Although the restrictions can be stifling, I have identified a few perks of being female living in Saudi. (Of course, some of these “perks” are likely also associated with nationality – i.e. being a Westerner vs. Saudi vs. other nationality.) Take your typical experience at the airport. Usually, the sight of the line-ups for the foreigners in the immigration area is enough to induce a sinking feeling of dismay, particularly after a long flight. But in the Riyadh airport, they usually reserve a counter for the foreign females and if you flash the right passport (e.g. from a Western country), you get whisked over there right away. Meanwhile, the lines for the male travelers who are not Saudi or GCC can extend at least the length of the hall.
(I have recently found that having a North American passport in hand has also come in handy for bypassing the airline counter lines and getting checked in at the “special needs passenger” desk, as long as I don’t have any luggage I need to check in.
Similarly, at the security area, women have to enter a separate room for “security screening” by female security officers. I put this in quotations because this involves little more than a cursory swipe with the wand, once across the front and then across the back. No metal detectors and certainly no pat-downs. When you enter the room, they are usually drinking tea, having some snacks, and checking their phone, and I often have the same feeling you get when you’ve found yourself somewhere where you’re clearly not invited. Most of the time, they don’t even bother standing up from their chair. So they swipe you from a seated position; I guess they can at least check that you don’t have anything packed around your waist – and then you’re through. Meanwhile, you would have placed your bags through the x-ray machine outside, and by the time you’re through the female security room, your luggage is waiting for you at the end of the conveyer belt.
So all in all, if you’re a woman, it’s a relatively pleasant and very quick passage through the airport, albeit with some disconcerting security practices. Yet another perk of being female in Saudi.
A lot has been made this year about the fact that Saudi women were finally allowed to join the Saudi Olympic team. However, I have difficulty being excited or encouraged by this step “forward”, for many reasons.
First, I think it must be obvious to everyone that this was just a symbolic move to appease the International Olympic Committee and save Saudi Arabia (and the IOC) from embarrassment. With all the loud and strenuous calls for Saudi Arabia to be banned from these games (dating as far back as 2008), I am sure that the Saudis did not want to end up on the same page in the history books as South Africa’s apartheid governments. (South Africa was the only country ever to be banned from the Olympics.) And of course, Saudi Arabia is no patsy on the world’s economic and political stage, so it probably wouldn’t have been very strategic for the IOC (and its friends) to get into a tiff with the Saudis.
Second, I couldn’t help but smirk when I read this quote from Sarah Attar (one of the female Saudi Olympians, who by the way was born and raised in California), “… I hope that it can really make some good strides for women over there to get more involved in the sport.” Is she implying that Saudi women are currently not involved enough in sports because they don’t have the self-motivation and initiative to do so? Even if a girl or woman wanted to do exercise or play sports, where could she go? And to get to an elite level, who’s going to train her? (The other Saudi female Olympian, judo athlete Wojdan Shahrkhani, was coached by her father who is an international judo referee. She has never competed at an international level.) I don’t see how having these two women on the Saudi Olympic team is going to do anything for the participation of Saudi women in sport, unless there are major changes in the school and community/social systems in Saudi Arabia. Just earlier this month, Saudi authorities had denied permission for a women’s sports tournament to take place (no reason for the denial was given). And unfortunately, there are loud voices from within Saudi that are resorting to the internet to spread hateful messages about Saudi female athletes. Hopefully, the many voices countering these messages will continue to grow stronger and louder.
Third, before we Westerners get up on our high-horse about the backwardness of the Saudi attitude towards sports and women, let’s not forget that there’s still a long way to go in our society when it comes to attitudes about women and sport. It was only this year that all the sports in the Summer Olympics will have both men and women’s events. Even just 2 years ago at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, we heard much about the court battle to force the IOC to include women’s ski jumping (the court refused to hear the case). And there are so many other examples, in the Olympics and throughout professional and amateur sport, where the type of media focus greatly differs depending on whether the coverage is on the male or the female athletes (e.g. recent example about beach volleyball players at the London Olympics).
Hmm, progress? Seems like we could all use some.
It’s been about a year since the Women2Drive campaign was launched with Manal al-Sharif getting behind the wheel of a car and driving in the streets of Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia.
A couple of weeks ago, she was honored as one of the awardees of the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Here is the video of her talk in Oslo:
Although relatively short at only about 15 minutes, I found her speech to be very compelling and providing real insight into the foundations for what is going on now in Saudi society. (And I’ll never listen to the Backstreet Boys in the same way again!) Also not to be overlooked is the fact that here is a Saudi woman not only showing her face, but having it broadcast all over the Internet. She is trailblazing a path for Saudi women in more ways than one.
I also found it interesting that to-date, there have been so many ‘dislikes’ vs. ‘likes’ on the YouTube page of her video. Obviously it seems that there are yet to be many battles to be waged on many fronts here.
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!
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.
Yesterday, there were news reports here of several female university students injured following a protest at King Khalid University in the city of Abha, located in western Saudi Arabia. There were apparently around a 1000 students who gathered to protest against corruption and deplorable learning conditions at the university, including garbage allowed to accumulate around the cafeteria and insufficient seating in lecture halls despite repeated complaints from students. At least 50 students were injured and several had to be sent to hospital. Some reports stated that a student died following an epileptic seizure and another suffered a miscarriage, but not all the coverage reported the death, so that fact is uncertain.
This university protest is just the latest among a few that have occurred over the last year – all but one, to my knowledge , by female university students. I should also point out that any sort of public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia, making these university protestors even that much braver. Last year, there were protests by female students at Princess Nora University when apparently 70% of the class failed the English exam. You can be pretty sure that when a majority of the students fail an exam, there’s something wrong with the exam … and the instructor! And also last year, female university students at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca stormed the university’s administration building protesting the institution’s admissions policy that unfairly considered family and personal connections (“wasta”) over actual merit and academic grades.
Change and revolution is often seeded by the youth, as seen by so many examples throughout history. For Saudi Arabia, will it be the women who will lead the charge?
You might remember from an earlier post that I am just a bit clueless about hijab style and maintaining a decent hairstyle underneath the veil. As with women everywhere, I try to get styling clues by observing the women around me.
Unfortunately, I find that there tends to be little variety in the way the women in Riyadh wear their hijabs, at least from my observations so far. Mostly it is all black, perhaps with some subtle decoration along the edge of the material. Some women have abayas and matching hijabs that have more colorful patterns along the edge or down the back – in Riyadh, at least, it seems that these styles tend to be favored by the non-Saudi women (e.g. from other Arab countries, or Westerners).
So I’m always fascinated when I watch talk show or news programs from the other Gulf countries (especially the UAE) where there are female hosts wearing a hijab. To me, they look so glamorous! There are lots of examples on the internet of the variation in hijab style and fashion across the Middle East – e.g. here’s a screenshot of Google Image results for ‘hijab fashion 2012’:
The color and variety of materials illustrated here is so refreshing compared to the plain black I see all the time on the streets of Riyadh. It looks like they have reams of material wrapped around their head and it is draped just so. It’s not just the color and patterns, but also the shape and volume that makes the style. I always assumed it was just the hairstyle underneath the hijab that made the stylish shape, so I was astonished when I stumbled across these instructional videos revealing the ‘style secrets’ of wearing a hijab! (The first one is narrated in Arabic, but it speaks for itself; the second one is in English.)