Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saudi Arabia Needs Its Own Rosa Parks

Saudi Arabia Needs Its Own Rosa Parks

Ihave been reading this fascinating book by Gail Collins called When Everything Changed, which follows the women’s liberation movement in the United States from 1960 to the present day. As I read along, it is strangely comforting to realize that it really wasn’t that long ago that women in America were treated like children, like property, like second class citizens, and as unimportant and unproductive members of society – much like the contemporary women of Saudi Arabia. There are so many similarities in the plight of Saudi women of today compared to American women just fifty short years ago. When you consider that Saudi Arabia is quite a young country - a unified kingdom only since 1932 and relatively underdeveloped until the oil boom of the 1970s – I guess the fact that the status of its women is still seriously lagging behind the rest of the world makes it all a little easier to swallow - although anyone coming here from a more liberated society would understandably wish for it to speed up a bit.

A part of the book revisits the 1950s Civil Rights Movement. When I read the pages about Rosa Parks, I thought to myself that Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks achieved iconic status as the spark that launched the Civil Rights Movement in the United States for refusing the order of an Alabama bus driver to give up her seat on the public bus to a white person or face being arrested. Mrs. Parks was not the first black person arrested for doing this - but for several years the NAACP had been searching for the perfect person to advance the movement and she happened to fit the bill to a T. Always possessing an air of dignity, Mrs. Parks was a middle-aged seamstress, of impeccable character and manners. Her own husband was terrified for her safety and begged her not to agree to be the test case for this landmark case. As a result of her simple act of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks was the catalyst that unified the entire black community to protest against racial discrimination – and the rest is history.

Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks.

This strict Muslim country imposes severe restrictions on its women – physically, socially, legally, and in marriage. Everything here seems to favour men and impede women. Every woman has her own mahram – a male guardian who has legal control over every aspect of her life, which in effect relegates her to the status of a child. Women in Saudi Arabia are restricted in their movements, while men are free to come and go as they please. Women cannot drive. They must be accompanied many places by a male member of their family. They must have permission from their male guardian to leave the country or travel. They are restricted from participating in most sports and from riding bikes, and while grotesquely hairy overweight men can go swimming in public wearing just swim trunks, women are not allowed unless they are Islamically covered from head to toe.

While the percentage of Saudi women enrolled in institutions of higher learning in Saudi Arabia is a whopping 70% compared to men, working women in this country account for a mere 5% of the work force, and that number likely includes foreign women workers. This figure represents the lowest percentage of women working in any country in the world. Saudi women cannot attend school or work without the express permission of their husbands or father or legal male guardian. Plus women here are restricted from working in many fields and are also prohibited from working side by side with men, with very few exceptions.

Saudi women face unbelievable discrimination within the Saudi legal system. They are forbidden from testifying in court (reasons include that they are too emotional, forgetful, or unreliable!). Saudi women are always somehow blamed when sexual offenses are committed against them. Divorce can easily be obtained by husbands against their wives, while women must go through difficult legal wrangling to obtain a divorce from their husbands.

“Sexual Apartheid” is a term that has been used to describe the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. There are many other areas where women are discriminated against here in Saudi Arabia - too many to mention in this post. One problem in advancing women’s rights here is the lack of organization, and I believe that apathy also plays a role. Many women here would never dream of standing up to their husbands or fathers and resign themselves to the lives that their guardians allow them. Many Saudi women seem perfectly content with their lives of leisure, shopping, cooking and making babies. But what about those who want more? I’m not advocating a revolution. But I am in favour of allowing women opportunities to do more with their lives if they wish and to be given equal freedoms as men - which most women around the world now take for granted - instead of being held back, forbidden, prohibited, and restricted from the most basic rights.

Saudi Arabia really needs its own Rosa Parks.

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