Saudi gender relations: the female view

Cultural Insights — By on May 29, 2008 at 7:32 am

Yesterday, I had a post about gender relations in Saudi Arabia and the remarkable lengths that the society goes to in order to maintain separation between males and females of different families. I linked to a story in the International Herald Tribune in which young men were interviewed about their interactions with women. Today, we cover the second part of the Tribune’s series, in which a reporter writes about male-female relations from the perspective of Saudi women.

First, an overview of the situation that females deal with in Saudi Arabia:

The separation between the sexes in Saudi Arabia is so extreme that it is difficult to overstate. Saudi women may not drive, and they must wear floor-length black abayas and head coverings in public at all times. They are driven around in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments and eat in “family” sections of cafés and restaurants, which are partitioned off from sections used by single male diners.

Women-only gyms, women-only boutiques and travel agencies, even a women-only shopping mall, have been established in Riyadh in recent years to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless they were chaperoned by a male relative.

Playful as they are, girls like Othman and her friends are well aware of the limits that their society places on their behavior. And, for the most part, they say that they do not seriously question those limits. Most of the girls say that their faith – in the strict interpretation of Islam espoused by the Wahhabi religious establishment here – runs very deep.

They argue a bit among themselves about the details – whether it is acceptable to have men on your Facebook friends list, say, or whether a male first cousin should ever be able to see you without your face covered – and they peppered an American reporter with questions about what the young Saudi men she had met were thinking about and talking about.

But they seem to regard the idea of having a conversation with a man before their showfas and subsequent engagements with real horror. When they do talk about girls who chat with men online or who somehow find their own fiancés, these stories have something of the quality of urban legends about them: fuzzy in their particulars, told about friends of friends, or “someone in my sister’s class.”

Well-brought-up, unmarried young women are so isolated from boys and men that when they talk about them, it sometimes sounds as if they are discussing a different species.

A view of pre-wedding interactions (or lack thereof) between engaged couples:

…it is becoming more and more socially acceptable for young engaged women to speak to their fiancés on the phone, though more conservative families still forbid all contact between engaged couples.

But it is considered embarrassing to admit to much strong feeling for a fiancé before the wedding, and before their engagements, any kind of contact with a man is out of the question.

And even a glimpse into some of the clandestine back-and-forth that takes place between young Saudi men and women:

A woman cannot switch her phone’s Bluetooth feature on in a public place for fear of receiving a barrage of love poems and photos of flowers and small children that many Saudi men keep stored on their phones for the purposes of flirtation. And last year, Al Arabiya television reported that some young Saudis had started buying “electronic belts,” which use Bluetooth technology to beam the wearer’s cellphone number and e-mail address at passing members of the opposite sex.

Tukhaifi and Shaden know of girls in their college who have passionate friendships, possibly even love affairs, with other girls, but they say that this … is just a “game” borne of frustration, something that will inevitably end when the girls in question become engaged. And they and their friends say that they … don’t know any girl who has actually spoken to a boy who contacted her via Bluetooth…

“One test is that if you’re ashamed to tell your family something, then you know for sure it’s wrong,” she continued. “For a while I had Facebook friends who were boys – I didn’t e-mail with them or anything, but they asked me to ‘friend’ them and so I did. But then I thought about my family and I took them off the list.”

Like yesterday, the actual Tribune story is much longer and filled with a wealth of other anecdotes and details.

After reading through both articles, two things struck me. One, of course, is that young men and women in Saudi Arabia have the same longing for romance and playfulness as do young people everywhere in the world. But the other revelation was the almost complete sense of acceptance (at least among those interviewed for the articles) regarding the importance of the culture’s moral values and the need for the social restrictions that keep males and females apart from each other. Just more proof that, as I’ve said before, we are all silently and permanently molded by the assumptions of the culture in which we are raised.

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