Those 'oppressed' Saudi women

Much is being said in the West these days about Saudi women, their oppression , their limited lives, their role in a developing society. As with any other conjectural judgment, much of what is said is simply foolish, uttered by people with limited contact and limited vision. Yet part of this foolishness the Western reader must enjoy: the tragedy of the veil, women's limited role in Islamic society, the twice-told tale of half a population languishing (a la harem) behind locked doors.

Around Riyadh, the peculiar champions of Saudi women in their ''oppressed'' state happen to be for the most part not women but Western men, who busy themselves at parties bemoaning the position of Saudi women. Simultaneously, they congratulate themselves on the freedoms they have given to ''their'' women. Yet the Saudi women they champion, the ones they have seen in the streets, covered with black silk (or, depending on class, polyester), women whose position they pretend to interpret and understand, whose rights they argue for, are women they probably will never meet.

Perhaps the very rights Western men are championing are, in fact, their own. For most of the expatriates in the kingdom are used to civil liberties and what we call freedoms. Perhaps many of them have never been so limited as they find themselves in Saudi Arabia: they have no access to legal alcohol, no public theaters or cinemas, and one-half the national population refuses to mix with them socially. This must be difficult.

When Westerners talk about the oppression of Saudi women, one of the earliest pieces of evidence usually cited is their black veil. This veil may range from the regular Muslim headcover to the face-covering tradition many women follow in Saudi Arabia. Yet to its users the veil is not a sign of oppression: that is an interpretion based on the viewer's values, not on the values of those women who choose to cover up.

Many students who cover do so as a sign of their personal and religious politics rather than out of respect for tradition. Operationally, what the veil does is to maintain a woman's anonymity in the public world. The advantages and disadvantages of this are many and complex, and whether they lead to or cause oppression I simply don't know.

Saudi women do have problems, and I don't mean to suggest that theirs is a balanced and stable situation. But if you ask representative Saudi women, granting for a moment that such exist, to comment on their roles and their situation in a developing society, you find a very different vision. The major problem, according to my friends and university students, is the difficulty of mixing roles, of being a student or working woman and a wife and mother.

Connected with that is the problem of transportation: women don't drive in the kingdom. Although this rule is usually explained by non-Muslims as an extension of Islam's oppression of women, a consultation with the Koran makes that explanation -- for me at least -- difficult to accept, since in the time of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, women rode horseback, even in the prophet's army.

In addition to transportation, Saudi women face a problem which came along with development: money and a ready domestic working class of Koreans, Filipinos , and Sri Lankans. Servants and drivers are readily found in most middle-class homes, and their presence rigidifies the status quo in relation to gender-defined roles. In these homes women may not do the cooking, cleaning, and child care themselves, but, by being responsible for supervising servants, they fully retain those domestic responsibilities.

Husbands also continue to regard the domestic front as the territory and responsibility of women. An acquaintance of mine, a Saudi woman who works from 7 to 2 in a child-care center, had to replace her maid, and the new maid came in at 8 rather than 7 in the morning. My acquaintance was astonished when her husband demanded that she stay home from her job to make and serve him breakfast at 7:15, something the previous maid had done. In his view, her job, a professional one, was clearly secondary to his breakfast.

As many of us know, mixing roles has always been one of the chief obstacles for women trying to participate fully in public life.

So there are problems Saudi women face, but these problems are far different from what Westerners speculate. Just imagine, over half the invested wealth in Saudi Arabia is held by women, a phenomenon attributed to Islamic inheritance law.

Is that oppression?

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