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.