“Not allowed,” he said.
As I slowly lowered my camera, I looked across the street and saw a few ordinary men and government officials taking photographs of the area.
“Not allowed for me,” I sighed to myself.
The police officer seemed like a young man in his early 20’s, perhaps a recent graduate of the police academy. He sounded both assured and confused. Assured about stopping a woman; confused about stopping a woman for something men were openly doing too.
I took a few more photographs while he stood there looking bewildered.
With traffic malfunctioning on a dangerously busy road, I wondered why he was stopping me instead of regulating traffic.
“Photography in public areas has been allowed in the country since 2006,” I said politely. “This is an underpass of an affluent area which has been flooded. As a team member of a social media disaster project, my duty is to document the area.”
I went back to the car, my dad’s car. My dad, as usual, had left his work to drive me. He drives me most of the time willingly, though sometimes he wishes women could drive or there was suitable transport for women.
As I walked across the road, I saw eyes gaping at me. I overheard a group of men exclaiming, “A women with a camera roaming on the street?!”
I kept walking…
Men and women once feared the devil. Now men fear women in public spaces more than the devil.
Behind the walls and inside the buildings things are changing. But my country is still, officially, conservative. Saudi Arabia's population is over 49% women, nearly 70% under the age of 30—and there are still spaces where women cannot be. As my country battles between tribalism, nationalism, globalization and religion, I do not know what role I can play when I am physically barred from so many physical spaces, when there’s limited space to debate or express ideas.
The Great Wall of Arabia: Gender Segregation or Seclusion?
Saudi Arabia pursues a gender segregation policy that prevents unrelated men and women from ‘mixing’ in public space. This gender segregation serves to exclude women from mainstream public life altogether. The official version of segregation reflects a unique Saudi interpretation of religious texts, and it does not reflect historical Muslim communities in our country.
Princess Fatima, who ruled the province of Ha’il as an administrator from 1911 to 1914, graciously commanded the now demolished 300,000 square meter Barzan Palace. She not only received foreign guests, but allowed guests to photograph her as well.
So why in the 21st century is a woman with a camera considered as dangerous as an anarchist with a gun?!
With very little exception, whether it is an authorized institutionalized sphere, quasi-public, or leisure space, the moment a woman steps out, she has to walk through a barrage of landmines erected to prevent her from deviating from restrictive gender roles.
There are libraries, museums and other public areas where women are barred legally or by social attitude. There are many women-only sections of banks, restaurants, government offices, and stores, but very few are exclusively operated by women. The first women-only hotel, established in 2008, is one example of a business operated solely by women, but it’s still men who decide where and how women-only places should be created.
Excluding women from the public domain contradicts religious teachings and practices. Some believe that a woman’s religious devotion and piety is demonstrated by the length of her abaya (cloak) and the duration of time she remains inside her home. Others believe she should abandon her abaya and leave the home to prove herself as a progressive woman. Nobody asks what she wants.
In my country, women outnumber men in university and higher education. However, Saudi labor law only permits "women to work in all fields suitable to their nature,” and forbids women to work at night or in “hazardous jobs or industries.” 95% of working women are in the public sector: 85% in education—in both teaching and administrative positions, 6% in public health, and 4% in administration.
According to the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report my country ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries in economic participation and opportunity for women. From 1992 to 2010, women’s participation in the labor force almost tripled, but only 14.4% of women seeking a job are currently employed. As a result, many young, qualified women find jobs in neighboring countries.
These policies demonstrate that it is more acceptable for women to plunge into poverty than to work and earn a dignified living. Women’s wealth can be hijacked by her male guardians, and unequivocally backed by legal courts, leaving her with no open options except begging. Does begging “suit a woman’s nature?” There’s nothing moral about women with children begging in streets.
“I believe a woman’s first and last place is at home,” says Sarah, a mother of two. “If she wishes to work, she can work from home. There’s no need to go out to claim equality with men. Men and women are equal. Segregation in public protects women’s dignity and prevents immorality.” Sarah’s statement reflects the commonly accepted definition of gender roles.
But many women are challenging these roles and questioning whether segregation is actually protecting their dignity. In our strictly gender-segregated society, men sell women’s undergarments. What ‘protection of dignity’ do we intend to achieve when men sell women’s lingerie, jewelry, perfume, and toiletries?[paging]
“It’s extremely humiliating when a man asks your size in a condescending or flirty way” says Samira, 21. “I used to go lingerie shopping with my mom, but now, when we go in all-girls groups, men slowly walk away. We create a big private space of our own!”
