Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Queen and the Mistresses

Upon return from a training trip to Cairo, I found myself accompanied by a young Saudi (23) in the waiting lounge. Our conversation started when he asked me if departure times were set according to Saudi or Egyptian time.

The boy was from Jeddah, pursuing his Bachelor in Alexandria. Jeddah folks are known to be frequent travelers to Egypt, while people from Riyadh tend to either LOVE Egypt or HATE it. Our conversation fell into that category: how do you like the country, where to go and how to have fun.

He told me that Egypt is the type of place you want to visit with friends, but not family. When I asked him to elaborate, he mentioned that though he didn’t drink alcohol, he enjoyed going to bars and observing people. It is hard to do that with family. Family travel is restrictive and by travelling with friends to countries like Egypt one had the choice to go where he pleases.

As the conversation lost stamina, the boy surprised me by stating, “You must be one of those who want women to drive?” The question caught me off guard, because until then I was an avid listener to him—and quite impressed by his brightness and high spirits. On the other hand, his question –stated in the form of an accusation- struck me as shallow.

“Why?” I asked him, but he didn’t answer. Instead, he said told me how demoralizing it would be to allow women to drive.
“Why?” I asked again.
“It will only lead our sisters and daughters to ruin,” he said.
“Allowing women to drive is not the same as forcing them to drive, right?” I responded but he gave me no time.
“Don’t kid me, you will all want to drive and hit the streets as you please and there will be no way to control anything anymore.”

At this point I stopped taking the conversation seriously. I realized that I was talking to a boy who is recently learning to demand personal choice and has yet to learn that with personal choice comes the responsibility of accepting the choices of other people.

Unfortunately, however, if there’s a boy who is yet to learn—remains people who have grown and progressed on so many professional levels yet when it came to defining the world there was:
- Their controlled utopia – the tamed virtuous queen which they visit on intervals.
- Their wild ride – the mistresses.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Religiousness as an Empowerment to Saudi Women

My friend “Y” is married. Her husband likes her to completely cover in Riyadh: “abaya”, veil and face cover, and half cover in Dahran. To uncover her face in the company of friend “A” and “B” but never around "C". When travelling he wants her to completely uncover, except if there were relatives. He asks her to dress conservatively (eg. Long skirt) in the presence of her family in law, yet wears pants or non-conservative clothing in the presence of the families of friends “A”, “B” and “C”. He doesn’t want her to have any makeup on when outside the house, but to be fully made up once she’s in. He wants for her to attend morning courses so she would excel in English and Computers, yet not resume a job where she would put those skills to use. When he's out she may go out, but when he's in she should return. He wants her to have a kid this year and another next year, then to wait for three years until they have the third. He has every teeny bet of her life figured out for her.

My friend’s marital life is not unique to many women in Saudi, and I do not mean the issue of covering or uncovering, I mean the issue of being micromanaged: Do this now, that after five minutes, wear this here and wear that there. Such minute management isn’t denounced by the collective-mind but is often expected and thought to be an indicator of responsible parenting—yes parenting even to the wife. Some parts of Saudi even go the extreme of referring to the wife as “the dependent” or “the children”. For example, if someone were to ask the husband how his wife is doing, they would say, “How are the children (dependents)?” in spite of him being newly married and without kids.

Some wives adopt to this husband-wife relationship, especially in the first years of life where a wife readily translate micromanagement as “fatherly protection” or “jealousy of amor”, yet when the honey melts away many women begin to feel equal or competitive with their husbands and sensitized towards being bossed around. In this stage of the relationship, personality types will react differently either by adapting to the situation or changing it. But it is not easy to change the dynamics of a relationship after a respectable amount of years—sometimes kids!!

Since arriving in Riyadh I’ve been noticing a pattern amongst certain type of women who suddenly turned religious, some of which immediately transformed from being just another guest in someone’s house to women who sit at the head of a meeting to preach the word of God and tell the stories of the prophet and his companions; women who construct Qur’an recital centers. Nothing shocking or sudden happened to those women, they didn’t loose a loved one in an accident or undergone any trauma. What happened, then, that might’ve caused this massive change in behavior and character?

Many things could of course contribute to this change, but I believe the gains of a transformation often explain the initial calling that has caused it. Women whose religiousness brought power, leadership and stardom after being semi-absented, were probably yearning for what they have been lacking.

A famous ol' Kuwaiti play says, "when religion speaks, let all else munch on hay." And having God at their side, could finally allow those women a word over their husband, children and the greater society. If the husband asks them to uncover here, they tell him God said no. If he watches improper TV content they can condemn his acts and (maybe) slowly influence him. They could challenge tradition by quoting God, the prophet and history. They could silence much of society which would not yield and adhere to them before.