Tag Archives: Saudi women

go girls go!

Today several newspapers are reporting on a call from Human Rights Watch to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics this summer unless a female athlete is included in the delegation.

As usual, the focus is on women’s rights in this country, and rightly so. But I think this also brings to light other important issues around health and wellness that affect all sectors of society.

First, about the girls – there has never been physical education in the school system for girls. Thus a basic culture of physical activity and sport participation for girls does not exist yet. There are few, if no role models for young Saudi girls to participate in exercise. And it all starts at home, as we all know. If the previous generation of women didn’t grow up participating in exercise or sport, it’s more difficult to instill a cultural expectation for these activities for their daughters. Let’s think about that before we even consider the opportunities for female participation in elite competitive sport.

There is a movement among some scholars and government authorities to promote and implement physical education programs for girls in the school system. I know this because I have been working with some faculty at King Saud University who have been closely involved with this process. But it’s a slow process and they are facing lots of roadblocks and objections from different sectors of the ruling factions here. However, at a workshop I recently attended at King Saud University, I was encouraged to hear many of the male faculty, including the Rector of KSU no less, speak of their support for stronger engagement and participation of females in physical activity and sport.

I should note that it’s not as if the rest of the population are highly engaged in exercise and physical activity either. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest prevalence of diabetes and obesity – statistics no doubt related to limited exercise and physical activity among the population, coupled with changing dietary and other lifestyle factors. There is growing awareness of the importance of exercise in health and wellness here, as in the rest of the world, but there continues to be a challenge in providing diverse opportunities to participate in physical activity.

Even Camelman finds it challenging to locate good places nearby to go for a jog outside, but he usually makes do with running around a swath of empty land near Ad Dir’iyah or just around his own neighbourhood. The only thing he has to deal with is the jeering honks of drivers passing by, who seem to find him amusing. But there are growing opportunities. In the 3 years since I’ve been traveling to Saudi, I’ve noticed an increasing number of fitness centres, including a Curves gym  in the female-only section of the Panorama Mall. There’s also a place called (of all things) the “Pregnant Woman’s Walk”. (No, it does not refer to the specific gait pattern of a pregnant woman!) This is a place where there is an especially broad sidewalk around the perimeter of Prince Sultan University, giving you a good 4 km of uninterrupted walking/running.

So back to the issue of the Olympics and the participation of female athletes: are there even any Saudi female elite athletes who can compete at the world level? Let’s get some gym classes going for the girls first!

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shopping for underwear became a whole lot more comfy today …

Remember my post about the challenges of shopping for undergarments in Saudi Arabia? Well today, the Ministry of Labor carried out the Royal Decree to require that shops carrying “women’s necessities” (i.e. lingerie) employ women. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to witness such a sight as illustrated in these photographs from the main Riyadh newspaper:

ImageImage

ImageThe shopping experience in Saudi is now one step towards making it more comfortable for everyone – note even the availability of a Fitting Room right inside the shop!Image

Saudi Sister Suffragette

Well it wasn’t exactly the scores of sister suffragettes parading through the streets (à la Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), but a major step forward towards women’s equality was announced today. King Abdullah has declared that women can vote in the next round of municipal elections and can even run as candidates to sit on the municipal boards. Further, he proclaimed that he will appoint some women to serve on the Shoura advisory council. The last major announcement that boosted public participation for women was two years ago, when King Abdullah appointed a woman to be the deputy minister of education.

You have to realize, though, that Saudi Arabia only had its first elections in 2005. These were for seats on the municipal councils and only males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Only half of the seats on these councils were up for grabs too (the other half were appointed by the government). Voter turn-out then was just 30%, so it’s not like the men were clamoring to participate in these elections either.

The next round of municipal elections were supposed to be held in 2009, but were ostensibly postponed to “study the previous election” and consider the issue of allowing women to participate. It was evidently considered v-e-r-y carefully as now, two years later, this announcement comes out. The timing of this announcement is very interesting too. The new date for these delayed elections is this Thursday – too late for the women to participate this time around. They’ll have to wait another 4 years to participate (assuming they keep to their schedule).

Now don’t get me wrong – I do think that this is a significant step forward for Saudi Arabia. But I also think that this is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the government to grab onto, riding on the back of the increasing presence of women in the media. Given the pervasiveness of internet and satellite TV across Saudi Arabia, Saudi women (especially the younger generation) have already been expressing their opinions and voices – through social media, commentaries, blogs (e.g. saudiwoman’s weblog or a saudi woman’s voice). Marching over to the local electoral station (I wouldn’t be surprised to see separate ‘bachelor’ and ‘family’ sections anyway) to stand in an enclosed ballot booth to cast your vote is a no-brainer in terms of implementing the election. (It’s not like the election will increase the opportunity for men and women to mingle, heaven forbid.) The significance is that now Saudi society will encounter the voice of millions of Saudi women (assuming they all vote) … on municipal issues.

