Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Making sense of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

As foreign media continues to slam Saudi Arabia for denying women the right to drive, another piece on women’s rights might seem unnecessary and possibly even boring.

The learned and informed have clarified that in Islam, women and men have equal rights and how in a traditionally closed society, things are gradually opening up and traditionalists are undergoing a huge change of mindset.

I believe that this is so. I have seen dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia in the last three years alone. I similarly saw how different my thinking was from my grandmother’s when similar changes were taking place in India. I respected her for her choices, having been brought up and groomed to be undemanding by her parents, peers and society. While one generation later, my mother gave me a lot of choices, taught me to make decisions by pointing out the options of all of the possible decisions, advised me which was better, yet prodded me to make my own decision, after which she would never criticize it even if I took the one that was wrong.

That represented a huge change in attitude between the mindsets of my mother and her mother before her. My mother was the first female of the family who graduated from college in the 1950s; her elder sister lost out because of the gradual pace of change.

I realize that driving is imperative for a woman so that she can deal with simple situations like picking up shopping items when her husband is working, and doing it before the children return from school. This is a situation I face as an expat.  I also see huge, well-equipped public libraries available for free, but which are underutilized. However, I am not able to use these facilities often enough since they are too far and I can’t drive to them.

However, I do see small but very significant changes taking place. I now see women in twos and threes walking on roads into malls. When I go for a walk in the morning and wish all the shopkeepers on the way a good morning, they now seem to look forward to it and notice if I miss a day, whereas three years ago, they would turn their eyes away pretending they didn’t hear me. Policemen don’t tail me anymore as I walk. Jobs being created for women and colleges for women’s education are there in the media for the world to see.

However, I was really disappointed recently when our car was involved in a minor accident one evening. A car, in which a young man was driving with his friends, overtook our car in a hurry from the first lane while we were ourselves moving into it, and it scratched the left bumper of our car. My husband was preoccupied with driving and I was the one who saw what happened.

It was nice to deal with well-mannered local young people, who listened to my broken-Arabic explanation, and accepted that they had made a mistake. So we mutually agreed to move the cars so that the traffic flow would not be affected. But it was a gargantuan task trying to get the policemen to listen to me, because I was a woman. They kept ignoring me, refusing to look me in the face. This, despite the fact that my husband and the young men told them that what I said was right. Taxi drivers and other male citizens who gathered also kept telling me to sit in our car.

What was frustrating and at the same time funny was that the policemen needed to know what had happened and they were wasting their time trying to reconstruct events, while I who could tell them what had happened, couldn’t talk to them, because I am a woman?

Things will change, I am positive of that. It has to start at the base public level, and it is starting. As I see it, teasing and misdemeanors directed at women which currently take place are also going to change as the authorities respect tradition, yet recognize that sex segregation from childhood is one of the major reasons for it. Denying young people any informed discussion and very little access to information about their simple curiosity about the opposite sex leads to some of them adopting some wrong ways of going about it. But  education will sort this out and rapid development is already happening in that sector.

Saudi students are going abroad for studies and are being exposed to a variety of technologies and traditions. This will undoubtedly lead to them making good, forward-thinking decisions. I only hope that the country and economy are ready to involve them actively when they return to the Kingdom. India had to sacrifice its first generation of entrepreneurs and technologists to Silicon Valley because the country was not ready, able and equipped enough by the time these young people were. 

Anna, Riyadh


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