Hala is a Saudi woman who lived in the US for three years while pursuing her graduate degree in health services research and is now based in Jeddah. Her blog, Hala In US, is an extension of that experience. She writes for a Saudi daily newspaper every week which she posts in Arabic on her other blog, Hala Al-Dosari. I am reposting this interview with the joint permission of Umm Latifa and Hala…thank you ladies!
Let me start with, who is Hala Al-Dosari? I’m a woman from Saudi Arabia with interests in health science, writing, and social reform.
Do you consider yourself an “ordinary” or a “typical” Saudi woman? Depends on the definition of typical Saudi woman. I lived in Saudi Arabia most of my life with the exception of some childhood years and some years abroad for study. Personally, I belong to liberal and progressive school of thoughts, yet I appreciate many of the traditional views particularly with regards to family support and relationships. I’m not traditional because I call for autonomy on movement and decision making in personal life as well as career and flexibility in expressing publicly my opinions and beliefs. I can see a growing trend of similar calls among Saudi women, so I may be typical among such women.
Saudi women are such a mystery for many people in the world (including Saudi men) – can you tell us who is hiding behind the veil? The concept of protecting women from being subjected to abuse or mistreatment has been carried too far as to the actual seclusion and physical separation of women from engagement in the society of Saudi Arabia. Saudi women -like other women- don’t have one stereotype. Even though behind the veil, most of them adhere to the expected formal code of conduct. They do have different private life styles and variable interests. The exercise of independence/autonomy depends on their respective families.
Saudi women are mostly family oriented; they give priority to their families’ best interests. The educated ones are ambitious and driven; they look for careers for financial security and for expressing their potentials. Just like all women around the world, women here are busy with their schooling, match-making, kids, shopping and everyday issues. There is a growing number of Saudi women who have reached a position in society to make their voices heard, journalists, business women, media professionals, doctors and university professors. They all push for reforms and creating more room for women in public life. They also work to promote women’ and children rights in various institutions.
You studied abroad and you are travel a lot – how do you think it influenced your perception of the West? Do Saudis really “hate” the West starting from the cradle? Saudis don’t hate the West, at least those that I have dealt with. Before I traveled abroad, I had worked with Westerners on a personal level for years. I have friends amongst them and I don’t classify people according to their country of origin. I search for humane values, consideration, and integrity in others. Finding shared values instead of divisions has been a good practice.
Travelling abroad has shown me that people are similar; some of them manage their affairs better than others. I appreciate many aspects of the West, the democracy, the rule of the law, the personal freedom, and the civil society institutions.
Mostly, I appreciate the ease of being on your own as a woman, you don’t get stopped or obstructed because of a guardian permission or because you need to be chaperoned. I like to practice my adulthood abroad.
What about your perception of the situation of women in Saudi Arabia? What are the changes that you experienced and what are the changes that you would like to see implemented? Womens situation in Saudi Arabia is determined largely by their guardians. The government deso provide education and work opportunities for women, though limited ones than those offered for men, but then they condition every right of women with the permission of their male-guardians.
A woman usually leads a decent and honourable life if she has a responsible, decent guardian. He can support her education, independence, career, and respect her will in marriage, raising children, and decision-making. Or the opposite can happen, a guardian can marry a women by coercion, can deny her education or work opportunities and can determine the number of her children. He can abuse his authority with the consent of the court, in absence of real legal identity of adult women and in the absence of sound laws to prevent power abuse. The lives of Saudi women can be seriously affected in many ways. The whole problem is linked to treating women as perpetual minors as has been reported well by the human rights watch report.
I would say that changes must come from the institutions first. The government must establish laws that respect women legal rights, they should eliminate the system of guardianship, and reduce the gap between men and women in employment, educational opportunities, family laws, among many other issues.
Several international reports have discussed the womens rights violations in KSA. Many influential women have tried pushing for more rights without significant results. Womens rights are the most difficult areas for reforms because you need to work on changing perceptions and beliefs before tackling behaviour change. I have set up two blogs in Arabic on womens rights and violence against girls and women. They are aimed to present data, research and official reports in Arabic to readers in Saudi Arabia.
I’m hoping that readers would better appreciate the impact of discrimination on society physical and mental health, the health of children, economic prosperity and the country development as a whole.
A driving issue: Some time ago, a group of Saudi women in an act of desperation, drove cars in the streets of Riyadh. Do you think the average Saudi men of XXI century is ready to see a Saudi woman on the street – behind the wheel? What do you think is the obstacle in letting women drive here? Bedouin women have been driving and everyone seems to be fine. There are no problems in this regard. Most Saudis travel abroad and have seen women drivers everywhere. Saudi men are not beasts waiting for women to appear on the streets to abuse them, this is not my concern. My concern is the road safety. Drivers here in KSA are not safely driving on dangerously chaotic roads and the streets are a playground for all kinds of violations. In the presence of a real political will for women driving, driving laws and ensuring good quality road services would pave the way for women drivers.
Let me jump into one of the most controversial topics – the mahram system. Can you explain what this system is about? What do you think about it and what do your friends think about it? Do you think Saudi society is ready to abolish this “rule” – taking into account the recent campaigns “My Mahram Does Not Know What Is Best For Me”? The laws in KSA are based on an Islamic interpretation of the Sunnah and Qur’an according to the Ahmad Ibn Hanbal School. This is another way of saying, “a group of official male religious scholars called the supreme council of religious scholars dictate the laws in Saudi Arabia, particularly those affecting women.” Islamic spirit may be a misnomer here.