It is more acceptable in my country for women to hire male drivers or ride in a taxi with ‘unrelated’ men in the confined space of a car than to drive a vehicle herself. These policies aren’t really about segregation but about disempowering women. A woman behind the wheel is symbolic. It is synonymous with having enough power to make her traveling decisions.
The seclusion is extended into religious space as well. Many mosques do not designate a place for women worshipers. If they do, they are usually very poorly maintained. There are visible restrictions in the two holiest mosques in Madina and Makkah. As a female worshipper, I am constantly asked by security officers to finish my prayers quickly and “move aside.”
Women struggle to pray peacefully in the small spaces dedicated for them. Walls erected in women’s areas prevent them from seeing the imam or enjoying the splendid architecture of the holy mosques. There are time restrictions at some holy sites as well.
Are men’s prayers more urgent than women’s? Did God say he listens to men’s prayers more than women’s prayers?
Women do not lack wisdom to understand the implications of these policies. They may differ in their solutions, but they’re increasingly challenging this seclusion in new, unconventional ways.
Escaping the Walls
The absence of physical platforms to discuss, debate, and express ideas has led many people to dive into social networks and social media. According to a recent report, Saudi Twitter users have increased by 240% since the beginning of 2010.
One twitter user confides, “My lecturer gave me a low grade, from A to C, because what I wrote was deemed ‘inappropriate.’”
“What was the topic?” another tweets. “Women’s rights in my country,” she tweets back.
“I tweet because I have no other way to express myself” writes another Twitter user.
The 2009 flooding of the major port city of Jeddah has been a watershed moment in the history of social media and civic engagement. Frustrated with government response and ineffectiveness, young women and men used social media tools to disseminate and consume information about the floods.
Women are using social media to fight back for more space and participation as well, often using the very same argument that secludes them: “to prevent gender mixing.” One woman initiated a Facebook campaign calling for women-only hospitals where all staff will be women. The proposition is now being discussed at government level.
“Many feel too restricted in terms of expressing and getting real time discussions going on here,” says Alisha, a spiritual poetess. “Limited forums and venues promoting expression of ideas begs for alternatives.” However, she doesn’t want this movement to remain underground. "Facebook doesn’t cut it,” she says. “We need face-to-face interaction and to feel comfortable expressing ourselves”
Our Nation’s Wealth
There should be more women-only spaces, like police stations, that are actually operated by women. And women need to be able to participate in mainstream society without being judged or feared.
As I clean my camera’s lenses, I reflect on the day when I felt exuberant, anxious, and thrilled to enter a public venue declared “only for men” for the first time. The event was the largest ever human chain in the shape of a pink ribbon—a breast cancer awareness event that was marked in the Guinness Book of World Records. Women were exclusively permitted to use the stadium for this event, which was the first such large event entirely organized by women. There were signs of disorganization and disagreement in the group, but there were also visible signs of empathy and unity. The mere presence of thousands of women from diverse communities showed that women can erase the walls of color, class, and religion. It’s an example of how things can change when women come together.
Upon setting my feet inside for the first time, my scientist mind said, “Explore!” So I pulled off a few blades of grass and studied them. It was green, lush grass—well-tended and watered. I never knew grass could marvel me!
The artist inside me asked to seize the moment. Politely submitting to her request, I laid on the grass, stretched out my two hands, and stared at the pitch black sky with two shining bright stars!
I wondered why women can’t use public venues like stadiums more often. Why can’t we play football? In Saudi Arabia, women do not engage in any kind of sports. Most of us have never seen a sports facility. Except that day, when thousands of women stood shoulder-to-shoulder pledging to support breast cancer victims and survivors—vowing to raise awareness.
I would like to evaluate our progress as a country not in terms of GDP or the number of tall buildings we build, but how we nurture our youth and our women. People say my aspirations for my country are way too high because I want my country to be a leader and not a follower in developing a society inclusive of women. It’s my country; shouldn’t I have high aspirations for my people?
Saudi Arabia’s wealth is not its oil. Our wealth does not lie beneath the soil, but above the surface, inside every home—it’s in our women. By harnessing the collective power of all women we can transform the consciousness of individuals, and ultimately our private and public lives.