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Standing with Saudi women activists

  • Published at 12:56 pm November 1st, 2013
Standing with Saudi women activists

In Saudi Arabia, when there is an eligible bachelorette in the house, a green flag is hoisted outside so that prospective grooms and their families can send marriage proposals. Whether they are allowed to see and talk to each other, or if they rely on the judgment of their family members remains a mystery to me.

Here are some fun facts about Saudi Arabia, some of which you might know already. Women in the country do not step outside of their homes without male companionship, whether it is the hospital, or the grocery store.

Every man has an ID, formally known as the ekama, while women do not as men in their families act as their guardians. Women in Saudi Arabia, irrespective of nationality or personal choice for that matter, remain burkha-clad when around men. Note: White women are often exempted from this rule but if a brown woman does not have her hair “properly” covered, men in beards suddenly appear and warn the husband/guardian.

There are two professions that women can choose to pursue: Teaching and healthcare. It is not uncommon for Saudi men to take as many as four wives, and live with all of them, along with their respective children together, in one household.

These simple pointers must be enough to hint at the position of women in Arab land. That they are given no priority, no rights or even no say about any matter, doesn’t come as a surprise. But what is surprising is the brave path that some Saudi women activists have treaded on when they took up driving on the streets.

This was probably their first claim to independence, to pursue something outside their comfort zone, without worrying about the consequences. There have been three such incidents in which women in a combined and organised nature took to the roads, whereby they were stopped by government officials, the last one being on October 27 this year, and the first being in 1990.

This third and final attempt can be termed as more or less successful as dozens of women have posted their videos online, although the numbers can’t be confirmed. How these women learned to drive in the first place, without being able to go anywhere without a male chaperone, remains a story that fascinates me.

The archetypical attitude of the patriarchal society is about as bad as it can get in Saudi Arabia. That they want to remain clutched to the lifestyle, behaviour and monotonous mindsets of their forefathers, and that they refuse to grow out of the 7th century Middle Eastern mentality cannot be appraised.

But while they are circumferenced by what they term as the “Islamic way of life” they do not refrain from modern technologies and forms of what can only be termed politely as “entertainment” in the private spheres of their life. Men are allowed to go beyond the prescribed ways, to break laws even whereas women remain enslaved in the four walls of their homes.

There is no written law in Saudi Arabia that bans women from driving cars. Yet it is an unacceptable form of behaviour in their country and thus remains reason enough to arrest women who attempt it and lock them up in prison.

For me, Saudi women deserve praise simply for defying a redundant law, and taking matters in their own hands. Nothing substantial has been achieved through this incident. Yet, many changes have occurred even though the ban is yet to be lifted.

Women will be allowed to vote and run in municipal elections starting 2015. Women will also be allowed to join the Shoura Council, a, national decision-making body, starting 2013. Saudi Arabia for the first time ever sent female Olympic athletes, a runner and a judo fighter, to compete in London.

When I look back at my days as a young child in Saudi Arabia, I am unable to fathom how for years women have continued to walk behind their husbands, eyes cast down literally and metaphorically. According to the World Economic Forum’s gender report, Saudi Arabia is one of the worst countries in the world for women to live in.

I am proud to be a Bangladeshi for many reasons. The development of women’s emancipation, along with better healthcare and education facilities, in comparison to many other countries around the world, is one that tops the list.  

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