“Remember the ladies.” –Abigail Adams
Last week, I shared some of my personal experiences as an American woman in Riyadh. Today, I’ll discuss a related, but separate, issue: the women of Riyadh. The role of women in Saudi Arabia is changing. Too rapidly for some, too slowly for others; nonetheless, it is changing everyday. As in many cultures, the Saudi woman’s historical role has typically been in the home. Women and men are strictly segregated in public, and women must cover anytime they go outside the home. Restaurants and cafes have separate entrances for “singles” (men) and “families” (women and mixed groups of relatives). Individual tables even have curtains to screen women from prying eyes. A number of establishments are men-only; more than once, I was turned away at the door because the restaurant my friends and I had chosen did not allow women inside.
These outward appearances are all part of a larger question over the place of women in the public sphere. Some segments of Saudi society are uncomfortable with granting women greater visibility and independence. Driving means increased mobility, which causes worry about what will happen to a woman in public absent her husband’s or father’s protection. Some worry that it will be easier for young men and women to socialize together, or even date. Many people ask what will happen if a woman’s car breaks down and a man tries to harm her. Similarly, some argue that the abaya and hijab are necessary protections against male aggression. Personally, I have a hard time understanding the principle of curbing women’s rights in order to curb men’s behavior. Aren’t we all responsible for our own choices and actions? These attitudes, however, are slowly transforming within Saudi.
Modern Saudi women are creating new roles for themselves in society. Greater numbers of women enroll in university and enter the professional arena. Saudi women today are more eager to participate in public life, demonstrating their best qualities in the workplace and in their volunteer work -- their confidence, intelligence, elegance, and ambition. Many young women in Saudi today are entering fields like finance, engineering, and medicine. They have degrees from top schools in Saudi, Europe, and, often, the U.S. Saudi society is working to adapt, in its own way, to accommodate all of these brilliant young minds while remaining true to cultural and religious values. For example, Saudi women work in separate offices, or even branches, from their male colleagues. Still, these changing realities challenge many of the traditional restrictions on women. As women and men share greater responsibility for work outside the home, women have an increasing need for mobility. As a result, the driving debate has recently resurfaced in Saudi, and I, for one, am keen to see what happens.
Of course, not every Saudi woman shares the same outlook. There is often a generational divide when it comes to gender roles. I remember working at one embassy event, where I had to check guests’ invitations and identification. In response to my request for identification, one woman indignantly pointed to her husband and stated, “HE is my ID!” Saudi Arabia only began issuing women their own national ID cards relatively recently; prior to that, the woman’s identity was subsumed into that of her husband or father. Many women prefer this traditional way of life.
Still, the status of women in Saudi society continues to change. There are advances, setbacks, and false starts. The “ladies,” as Saudi women often refer to themselves, discuss many of the same hopes and concerns my friends and I talk about together at home: excitement over landing a new job, questions about how to balance work and family life, trepidation over starting a new degree program. That would not have been the case a generation ago. In the end, the question of women’s rights is one that Saudi women and Saudi society will answer for themselves. As women continue to assert themselves and forge greater independence, they will do so in a way that also makes sense in the context of their own values and tradition. The world can only benefit from all that these women have to offer.
(Post Script: Readers may be interested in the novel “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea. The novel tells the story of four young Saudi women and their search for identity and purpose in their careers, friendships, love lives, and families. Originally written in Arabic, the novel was banned in Saudi Arabia when it was published, and is now translated into English and available in the United States. Ms. Alsanea is a sharp, witty writer who discusses some complex issues with humor and grace. I found the book offered insight for anyone wanting to learn more about this issue from a Saudi woman’s perspective.)