What comes to your mind when you think about women in Saudi Arabia?
No rights? No freedom of speech? No freedom to be who they want to be?
Have you already thought about their taste for fashion and beauty? It might sound a bit odd to think that Saudi women do like clothes, lingerie, and being well dressed. Saudi women are part of the modern world in their own unique ways; they have access to the physical trapping of modernity: mobile phones, TV, fast-food but they still live and hope that one day they will have the guarantee of civil rights for all.
Here is an interesting photo from the photographer Shawn Baldwin representing the juxtaposition of globalization and traditions, and the obvious separation between women and men in Saudi society.
First of all, it is important to understand the situation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a major player in world affairs and within the Middle East. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy the constitution of which is based on the Sharia Law (Islamic law – Sharia) that regulates the private and public lives of the whole population as the it deals with many aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business, contracts, family, sexuality, hygiene and social issues. Exposed to globalization, Saudi Arabia is concerned about its future and its place within the business world. This is why Saudi Arabia is becoming more and more involved in the process of globalisation and has emerged as one of the Middle East’s key global leaders with a more open economy. For instance, it is very common to see young Saudi business men in their traditional outfits with the latest trendy mobile phones and high-tech laptops on the terrace of a café. Consequently Riyad, the capital is the amalgam of a very traditional and Bedouin ancestral lifestyle and the rise of a modern world where monumental shopping malls, luxury boutiques and the worldwide fast-food chain McDonals’s are located. In addition, “fifty years ago, Riyadh was a city of mud houses […] Today, the center of the city is wireless and has Starbucks, Saks Fifth Avenue and Baskin-Robbins.” (The (Not So) Eagerly Modern Saudi)
However, even if Saudi Arabia has been opening itself over the last decade, the position of women in Saudi Arabian society is still a complex and frequently misunderstood issue. It is certainly true that from the Western view, the role of women in Saudi Arabia shows sharp cultural differences. In current Saudi society, women have almost no rights (they are not allowed to vote, to drive, to make decisions…) and the government even “continues to treat women as perpetual minors” (Human Rights Watch). The pressure of Islamic extremism is really felt when it comes to the way women have to dress up and the behavior in public and private area that they can or cannot display. The development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has brought opportunities for women in education and employment. In 1960, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia undertook the introduction of a national education program for girls. By the mid-1970s, about half of all Saudi Arabian girls were attending school. Five years later, education was made available to all Saudi girls and it appears, moreover, that women receive an excellent cosmopolitan education. There are now important women physicians, professors, journalists, and business owners. But, it is important to know that it is only a very small percentage of women who have access to these kind of jobs and who are allowed to choose what they want to do themselves. When they express their desires to work, to be allowed to do so, their families have to give their consent. Success is not possible “without a father and husband who have supported her every step of the way” (Saudi women workers). Regarding private life and more precisely marriage, Saudi women are almost never allowed to select for themselves their husbands. Further, at home, women totally depend on their husbands and always need their agreement when they want to do something (going out with friends, shopping…).However, it appears that women in Riyadh can have access to a shopping center for women a few times a week where women are not only the consumers but also the sales clerks. In this very different mall, women can watch TV, can look at magazines, can try on clothes in fitting rooms and even take off their abaya (long black dress). In addition to their taste for fashion, they enjoy wearing lingerie, as they explain, the husbands want them to be sexy and attractive in their private life inside the house. Therefore it is extremely embarrassing for Saudi women when they have to deal with the man working the lingerie shop to talk about the size or the colour of their underwear. Consequently, females in Saudi Arabia require lingerie departments to hire women staff to avoid gender-mixing. (Saudi Women Call for Female-Only Staff in Hospitals and Women Stores)
Here is a very good documentary presenting a typical day into the life of a Muslim wife in Saudi Arabia. Basically, according to the lady in this video below, Saudi women are happy about who they are, what they do regarding Islam religion, Saudi women are very fashionable and love to dress up.
“Saudi Arabia does not like dramatic change (…) so society needs to be prepared and ready before women are allowed to drive?” explains that woman in the documentary above. For a country that is proud of its advance within globalization with respect to its traditions and its religion, is it not finally time to give women their rights and a real identity out of her family?
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