in administration.
According to the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report my country ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries in economic participation and opportunity for women. From 1992 to 2010, women’s participation in the labor force almost tripled, but only 14.4% of women seeking a job are currently employed. As a result, many young, qualified women find jobs in neighboring countries.
These policies demonstrate that it is more acceptable for women to plunge into poverty than to work and earn a dignified living. Women’s wealth can be hijacked by her male guardians, and unequivocally backed by legal courts, leaving her with no open options except begging. Does begging “suit a woman’s nature?” There’s nothing moral about women with children begging in streets.
“I believe a woman’s first and last place is at home,” says Sarah, a mother of two. “If she wishes to work, she can work from home. There’s no need to go out to claim equality with men. Men and women are equal. Segregation in public protects women’s dignity and prevents immorality.” Sarah’s statement reflects the commonly accepted definition of gender roles.
But many women are challenging these roles and questioning whether segregation is actually protecting their dignity. In our strictly gender-segregated society, men sell women’s undergarments. What ‘protection of dignity’ do we intend to achieve when men sell women’s lingerie, jewelry, perfume, and toiletries? . . .