Monday, July 21, 2008

A Stereotypical Side of Saudi

I hate Saudi bashing.

It’s everywhere – Saudi Arabia is an evil oil monger, Saudis are all spoiled rich kids, Saudi Arabia is the most backward country in the world, etc., etc., etc. To someone who’s always coming in and out of Saudi Arabia, those types of stereotypes are rash simplifications of what’s really going on in the country. A quick tour through local blogs like Saudi Jeans shows the many, often ignored, faces of Saudi.

But yesterday, I got a little taste of a more publicized, stereotypical side of Saudi Arabia. Walking home from the supermarket, my aunt, my two (female) cousins and I were harrassed by at least five different men. What's ridiculous about this is that we were on a well-lit main road, which was bustling with cars and people. And we were draped in black from head to toe - we even had our faces covered!

The harrassment was nothing physical - physical contact between the sexes in public is a strict taboo. It amounted to cat-calls and stalking in the street. But at one point, we had a whole gang of boys fresh out of their teens following us. We only managed to get out of that situation because a police car happened to pass by at that moment and scared them away.

It makes absolutely no sense for women who are completely covered to get harassed like the way we did. What does it say about the people, particularly the men, who make up this society?

The thing is, the situation isn't just the men’s fault. It’s the whole system. Extreme segregation of the sexes doesn't make for a healthy, harmonious society. It keeps men and women from learning how to interact on a general, everday basis, making most meetings between strange men and women highly sexually charged in situations they shouldn’t be. (Like walking home from the supermarket.) It also has a tendency to make some men more predatory, aggressively pursuing women with no respect for them as human beings.

I’m not in any way making generalizations about men in Saudi Arabia. This is just one experience I had here, and there are plenty of Saudi men who criticize the situation in the country. (Again, check out Saudi Jeans.)

But it’s frustrating how the way the social system is set up here makes it difficult for women to be comfortable as women in public. And this has nothing to do with Islam. Look at Damascus, Cairo, Amman. These are cities with Muslim governments and majority Muslim populations. But women there interact with men freely, and life for women outside the home is generally more comfortable.

Regardless of how fast a nation is advancing technologically and economically, it has to also keep in mind social development. Having tall buildings and stocking shopping malls with all the latest fashions are not the tools for measuring a progressive society. Without giving each other the respect we deserve as individuals, we’ll never get anywhere.

Thankfully though, society here is changing, and hopefully for the better. But reaping the fruits of those changes takes time. I guess we’re just gonna have to be patient till then.


AlSayed said...

I think this problem occurs everywhere in the gulf... but in Saudi Arabia, with my all respect, the paradox is that although they hate the modernization and they consider it A "Western Impact", they are the fastest in following that impact..
In this new world, we have to face cultures and interact with others, so it is wrong to abandon others just because it is not Islamic or not linked to our path, and unfortunately they teach their children this language..

You are right about the social development, but the religious authorities in your country hate this fact because simply it will definitely destroy their power.. so the more people are ignorant, the more their power is stronger.

Sorry for my clear language and nice topic.

Ahmed said...

I'm sorry you had to endure the rudeness of Saudi boys. Your explanation is spot on; the problem is that many people in Saudi Arabia hate to admit it because it would upset the conservatives who look down to women and blame them for the whole thing. But as you said, it's the whole social system that makes for similar situations.

Nour Merza said...

alsayed - saudi arabia doesn't hate modernization. that's part of the stereotypical image of saudi arabia. modernization in saudi is happening, just in a different way and at a different pace.

ahmed - thanks for your sympathies. we've got a long way to go here in the middle east, but we'll get there soon enough.

nkaravatos said...

OK, so, after reading your *Orientalism* post, I'm all about "essentialism" this morning.

"It makes absolutely no sense for women [description deleted as essentialst] to get harassed like the way we did."

Women. Period. Right? (Yes, I realize your comment was site specific.)

"Look at Damascus, Cairo, Amman. These are cities with Muslim governments and majority Muslim populations."

These governments (dictatorship, rigged republic, and consitutional monarchy) I think would refer to themselves as "secular," no? None of these countries is The Islamic Republic Of, or The Islamic Emirate Of. I also do not think they constitutionally mandate a Muslim as Head of State as the Gulf countries do, or do they?

"...majority Muslim populations."

Is that "supposed to be" better for "respecting women," or would that be an essentialist assumption?

Maybe I'm being too essential about essentialism.

The sun is breaking through the fog. I should go outside.

Now that's what's essential.

Nour Merza said...

Nice comments, Prof. K.

It's true that governments in countries like Syria don't consider themselves Muslim, but what I meant was that the majority of the populations in those countries are Muslim. Their culture can be described as one that is based on Muslim norms, values and mores.

But then again, what exactly constitutes "Muslim?" Back to the essentialism problem, haahaa.

Carolena said...

Well said.

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