It’s a start.

Saudi women – between yesterday and today

I reflected a couple of posts ago about my induction into camelmum’s circle of trust. While that was a significant step forward for my social standing among the family, I was actually more struck by the amazing generational divide represented by the women in the hareem that evening.

Imagine a large living room with sofas lining the perimeter. Large coffee tables are situated in the middle of the room and smaller side tables positioned between every 2 to 3 seats. Arabic coffee and dates are abundant, and large platters full of chocolates in fancy wrapping are served. When the guests enter the hareem, they first circulate among all the women who are already there, greeting them with handshakes and kisses on the cheek. The closer you are to the person, the more kisses you get. The older women, the matriarchs of their families, are the first to be greeted, followed by the person sitting next to them and so on until the round is complete. Then they choose a seat, generally according to their age group. Naturally, once everyone has arrived, a generational grouping is evident across the room. At the far end of the room, furthest from the door, sit the matriarchs. These are the women of camelmum’s generation – her sisters, sisters-in-law, and cousins, and maybe an aunt or two. Next are the women in their forties and fifties, mixed in with us thirty-somethings (camelmum’s daughters, daughters-in-law, and nieces), followed by  camelmum’s older grandchildren (the teens and twenty-somethings). The little kids (both boy and girls attend) are typically running around the house.

The generational divide between the groups is evident even by their appearance. Most of the matriarchs have a thin black scarf wrapped around their hair, even though there are no men around. I think this signifies their respect to each other and status within the family. They might have some henna adorning their fingernails and hands and their style of dress is typically more conservative and traditional (long, floor-length cotton dresses). Next the 30-50-somethings have got a bit more modern-style clothing – silk blouses and long skirts, or something along those lines. The younger generation sport more modern clothes, from shops like The Gap; jeans, t-shirts, and shorter dresses (although generally still below the knee).

When I look across this hareem, I am amazed by the societal change across the last 60-70 years represented by these women. Camelmum, and the women of her generation, would have gotten married when they were very young – around 14-16 years of age – invariably an arranged marriage, perhaps to a first cousin or more distant relative. Perhaps they had their first couple of children when they in their teens. They probably didn’t have much schooling and may still be functionally illiterate. But they worked hard for their family and raised hard-working, studious kids. Infant mortality rate was high too (even in 1976, after camelman was born, it was high at 90 per 1000 births); camelmum herself lost 5 out of the 11 babies she gave birth to. They would have witnessed the immense change brought on by the rise of the oil economy in Saudi Arabia. Camelmum grew up in a small village called Al Ghat, about 260 km from Riyadh. Her sister, who still lives in Al Ghat, can remember when the Canadian engineers (from Bell Canada) came to install the telephone lines there and when electricity was hooked up to her house.

By the time her kids were growing up, all of camelmum’s sons and daughters had the opportunity to attend university and even study abroad (for the boys), thanks to the growing wealth of the country. All of my sisters-in-law completed university, although they were generally relegated to becoming teachers, social workers, or administrators. Marriage trends were changing too, with  the age at marriage slightly increasing (all of camelman’s sisters and sisters-in-law got married when they were between 18 and 25 years old). Once they became full-time mothers, though, it was generally accepted that they stop working to stay at home and raise the kids, an attitude, I should point out, that is still not unheard of, even in some present-day western societies.

The really interesting jump is evident with camelman’s older nieces, the ones who are just starting university now. I watch them interacting with each other much as  young women in the West do – with their iPhones, sharing photos and the latest jokes from the internet and videos from Youtube, talking about Facebook, recent blockbuster movies they watched in Dubai, and the latest fashions and wonders of MoroccanOil. These bright young women are all in university, studying science, dentistry, pharmacy, and related fields. One of them is attending Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University – a huge new university (complete with its own monorail system) aiming to be the largest female-only university in the world. They have ambitions to go on to graduate degrees and even go abroad to for post-graduate studies – and most tellingly, all this with the support of their parents. Ask them about marriage and they brush the topic aside. No time to think about it – education and career comes first!

As for the little girls running around the house, singing and chattering on about SpongeBob SquarePants – well, I can’t even imagine what their futures will look like, but am sure it will be open to even more amazing opportunities.

camelman: AKA donkeyman

When we’re in Saudi, camelman thinks he’s a donkey. Consider this: since I cannot drive myself or even go out for a walk around the neighbourhood by myself, I am completely dependent on camelman to cart me around. Whatever my whim, camelman is at my beck and call.

courtesy of papillontravels.net

When I need to renew my exit-re-entry visa (so I can return to Saudi the next time), who goes to the visa office to line up for hours on my behalf? Camelman. When we tried to get a 1-year multiple re-entry visa (difficult to get, unless you have wasta), who went to the majlis to speak on my behalf? Camelman (but it was all for naught). When I have a craving for Mama Noura shawarma, who goes out to fetch the take-out to satisfy my appetite? Camelman. When I need to get out of the house for some exercise, who takes me out for some air? Camelman. When I have an appointment at the university, who delivers me? You betcha – camelman! All this while he has to juggle his own work schedule and social engagements.

