Despite perceptible recent reforms, Saudi Arabia, will not soon become a tourist destination for Western party goers. The kingdom is infamous for triggering reactions of horror and frustration with regular reports of despicable news: an irritated Imam publicizing a new Sharia law, sadistic punishments inflicted to bloggers, women banned from driving, princesses sequestered, and little girls trapped in abusive marriages. Aspiring model of islamic virtue, the kingdom has no room for women’s rights and that tarnishes its global reputation. Even though, SA and the US have been allies since 1933—maintaining a “special relationship” made possible by a creative alchemy of oil and weapons trade. Although, this alliance can be disconcerting; partnering with a country where women don’t legally exist is a slap to the face of the free world.
To most of the world, Saudi women appear as shapeless forms dressed in abayah, long black cloaks often worn over their western outfits; they stroll about, trailing a few feet behind their husbands, fathers, or brothers. Looking more ghostly than feminine, they spur mixed feelings in the Occident that range from compassion to anger from perpetuating an “unacceptable” model of womanhood.
The book “Revolution Under the Veil” by French foreign correspondent in SA, Clarence Rodriguez, turns this misconception around by letting eight Saudi women speak about their fights, dreams, and hopes. Suddenly the veil lifts, revealing an array of vibrant personalities—real trail blazers of their country’s future.
Madeha, with her irrepressible sense of purpose and resolve, is an inspiring force. In 1990, she led a group of 47 women drivers in Riyad—a milestone that shed light not only on the Saudi women’s condition but also on a burgeoning front for women’s lib. We are not afraid to “resist arbitrary actions from an ancient patriarchal tradition as long as it will persist,” she says. Yet this tradition is so rigid that it couldn’t accommodate any of Madeha’s dreams, such as becoming a photographer. By the quality and beauty of her work, she is, but she can’t make a living out of it so she shares it on Instagram.
Madeha’s paved the way for Manal al-Sharif’s 2011 driving stunt. Spontaneously, Manal videotaped herself behind the wheel and posted it on YouTube. She was instantly showered with worldwide attention and support along with humiliating backlash in her homeland. Steadfast in her ideals, she now lives in Dubai, sporadically organizing media campaigns on the web with other women’s rights activists.
In 2007, Eman al-Nafjan decided to publish her blog, SAUDI WOMAN, in English. Initially operating in anonymity, “I revealed my name a year later. Several Saudi blogs already existed on the web. But they were written by men or by expatriated women. Oftentimes, I didn’t even like their content. So I created a space where I could give my opinion on different topics affecting me and Saudi women in general. A little buzz started growing around it and my husband was called to the minister. They asked him to sign a document ordering me to stop my blog otherwise he would get himself into trouble and lose his job. Unimpressed by their blackmail, he didn’t sign,” she says. Eman’s blog became one of the most popular in Saudi Arabia and gave her opportunities to write pieces for newspapers and magazines abroad. Yet, nothing from her upbringing in Quassim, a religiously radical region, could possibly encourage her to be a successful writer, save a supportive and openminded family.
Princess Adila is the youngest daughter of late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Aida Fustuq, a Lebanese woman. Far from being sequestered, she was called the “Modern Face of the Conservative Saudi Royal Family.” Highly respected and influential , she is credited for being instrumental behind new reforms, signed by her father, giving more opportunities to women in the kingdom. In addition to the king’s legacy of widening their job opportunities and raising the legal age of marriage to seventeen instead of twelve, this year—for the first time—Saudi women may exercise their right to vote in municipal elections. Since his employment reform, the SA Ministry of Labor published data showing that the number of Saudi women employed in the kingdom’s private sector grew from 55,000 in 2010 to 454,000 by the end of 2013.
Conservative and progressive alike are avid internet users—surfing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. All are aware of the world beyond the Wahhabism Islamic wall, and are in closer contact with the Western world than ever before. How much of this external input empowers them to insist for change is hardly quantifiable. According to Eman, “blogs and social networks have contributed largely to the recent evolution of women within the Saudi society. Before we heard nothing but the voice of our government. Suddenly, thousands of voices reached us from all over the world; our ears are opened and voices freed.”
Today many observers are amazed by the changes they have noticed in the past three years. In reality, this evolution is long overdue and doesn’t significantly revolutionize women’s lives. Hiring women in Saudi Arabia requires special accommodations: a business needs to set up partitions to enforce gender separation, set up an appropriate transportation system, be ready to communicate through a mandatory male guardian. Against all these odds Saudi women of the twenty first century are rising. Some of them are even enrolled in flight dispatcher training at the Aviation Academy in Jeddha.
Meanwhile, not even foreigners can avoid Charia, the law of the kingdom. So how can a female journalist do her job?
“I must admit, I have barriers that my male colleagues don’t have. Not being able to drive, I can’t cover a sudden crisis on the spot, I need a driver. The logistics are tedious. The last resort is to conduct interviews at my home; it’s not very safe. As a correspondent, I got my accreditation in 2005, so I have official recognition, but, as a woman, I don’t have legal existence—it’s a very dichotomic situation. I was never censored, but I have to watch myself to make sure I’m not going too far.
Recently, for the first time in ten years, I was lectured when they noticed a referene to Sunnism in one of my pieces. The topic of religion, the Sunni-Shia relationship. is very sensitive. They read everything written about them; it’s remarkable how they can screen all these stories so meticulously,” shares Clarence.
Saudi Arabia is not only keeping its women under veils, it also draws a veil over information which ranked it number three on the infamous list of the 10 most censored countries in the world.
However Clarence wasn’t censored for her book, nor for her upcoming documentary, “Arabie Saoudite: Paroles de Femmes” (Saudi Arabia: Words of Women) for France5 : “I know I’m watched but that’s doesn’t stop me from doing my work as I see fit. No one ever told me what to say or write,” she says. “I made this documentary hoping to correct the biased thinking toward the life of women in Saudi Arabia, mine included.” When traveling, her husband needs to give his authorization, and she wears an abayah in public places. She’s affected by the driving ban, relying on her spouse when available and drivers from a private company to move her around.
But then there’s the oddball moment. Recently, the military organized a press trip at the Saudi-Yemeni border–On the field that day, Clarence was wearing three layers—her occidental clothing hidden under her abayah and on top a bullet proof vest way too large for her frame that a man was trying to adjust paternally on her. So much for the strict gender separation.
by Carole Illouz