It’s not easy being a woman, period, in the Middle East, but in Saudi Arabia being a woman takes on a whole new meaning. Their infamous lack of rights-from not being able to drive to not being able to vote (recently ‘amended’) to not even being able to go out or travel by one’s self (and this applies to foreign, Western women tourists too)-have long been condemned by human rights groups everywhere.
Yet there is progress occurring in Saudi Arabia even as women near and far across the Middle East continue to suffer at the hands of dominating, sexist men. Just take a look at these recent measures:
A Mall Without Men
Rarely do women have any rights over men, but such was the case when it came to visiting a mall in Saudi Arabia: apparently, single men were barred from visiting the malls except for during weekday lunchtime hours so that the malls could be “family-friendly” places and women wouldn’t be harassed. Recently it was decided that the law would be changed. While this might not seem as a move towards women’s rights, since women once again might be exposed to, ahem, lustful men who stalk them in public spaces, it nevertheless is a very big step in the direction of true women’s rights: acknowledging that men and women are equal and that both should be allowed to roam the same public place, in trusting that both can behave themselves! What was that phrase from the 1950s-“Separate is NOT equal?”
A Woman at the Olympic Games
Like anything else that the West might deem “fun,” athletics are highly discouraged for women in Saudi Arabia. Women athletes do, nevertheless, exist, and as in Iran they are usually prevented from participating in sporting events abroad. Yet one Dalma Malhas may become the first Saudi woman in recent history to participate in a sporting event of such magnitude as the upcoming Olympics in London. While the decision to allow her to participate has not yet been officially declared, this is a great milestone for women athletes that the possibility is even being considered. However, the reason Dalma Malhas is even being considered is probably because she is an equestrian, which is pretty “tame” in terms of dress (watching the Hampton Classic equestrians in full riding dress in 80-degree heat always makes me sweat) as well as contact: it’s not like soccor or volleyball, where women wear skimpier uniforms and are pushing, shoving, sweating and moving in, ahem, unladylike ways. Even if she will be forced to wear a hijab or other Islamic-style dress to the Olympics, Dalma will still pave the way for aspiring Saudi atheletes.
Lingerie Shops Run by Women, for Women
Women selling lingerie to women sounds like a no-brainer: what salesman could possibly know better than a woman when it comes to how a bra fits, and what undies are comfortable yet attractive? Yet in Saudi Arabia, where women are basically forbidden to work, lingerie shops were staffed with men. Indeed, this was another one of those awkward situations that the Saudi government got itself into: women and men are so deterred from interacting, and yet if a young girl needs help buying her first bra, she’s going to have an older man hand it over to her? After lobbying and complaining, the Saudi government finally decided to let women work in lingerie shops, thus not only creating new jobs for women but also insuring that shopping for underthings is a more relaxing experience!
Joining the Anti-Bod Squad
Out of all of these recent achievements for Saudi women, perhaps the most thrilling (and telling) of all is that women are being considered to join the Religious Police, which I have nicknamed the ‘Anti-Bod Squad’ since making sure women are dutifully covered is just one of their many arduous tasks. If Saudi women are being deemed worthy enough to judge others and take authority over even a man, than that means that they are being seen as equals. However much I applaud the shiekhs for even considering this, I do feel that allowing women to join the religious police will be a bust. What sexist man is really going to take a woman “arresting” him without putting up a fight? A woman telling a man what to do? Sacre bleu!
1. Saudi Women Break a Barrier: The Right to Sell Lingerie, by Thomas J. Lippman on Jan. 21, 2012:
2. Al Ahlam http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/37664.aspx