Saudi gender relations: the male view

Cultural Insights — By on May 28, 2008 at 3:21 pm

It’s easy in the West for us to express shock or dismay at the state of gender relations in some Arab countries (the veiling of women, the separation of the sexes, etc.), and particularly in a very conservative culture such as Saudi Arabia’s. However, it’s also easy for us to forget that many people in those cultures not only accept their state of affairs but also believe it to be in their best interests.

I’m not advocating any particular position here, and I do feel considerable sympathy for individuals who are constricted by the conservative dictates of their culture. But it’s nevertheless an interesting exercise to try to view a culture from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in it. That’s what the International Herald Tribune did recently, in a fascinating two-part series that looked at gender relations in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of men and women in that society. Today, I’m providing a few excerpts from the article in which young men discussed their relations and romances.

An overview of the state of gender relations: 

In the West, youth is typically a time to challenge authority. But what stood out in dozens of interviews with young men and women here was how completely they have accepted the religious and cultural demands of the Muslim world’s most conservative society.

They may chafe against the rules, even try to evade them at times, but they can be merciless in their condemnation of those who flout them too brazenly. And they are committed to perpetuating the rules with their own children.

That suggests that Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam, largely uncontested at home by the next generation and spread abroad by Saudi money in a time of religious revival, will increasingly shape how Muslims around the world will live their faith.

Young men like Nader and Enad are taught that they are the guardians of the family’s reputation, expected to shield their female relatives from shame and avoid dishonoring their families by their own behavior. It is a classic example of how the Saudis have melded their faith with their desert tribal traditions.

“One of the most important Arab traditions is honor,” Enad said. “If my sister goes in the street and someone assaults her, she won’t be able to protect herself. The nature of men is that men are more rational. Women are not rational. With one or two or three words, a man can get what he wants from a woman. If I call someone and a girl answers, I have to apologize. It’s a huge deal. It is a violation of the house.”

A glimpse into how men and women end up agreeing to marry despite not knowing each other:

Enad’s father agreed to let Nader marry one of his four daughters. Nader picked Sarah, though she is not the oldest, in part, he said, because he actually saw her face when she was a child and recalled that she was pretty.

They quickly signed a wedding contract, making them legally married, but by tradition they do not consider themselves so until the wedding party, set for this spring. During the intervening months, they are not allowed to see each other or spend any time together.

Nader said he expected to see his new wife for the first time after their wedding ceremony – which would also be segregated by sex – when they are photographed as husband and wife.

And a look at the small romantic rebellions that take place even in Suadi Arabia:

…Saudi traditions do not allow for romance between young, unmarried couples. There are many stories of young men and women secretly dating, falling in love but being unable to tell their parents because they could never explain how they knew each other in the first place. One young couple said that after two years of secret dating they hired a matchmaker to arrange a phony introduction so their parents would think that was how they had met.

These are small excerpts from a much larger story that is well worth reading if the topic interests you. Tomorrow, the female perspective.

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