SAUDI ARABIA: Women Behind Walls
“It’s extremely humiliating when a man asks your size in a condescending or flirty way” says Samira, 21. “I used to go lingerie shopping with my mom, but now, when we go in all-girls groups, men slowly walk away. We create a big private space of our own!”
It is more acceptable in my country for women to hire male drivers or ride in a taxi with ‘unrelated’ men in the confined space of a car than to drive a vehicle herself. These policies aren’t really about segregation but about disempowering women. A woman behind the wheel is symbolic. It is synonymous with having enough power to make her traveling decisions.
The seclusion is extended into religious space as well. Many mosques do not designate a place for women worshipers. If they do, they are usually very poorly maintained. There are visible restrictions in the two holiest mosques in Madina and Makkah. As a female worshipper, I am constantly asked by security officers to finish my prayers quickly and “move aside.”
Women struggle to pray peacefully in the small spaces dedicated for them. Walls erected in women’s areas prevent them from seeing the imam or enjoying the splendid architecture of the holy mosques. There are time restrictions at some holy sites as well.
Are men’s prayers more urgent than women’s? Did God say he listens to men’s prayers more than women’s prayers?
Women do not lack wisdom to understand the implications of these policies. They may differ in their solutions, but they’re increasingly challenging this seclusion in new, unconventional ways.
Escaping the Walls
The absence of physical platforms to discuss, debate, and express ideas has led many people to dive into social networks and social media. According to a recent report, Saudi
Twitter users have increased by 240% since the beginning of 2010.
One twitter user confides, “My lecturer gave me a low grade, from A to C, because what I wrote was deemed ‘inappropriate.’”
“What was the topic?” another tweets. “Women’s rights in my country,” she tweets back.
“I tweet because I have no other way to express myself” writes another Twitter user.
The 2009 flooding of the major port city of Jeddah has been a watershed moment in the history of social media and civic engagement. Frustrated with government response and ineffectiveness, young women and men used social media tools to disseminate and consume information about the floods.
Women are using social media to fight back for more space and participation as well, often using the very same argument that secludes them: “to prevent gender mixing.” One woman initiated a Facebook campaign calling for women-only hospitals where all staff will be women. The proposition is now being discussed at government level.
“Many feel too restricted in terms of expressing and getting real time discussions going on here,” says Alisha, a spiritual poetess. “Limited forums and venues promoting expression of ideas begs for alternatives.” However, she doesn’t want this movement to remain underground. "Facebook doesn’t cut it,” she says. “We need face-to-face interaction and to feel comfortable expressing ourselves”
Our Nation’s Wealth
There should be more women-only spaces, like police stations, that are actually operated by women. And women need to be able to participate in mainstream society without being judged or feared.
As I clean my camera’s lenses, I reflect on the day when I felt exuberant, anxious, and thrilled to enter a public venue declared “only for men” for the first time. The event was the largest ever human chain in the shape of a pink ribbon—a breast cancer awareness event that was marked in the Guinness Book of World Records. Women were exclusively permitted to use the stadium for this event, which was the first such large event entirely organized by women. There were signs of disorganization and disagreement in the group, but there were also visible signs of empathy and unity. The mere presence of thousands of women from diverse communities showed that women can erase the walls of color, class, and religion. It’s an example of how things can change when women come together.
Upon setting my feet inside for the first time, my scientist mind said, “Explore!” So I pulled off a few blades of grass and studied them. It was green, lush grass—well-tended and watered. I never knew grass could marvel me!
The artist inside me asked to seize the moment. Politely submitting to her request, I laid on the grass, stretched out my two hands, and stared at the pitch black sky with two shining bright stars!
I wondered why women can’t use public venues like stadiums more often. Why can’t we play football? In Saudi Arabia, women do not engage in any kind of sports. Most of us have never seen a sports facility. Except that day, when thousands of women stood shoulder-to-shoulder pledging to support breast cancer victims and survivors—vowing to raise awareness.
I would like to evaluate our progress as a country not in terms of GDP or the number of tall buildings we build, but how we nurture our youth and our women. People say my aspirations for my country are way too high because I want my country to be a leader and not a follower in developing a society inclusive of women. It’s my country; shouldn’t I have high aspirations for my people?
Saudi Arabia’s wealth is not its oil. Our wealth does not lie beneath the soil, but above the surface, inside every home—it’s in our women. By harnessing the collective power of all women we can transform the consciousness of individuals, and ultimately our private and public lives.