Life of a Saudi guy = donkey work.

How much more efficient Saudi life could be if only they allowed women to drive!

Speaking of donkeys … beware the ‘meat’ option next time you are on a Saudi Airlines flight: http://www.emirates247.com/business/donkey-meat-on-saudi-arabian-airline-2011-06-13-1.402522

Women2Drive

Hats off to the reported 30-40 Saudi women who just needed to run some errands today and got into a car to drive themselves: “Saudi women defy ban to take driver’s seat” and “Saudi Arabia women test driving ban”This article also nicely highlights the huge disconnect between many brave, forward-thinking members of the Saudi population and the way of life imposed on them by the nebulous and paranoid authorities.

June 17 was a planned day of protest against the ban on women driving. What I liked about this action was that they just encouraged women to do their thing; if they needed to get groceries or go to an appointment, just drive themselves (if they know how to drive and have an international driver’s license). No need to parade around and shout slogans. Just live your life like any other woman in the world!

As you’ll glean from these articles, it’s not as if there have never been any women to take to the wheel in the history of Saudi Arabia. There was a protest in the early ’90s, which was quickly quashed. Nevertheless, women commonly drive in rural areas, where the practicalities of farm life simply over-ride any societal expectations of ‘appropriate’ behavior expected of females. Indeed, common sense does sometimes overcome the baffling contradictions of this country. I consider one of camelman’s female relatives a pioneer in shaking away the constraints of the country. It was, perhaps, in the late ’80s or early ’90s. One night, her husband phoned her; he was driving home from another town and was about 50 kilometers away when his car broke down. It was late at night and there was no tow truck he could call. It also happened that the family driver was on vacation. So she went to his closet and put on one of his thobes (a man’s robe) and shemagh (a man’s head gear) and got into the family car to go rescue her husband. Although she wasn’t trying to make a statement about women driving (she was disguised as a man, after all), I think her actions were very brave. If she had gotten caught, it would have been an embarrassment for the family in front of their relatives and friends (although I also think many would have applauded her creative and logical solution).

I am optimistic it will not be too long before a woman won’t have to disguise herself as a man just to be able to drive a car.

riding in cars with boys

It is generally well known that women don’t drive in Saudi Arabia. While it’s not technically against the law for women to drive, it is impossible for a women to get a driver’s license in Saudi. This is the Saudi government’s neat way of banning women from driving.

Why? Some of the reasoning I have heard include: How would she be able to drive safely and do the requisite shoulder checks while wearing the niqab? What if a woman gets into a traffic accident and would have to interact with a male stranger (e.g. policeman, other driver)? First of all, the men are evidently not doing much better with those shoulder checks – Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest incidences of traffic fatalities. Second, why not remove the niqab? (This, of course, brings up a whole other issue.) And as for the problem of interacting with male strangers, well let’s just say the work-around is laughable.

Since women can’t drive, many families need to hire drivers. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of expat men working in the Kingdom as drivers. By my estimation, most of these men are from southeast Asia, and therefore are probably male strangers. If you’ve read my post about lingerie shopping, you’re probably starting to see a pattern.

So let me get this straight. You don’t allow women to drive because you don’t want them exposed to male strangers. So the solution is to bring in someone from overseas to serve as a driver for your family. They probably come with minimal/no background check, so you need to take a big risk bringing in a driver. The driver may live on the premises and at the very least, will have access to your house and car(s). His job is to drive your wife/daughter/mother/sister/aunt wherever they need to go, and he’s to be available any time of day or night, any day of the week. For this, he might get paid about the equivalent of $400/month (apparently the price varies depending on the driver’s nationality).

Are there alternatives? The public transportation system in Saudi might as well be non-existent, and in any case doesn’t allow access to women. Taxi cabs are iffy, but could be all right if absolutely necessary. Therefore, the only other solution, besides hiring an expat driver, is for the male members of the family to serve as chauffeur. Clearly not a practical, long-term solution. Think of your own family situation and daily routine, and then imagine what it would be like if, on top of your own schedule, you had to juggle the arrival and departure schedules of all the female members of your family as they go to and from school, work, grocery shopping, leisure activities, etc. Not fun.

So I say let us drive! In any case, the traffic can’t get any nuttier than this:

On a more serious note, there is an important protest gaining international attention, led by one brave Saudi woman named Manal Al-Sherif. Hopefully it will lead to some real change.