Saudi Arabia's Untapped Resource: Women
By Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D.
Created Dec 21 2009
I have just stepped off the plane from Saudi Arabia where I have been traveling with four friends and a Saudi guide. I went to see. All I knew before the trip was that I would be wearing a head scarf and long black robe-an abaya-for 10 days and nights.
I did see. I saw the desert sun as it turned the mountains purple with falling night; wadi towns with dusty streets and fields of palms; meticulously appointed museums tucked beside the archeological remains of ancient mud villages; maps of trade routes in the time of Christ; camel markets; and souks redolent with frankincense and myrrh. I heard the call to prayer five times a day; ate sweet tomatoes and plump dates; soared to the top of a modern skyscraper in Riyadh; looked out at Medina's gleaming minarets from the window of the plane; and rode a pleasure boat on the Red Sea.
We in the West are largely misinformed about Saudi Arabia. When I told my friends where I was going, the characteristic response was, "What's there to see but sand?" or "You'll get shot." But the people are friendly. The streets are safe. The food is good. You can drink the water. The history of Arabia pulls together much that our Western education has overlooked, with our emphasis on Egypt, Greece and Rome. And rather than being oppressive, my abaya was actually comfortable and rather elegant.
But Saudi Arabia sees itself as the heart of the Islamic faith, the home of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca where the prophet Mohammad lived and died, and where, annually, millions of Muslim pilgrims assemble from around the world. It is the most conservative of all Arab nations. And despite its intense beauty and intellectual richness, Saudi Arabia has at least one highly complex-and to the Western mind exceedingly troubling-cultural tradition: its credos about women. This hit me hard when I heard a single comment by a young girl. She was 25, spoke English enthusiastically, and wore no abaya when she welcomed us in the women's room of her father's house in Al Jouf, a small city in the north. "I want to work in a bank," she said bashfully, "but my father forbids it."
During our 10 days in the country, I never saw a working woman. Men cleaned our rooms. Men served our food and poured our coffee. Men checked us in and out of each hotel. Men took our tickets in museums, sold us clothes and perfume in well-stocked stores, and guided our archeological excursions and desert hikes. Even on their festive Islamic New Year's Day, December 18th, men poured into the mosques to pray and socialize; women prayed at home.
I almost never saw a woman in the street-except in Jeddah. And when I did, I only saw her veiled from head to toe. Even at the beach, where hundreds of men splashed in the Red Sea, women squatted in their black abayas and head scarves along the shore. Most of the time, I only saw their eyes. No nose. No mouth. Often even their eyes were veiled and their hands gloved in black.
Mosques are segregated by sex. Restaurants are segregated. Schools and colleges are segregated. One museum was segregated the day I was there. Even in airports, women pass through different security gates. Moreover, men rarely moved to let me pass; they often barged ahead of me to the elevator, too: Men go first.
Don't get me wrong: Women play a powerful role in the marriage market, making the major arrangements in the weddings of their sons. But a woman's place is in the home. She is not allowed to drive a car. And to leave her house, I was told, she must be accompanied by a man-even if he is her six year old son.
Yet I also saw cracks in this wall of faith and history. In a new branch of King Abudullah-Aziz University, young women share their classes with men-a first for Saudi Arabia. The more liberated women of Jeddah choose their husbands for themselves (albeit only with the consent of parents). I was told that some 20% of women work as teachers, nurses, or in the "women's section" of banks. In fashionable Jeddah, I saw one woman wearing her abaya as a somewhat form-fitting long dress. And some women frequent undercover nightclubs where they drink and dance.
Indeed, the uncomfortable intrusion of the modern world was vividly evident in a newspaper story I read while there. During a recent and serious flood in Jeddah, a woman had rescued several people by pulling them from the rising waters with a rope attached to a car. She had learned to drive in the desert, secretly.
"The world is talking about how we treat our women." I heard these exact words spoken over a loudspeaker by an Imam to his followers, translated by our guide, as I stood outside a mosque. He followed, reassuringly, "They don't understand that in every Muslim home a husband consults his wife before making a major decision." Saudi Arabia is in the fast line to modernization in many ways. And many Saudis are rich, due to their subterranean seas of oil and gas. In fact, gas is two cents a gallon and most families, I was told, have an average of five cars.
gender inequalities. Ironically one of them occurred during my trip home. My friends and I were obliged to stop in London overnight. And as we are all members of the same club in New York-which has a reciprocal arrangement with a club in London-I decided it would be festive to dine there on our last evening together. So I called to make the reservation. "I'm sorry," said a clipped male British voice. "But this reservation must be made by a man."
But it may take them a long time to discover their last great resource: women. I say this as a Western women who is fully aware of our own
"The dogs may bark but the caravan moves on." It's an old-and true-Arab saying. Women around the world are gradually reassuming the roles they played a million years ago-as social, sexual, and economic equals with men. But it's taking time, even in the West.