As I was boarding a Lufthansa flight this morning back to Riyadh, there was a young Saudi couple, probably in their early 20s, ahead of me in line. For those of you who have flown out of Frankfurt before, you’ll know that you have to scan your boarding pass through an automated gate before you can board the plane. The young man of the couple was holding both of their boarding passes. He first scanned the woman’s boarding pass and had her go through before scanning his own boarding pass to proceed through the gate. I thought that he was a very nice, courteous young man, and then didn’t think anymore of the situation. But then a female Lufthansa agent who was standing nearby saw this, and she said to the young woman, “You are very capable, you know. You could have done that yourself!” and then addressing the young man, said, “Women are very capable of doing many things. They take care of the house, take care of the children. They are very capable! You should value her. Make sure that you treat her nicely!” Her friendly, jolly tone of voice belied her condescending and disdainful attitude towards Saudis.
Would she have said the same thing if it had been a young European couple? I highly doubt it. Why does she assume that this young Saudi man doesn’t already treat the woman nicely? If it had been a European couple, would she have labeled the man’s actions as indicative of a domineering, controlling husband, or a thoughtful, considerate husband?
Also, had this woman even been to Saudi Arabia before or bothered to learn anything else about the country besides what mainstream media would have us understand? Probably not, because if she had, she also would not have defined Saudi women’s capabilities only be their apparent ability to take of the house and children. She would have seen that Saudi women are physicians, professors, scientists, writers, teachers, businesswomen, and yes, some are homemakers – just like in many other parts of the world. Also, she obviously assumed that this young couple was married. Maybe they were brother and sister, which would have made her remarks even more inappropriate!
I think that this Lufthansa agent should stick to her job – getting people on the plane so it can leave in time – and forgo the obtuse social commentary!
If you remember from an earlier post, there used to be certain hours where singles (males) could and could not enter the mall. Some relief for the shabaabs (شباب, i.e. the youth) now, since last month, the governor of Riyadh announced that single males would “not be prevented” from going to shopping malls during peak hours.
Now, the mall is probably the last place most guys I know would want to hang out, but in Saudi Arabia, where there’s not much to do, it’s the place to be. Isn’t that kind of sad? When one wants to “go out” in Saudi Arabia, you’re pretty much relegated to restaurants and coffee shops … and shawarma places … and you could always go for a walk somewhere … or go for a drive. So it’s pretty slim pickings in terms of entertainment. Plus, in most public places, there’s segregation (e.g. separate ‘singles’ and ‘family’ sections in restaurants). So the mall is pretty much the only place where you could go just to hang out and be around other people. Plus, it’s air-conditioned.
The original reason for having the separate “bachelor” hours and “family” hours was to restrict mixing of the sexes and stem the “harrassment” of females. This, unfortunately, makes it sound like young Saudi men are only up to no good. Granted, there well may have been many incidences of a woman or group of women feeling intimidated by the antics and behavior of a group of guys, which is certainly reprehensible. But Vancouver has lots of young male Saudi students, as do many other North American cities, and as far as I know, there’s no concerns about allowing them to enter our malls! I am not trying to make excuses for anyone here, but in a way, I can’t completely blame the guys, especially if we’re talking about teenagers and especially given the context of this country. Everyone, especially young people, needs an outlet for their energy and self-expression. We’ve all been through adolescence and can understand this. But when there are such rigid restrictions (even in something as simple as going shopping), and especially as you’re growing up, reckless and inappropriate behavior is bound to come bursting out at the seams where you least expect it – including at the mall.
Another tentative but positive step forward this week as it was announced that Saudi Arabia is “considering” implementing physical education programs for girls! This announcement comes just days after Saudi Arabia announced that it has submitted a list of female athletes who could potentially participate in the London Olympics this summer.
[NB: I just have to interject here that for someone who dreaded gym class as a kid, it’s ironic that I am so excited about this news. Perhaps I might have fared better if gym classes didn’t include dodgeball and a guy named Trevor Robertson, who took the game way too seriously! Actually, the only time I didn’t dread gym was when we got to do square dancing, but I digress … ]
There are varying opinions about the attitude of Saudis towards exercise and participation in sports. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper by Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan summarized some of the various concerns raised by some religious clerics, such as the issue that women cannot compete in sport with appropriate modesty (i.e. without showing her body). Ms. Al Nafjan also states that “many in Saudi Arabia frown upon physical activity for girls”, citing reasons like “it’s masculine” and that “it’s against the physiological nature of women”. But on the other hand, there is increasing recognition and calls from people within the country for girls to have opportunities to participate in physical activity. This article by Mr. Almamoun Alshingiti last year puts forth several sensible reasons for the need for Saudi girls to exercise, and also sensibly addresses the religious-based concerns raised by clerics about women in sport.
In the last few years since I have been visiting Riyadh, I have noted an increase in the number of venues providing opportunities people to exercise, including the so-called “pregnant women’s walk”, walking trails in parkland just outside of Riyadh, and fitness clubs (although there seem to be more clubs for men than for women). As for fitness clubs, I was happy to find a ladies’ fitness club called Kinetico located just near our place. I should note that this centre offers a variety of all-inclusive fitness classes of the sort that I have not even found in Vancouver, including the Les Mills series, TRX, as well as your standard pilates, spin, and aerobics classes. I should also note that the classes are usually filled to capacity and there’s a line-up for the treadmills and step machines at peak hours. So there’s certainly no shortage of desire and interest!
The need to enhance physical activity and exercise participation goes for both the girls and the boys in Saudi Arabia! As I have mentioned before, there is an alarmingly high incidence of obesity and diabetes in this country. I know that I am repeating myself, but these are serious issues that the society needs to face head-on. All the oil in the world cannot make up for the personal and societal costs of chronic health conditions and illness. Health IS wealth.