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.


Abu Daoud said...

You have great insights into things... I like your blog.

(I can detect the is hard to avoid in the desert.)

Hayfa said...

Interesting point of view, I've never thought of it like this. But when you put it this way, it sounds -somehow- reasonable.

princejimi said...

I would like to add
When a wife/sister calls, and he is with friends, he speaks as thought he was talking to a guy.

"when religion speaks, let all else munch on hay." Is what everyone thinks is right, even if they never really knew the interpretation of half of what they were talking about, they read a small 10 page pamphlet about something (with no references or evidence to where that info came from) and they start preaching based on it.

Plus all the religious gatherings are just another social gathering disguised as religious just so they can go eat and talk, and if the husband disagrees... well how can he, if it was a religious thing?

Saudi in US said...

"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."

How else would she be able to keep track of all these rules without a computer equipped with the latest AI programs (which are only available in English). Those skills are not wasted.

I like your analysis on why the women get religious. Not sure if it is true, but devilishly definitely brilliant at minimum.

Amerian Bedu said...

very astute observations and analysis. As always, you have good challenging posts, Aysha!


Yasser said...

The "fatherly" relationship between the husband and wife as you described could be sometimes because of the "fatherly" age difference between them. The micromanagement style can be the result therefore. And let me tell you that I have had always thought men were behind the age differences in marriages but I finally figured out that women many times don't accept to marry a counterpart or a younger male.

The second part of your post sparkled an idea in my mind this title: 10 Tips for Women to Control A Saudi Husband! where tip one is: Be Religious!

Trevelyana said...

Just through the first paragraph and I swore my blood pressure spiked.
So as not to over-philosophize and be a jackass, I'll put it simply, your friend's problem is:

a) Not standing up for what she wants, soon enough she'll forget that's she's an autonomous entity.

b) Her husband is a product of a mutated patriarchal society, it's not his fault--he doesn't know better. It's like giving a kid a toy car with a remote, and then asking him not to play with it, and not to run it into the wall--as fun as that might be.

c) and most importantly, her biggest problem is that she chose to marry him.

No one HAS to be married. Do not marry a controlling jackass and complain about the way he is.

Marahm said...

Saudi women do not have the monopoly on empowerment from religion, even though their opportunities might seem greater.

Relgions (in general) serve many causes, not only Islam, not only politics, and not only gender equality or inequality. The pull of religion is that it can, and does, satisfy a wide range of human needs, be they healthy needs, societal contructs, or neurotic demands. This reality seems to form the multi-edged sword of religion.

Susie of Arabia said...

How does your friend feel about the way her husband micro-manages every aspect of her life? Just wondering ... it would drive me crazy if my husband did that to me!

Hala said...

But them this phase of religiousness would fade as before, and power would be again lost, these spurs of female resistance need to be backed by a strong system of laws and accepted by society to be constant...I love your posts, and I think you needed to be confronted with the harsh existence of unemployed, dependent women in Saudi to realize its full extent and maybe think of a way to change it?..

frogman said...

its sad when religion is tainted due to misuse..

but it does seem like religiousness is one of the few escapes women have here that give them a carte blanche with their counterparts..

and in the long run i don't think anyone is benefiting.

nyxxie said...

many khaleejis live two lives, different when their home and very different when they travel.. people create conditions for themselves when they let society and direct them this happens.. hypocrisy you find..

not every woman allows her husband to boss her like that, a bit of possessiveness is nice sometimes, but a man who says cover with these and uncover with those is anything but possessive..

Allah's rules should guide us.. only his!

Aafke said...

Very interestng idea! I'm sure it will work out like this.
Your friend must be very intelligent to be able to remember all these rules, and very capable to put them all into practise!
I'd need a small laptop around to keep up; and still be a big failure!

lowlyman said...

I found your comment on the sudden transformation of women in your society fascinating. in our beliefs, for a transformation to be true, it must be gradual, incremental, and barely noticeable at first culminating in the total transformation of a person. That is, a true renewal of person starts from within and is finally reflected on the outside and become noticeable by other people after a lifetime.

take care

MutantKnight said...

I have read a portion of your blog on BBC. I have to say that this posting truly provides power and strength to the Arab women in our society.
Excellent piece!

carol said...

BBC has done a piece on saudi blooger so i clicked your name. And i read your post and this one was intersting but you kidding me that her husband tells her to do this and that if my husband to be try doing that to me he would be misreale i am kidding but why do saudi men do this

The Saudi Prince said...

Control and change him? You don't want freedom for women, you want enslavery for men!

carol said...

To Saudi Prince,

I thought marriage is an partnership between, a man and woman i thought both them brings what ever to the table and each has to compremise but you know what it is depends how the man is raise if he was raise to be backwards that what you expect. But with marriage you have to work as a team bring what ever attribute to the table is not one way.

starlit_saudi said...

"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."

I once overheard a similar conversation between 2 saudi males.
Guy 1 (talking on this cell to his friend): Heeey there! how r u? where r u?
-----------unknown reply-------
Guy 1 (in reply on this cell): what? what do you mean ma3 al3yal (with the kids)!!ma3 al3yal (with the kids)!! LOL OMG you're starting to sound like a "typical saudi"!

I just smiled, thinking oh so there is hope....first of all he pointed this out to his friend and secondly therefore not all are typical lol.

carol said...

Your kidding me starlit they make marriage like you have a kid number one because i hear anyother say i hear women at work say that they have 3 kids there son and daugther and there husband is the thrid kid not the other way around

Basil in Riyadh said...

I don't have a comment on this blog, but I enjoyed reading it.

Laurin said...

My name is Laurin, I go to the University of Vermont. I am in an anthropology class studying the Middle East. We have discussed male and female relationships but I did not know that they were this extreme. I wonder does your friend except the relationship or want to change it? Also, is it the same for most women? I know before you came to Portland for three years you lived in Saudi Arabia. How did you meet a husband so different from your friends husband? Is this the traditional relationship?