Dan Brown wrote an international bestseller about the effects of removing the Sacred Feminine from religion. Thus began a global discussion of the Catholic church and the neverending success of The Da Vinci Code. I have been considering a much more mundane prospect but one that has great impact on daily life. I was considering the effects of removing the feminine presence from the daily life of a society. What happens to such a society? In one word, such a society becomes ‘ridiculous’.
Saudi Arabia is the clearest case in point. Afghanistan under the Taliban was another weird case. But then, that is just an effect of the importation of Saudi Wahabbism to other, poorer countries. It’s important to note that Afghanistan had a thriving society filled with female doctors, teachers, hairdressers and just about every other profession until the Saudi Wahabbi money and ISI’s sinister scheme created the many horned Taliban beast. Women were everywhere, doing everything, in Afghanistan, until the dreaded Taliban wormed their way into power at gunpoint, with the added ammunition of fundamentalist ideology. Today, Afghanistan is wending its slow way back to normal, with women in Parliament and other sectors of the economy.
As for Saudi Arabia, what can I say. I mean really, what can you say about Saudi Arabia? It is a society that actively strives for the title of ‘ridiculous’. If you look up ‘Women in Saudi Arabia’ in Wikipedia, you find one page that lists all the women in Saudi Arabia who are outstanding in different sectors. Here are the categories, alphabetised no less. A for Actresses, has 1 entry. The next category is under F, for Film Directors. It has 1 person listed. Next comes M, for Medical Doctors, with a paltry 4 names. The next entry is under P, for Politicians, with 5 names. Then we have a category under S, for Singers, 4 names. After this blitz, if you have the energy to carry on, is S for Sportswomen with a dazzling 3 names featured. The last category falls under W, for Writers with a truly impressive list of 8 women. One of these women, is actually of Turkish descent, not even really Saudi. She is the mother of Dodi Al Fayed, of Princess Diana fame, with that fact taking precedence over her writing in her bio. The whole list of eminent Saudi women equals a total of 26 luminaries.
So we have 26 women of renown, out of a population of 29.2 million Saudis (2012 statistics). Roughly half the population is female. If this statistic doesn’t make Gloria Steinem scream, I don’t know what will. It certainly drives me crazy. It is a crying shame that in the year 2014, when women have taken their place on the world’s stage and established their positions firmly in every aspect of life everywhere in the world, women in obscenely wealthy Saudi Arabia are so isolated. In the Asian Games held in October 2014, Saudi Arabia was the only country that failed to field even a single female athlete. If this isn’t the definition of a ridiculous society, I haven’t been looking hard enough I suppose.
The country has an entity called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or the religious police. This entity’s main activity seems to consist of restricting the movements of women in the country. Of course they are also well known for other human rights violations. But let us focus on the plight of Saudi women. There is a long list of things a Saudi woman is forbidden from doing. I read that a Saudi woman cannot open a bank account without her husband’s approval. Huh, I thought to myself, what is the fate of the Saudi woman who does not marry? She gets to stuff her mattress with banknotes I suppose. How appropriate. But wait, is a Saudi woman allowed to choose not to marry? The circles within circles are getting totally psychedelic now.
A Saudi woman cannot go anywhere in public, I mean anywhere, without a male chaperone. This person is called ‘mahram‘, usually a male relative. God forbid, it’s an unrelated male. In one bizarre case, a girl reported being gangraped. When it was established she had stepped out without a ‘mahram‘, she was found guilty. She actually got more lashes of the cane than one of her rapists! Wherever a Saudi woman is going, she cannot drive herself there in any case. Women are not allowed to drive, not by any specific law, but by decree of Saudi clerics. They believe women drivers ‘undermine social values’. Their words, not mine.
So the list of the forbidden continues. Women can’t drive, go anywhere alone in public, participate in international sports events, swim in a public pool or in the ocean, try on clothes in a store and so on and so forth. Some of the verboten are positively mental. A woman can’t read an uncensored magazine, buy a barbie doll, try on clothes in a store before buying or work in a lingerie store. I know countless women who’d love to go to a Victoria’s Secret staffed only by men. Wouldn’t you? It’s laughable. Think of the sizing discussions on bras, boggles the mind doesn’t it? However, as Maureen Dowd states in her Vanity Fair article, ‘A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia’, everything in Saudi Arabia is on a ‘sliding scale’, “depending on who you are, whom you know, whom you ask, whom you’re with, and where you are”. So at least some of the women are enjoying some freedoms, some of the time.
In another pesky comparison to the Catholic Church, Saudi Arabia is the only country other than the Vatican, where men have the vote, but women don’t. This differentiates them from countries where no one has the vote, aka dictatorships. Just to throw a dog a bone, there is a royal decree which will allow Saudi women to vote in local body elections in 2015. How magnanimous of the King. I’m guessing this is a man who stepped fully formed out of a magazine and produced his own kids the same way, because apparently he has no mother or wife (or is it wives?).
The biggest problem with making a society so ridiculous, by forcing women so deep into the shadows that they are practically invisible, is the public behaviour of men. People in Mumbai and London have long known of this. It is rumoured that the venerable Taj group in India actually built the far gaudier President hotel in Mumbai to cater to the large number of Arabian guests (known by the generic term ‘sheikhs’) and their tastes. And to keep them apart from other guests perhaps? The idea for this post occurred to me as I was transcribing an interview with a group of successful Saudi businessmen. Some of their speech was Ionesco in the flesh. Funny but true, when asked what were the peculiarities of the Saudi market one businessman responded,’the camels’. The interviewer was understandably taken aback. Pressed further, the interviewee says “camels are too expensive here. They cost much more than Bentleys”. I give you the Saudi male.
I certainly refrain from painting it as Arab culture. It is not. It is quite specifically Saudi Arabian. None of the nations nearby have such oppressive practices against women. Lebanon and Jordan are perfect examples. Saddam Hussain may have been a murderous dictator, but under his Baathist rule Iraqi women had tremendous freedoms, (more than a little lost since). Syria is certainly more progressive in women’s issues. The Emirates states are way ahead of the others in the region. It is Saudi Arabia that chooses to regress in women’s rights. It has chosen to relegate women to domestic roles, as housewives and maids and housekeepers. Oil rich and tremendously powerful in the region, it has chosen not to lead from the front.
Fortunately for them, Saudi women are highly educated. They will not stay in the shadows for much longer. Their sisters around the world stand ready to rally behind them. As they begin to push the envelope, slowly and steadily, they will themselves bring about the revolution that frees them from the oppressiveness of their society. Until then, the sliding scale will have to suffice.