The muhram system treats every woman as the word of her father, then husband and then her son if she’s a widow or the closest male relative from the side of the father. This means a widow can be under a guardian who’s different from the guardian of her children, usually the husband brother or father, creating administrative obstacles in issues like travelling for example. This system means that no woman can get a personal ID, enroll in school, commute, get a job, travel, get married, open a bank account for her kids or get anything done at a government office without her muhram’s consent or a presence. Good muhrams suffer in tending to the various needs of the females in their custody; bad muhrams either ignore the needs or serve them only if they are given money or so.
I have elaborated on the Muhram system before in my answers. In Islam, a muhram is needed for a woman to marry and to travel a long distance only and some scholars have questioned and removed this need for muhram for adult women in both situations. Since travel is not as much a safety concern as it was before and an adult woman can judge the adequacy and suitability of her suitor these days better than the women in ancient times.
A group of Saudi women activists sought to write a petition and organized campaigns to abolish the muhram law but a counter campaign was suddenly announced by a lady whom I have never heard of, Ms. Rawda Yusuf. She appears to be a liberal from her published picture. She’s a divorced woman and her brother is her muhram. She came up with a campaign to support the muhram system and keep it in place, claiming that the muhram is more adequate and fit to look after a woman’s best interests than the woman herself. Her campaign has caught a lot of media attention but didn’t gain a lot of popularity among Saudi women; most were deeply offended by her stand.
Recently, we encounter more and more Saudi women, especially those educated, becoming very verbal on the net about the situation of women in the Kingdom. You, yourself, started a blog a while ago. Do you think it is a new era for the “womens movement” in Saudi Arabia? Women behind the veil are not silent any more. Education paves the way for awareness, critical thinking and better assessment of the world around us. It is only natural that educated women would be questioning their situations. It is then expected that they want to reform those situations.
Women are not the silent majority in Arabic and Islamic history. History shows notable women poets, scholars, nurses and writers. Whoever portrayed women in recent history showed women as obedient, reclusive and housebound species, with the ultimate goal of not inciting temptations. The view of women as objects of pleasure have lead to their segregation from men in public, have placed chains and locks on their ability to express their needs and potentials and have created a male-dominated society.
In this environment, virtual reality has replaced the physical world for women. They show themselves now better not because they were not aware before or they weren’t able to express themselves, but because they were prevented from the platforms to show their potentials.
Public places like literary clubs, media and official government positions, were and still are, largely closed venues for women. The virtual reality has expanded their world by several folds and allowed them to be introduced and exposed.
A lot of people have the impression that Saudi women are too passive and do not press or “fight” enough for change to happen. Do you think the West has the wrong impression? And what do Saudi women think about the pressure or criticism of Saudi customs, traditions and the system, coming from the West – should Westerners be involved or concerned with the situation of women in KSA? There is a lot at risk for a Saudi activist to advocate any social/political change. In my country, we have a strict authoritarian government. No public venues or political parties exist and demonstrations or public display of opinions is also not allowed.
The men and women of KSA don’t really have a real representation at the level of governmental policies or laws. The Saudi society is a patriarchal society, where power is given to the male over every aspect of women and children lives. Women rebelling against the family means not only shame and dishonour of her family reputation, but also a poor alternative of ever finding a better place to shelter herself and her children. Shelters, founded recently by social affairs, treat women residents as prisoners until they can be handed to another guardian, if there were any.
Many women activists have been personally affected because of their public stand. Wajiha Al-Huwaider said that her divorce was a result of her frequent confrontation with the authorities.
Because the system has institutionalized and legalized the oppression of women and dominance of men in laws and courts, there are in effect so little that women can do by themselves. Capacity building through alliance with influential people/organizations and pressuring the government for more reforms in women rights are the only available means for real change. Therefore, I do support the international society to take all possible actions to support the case for women everywhere especially in places like KSA where the real fieldwork for reforms is highly restricted.
The grandmother of my husband always repeated “I wish I was a Man”. One of the stereotypes about Saudi men I encountered was, “Saudi men do not consider Saudi women as human beings’. Could you comment on this one? This is largely the case because women are being treated as minors and hence as a burden by men. The lack of womens independence is the result of male dominance in a society where the opinions of men regarding every aspect of life, due to the absence of the representation of women, were adopted.
We have created over the years in KSA a man’s-world, where every woman is being discriminated against largely because men have the only say in every aspect. Things are better for women who have financial independence and autonomy as many of the women from the new generation, but I can understand and sympathize with the statements mentioned in your question.
The last statement, however, is not exactly true. It depends on the man really. I have encountered many Saudi men who are exemplary in the way they treat women and the way they view womens rights. They are more progressive than our government and some of them do work with women activists to promote their rights. I can cite my own father as a simple tribal man who respects women and consider them valuable beings.
Maybe you would like to add something? Thank you Umm Latifa for the probing questions. I appreciate the chance to present my take on Saudi women in general, however, the views and perceptions presented here are based on my own assessment. I strive to make my dreams of a modern and just KSA a reality, a place we can call women-friendly and a place where the people that I love deserve to live within.
Thank you once again Hala!
Photo Credit: Hala Al-Dosari