Education Resources

Women in Saudi Arabia

'Why Was I Born a Girl?'

Saudi woman
Saudi artist Areej Mohammed
al-Sadhan, shown here at the first exhibition of her work in Riyadh, March 24, 2003, is determined to lead an active life despite restrictions on women in her home country (Photo: AFP-Getty Images).

“Why was I born a girl? This is a country of men and I would like to be one!” At age 13, Leila—not her real name—is already sizing up the vast frustrations she will experience as a Saudi woman.

The other day, her mother was accosted in the street by a mutawaa (a religious policeman charged with “promoting virtue and preventing vice”) ordering her to cover her child’s head although the veil is not obligatory at that age. Her mother’s objections were ignored, and Leila was forced to cover her beautiful black curls.

The majority of Saudi women say they would wear the veil of their own accord because, they say, it is a requirement of Islam. But the veil is becoming insupportable for the more free-spirited among them because it is interpreted so strictly here that the least bit of flesh must be rendered invisible, reducing women to uniformly shapeless black figures and, above all, because it represents the sum of interdictions imposed on them. In Nejd region, where the capital city of Riyadh is located, there is a concentration of taboos bordering on the absurd. The atmosphere is a little less suffocating in the eastern and western provinces of the kingdom.

During a time when possible reforms are under discussion, the more audacious Saudi women refuse to let the status of women go unheeded. Female writers are expressing themselves in the press, and university professors are trying to introduce new ideas into the curriculum. But they do it as part of a juggling act, because it is so easy to be accused of “secularism”—almost equivalent to being blacklisted—in a society shielded by rigid conviction. Its dogmas are kept alive by the complacency of those who refuse to allow change, in particular the notorious agency of moral rectitude that the mutawaa'in and their supporters represent. “When we change the status of women, we will have solved half of this country’s problems,” one businessman says, “and it is by means of public rights that private rights will be acquired. Recognizing a woman’s right to different types of employment will be the first step toward the recognition of other rights.”

Several young women in their 20s agreed to talk about the Inquisition-like repression under which they live. These students, whose names will not be revealed for obvious reasons, admit that most of their colleagues, and of society, are satisfied with the current situation, either from conviction, having been brought up with such ideas, or out of “opportunism”—complaisance is the best way for them to get ahead.

The young women, who study in Riyadh’s sexually segregated King Saud University, described the regression of an establishment that once played a pioneering role in its openness. According to them, the university has become, over the years, synonymous with suppression. When the kingdom’s first female students enrolled toward the end of the 1960s, the faculty was exclusively male, and female students were free to choose whether or not to wear the abaya—the loose black robe that now envelops all young women. It was from the first graduating class of women that Riyadh’s various faculties recruited their first female teachers before the creation of an exclusive women’s section, a measure that substantially increased the number of candidates.

Women in this section were free to develop in their own way in the company of other women, and to conduct themselves as they wished since the section’s building was off limits to all men but the teachers. Unlike their female colleagues, male teachers delivered their lectures in front of their students as is the normal practice in classrooms anywhere else in the world.

The shift occurred toward the end of the 1980s and the early ’90s, notably during the war to liberate Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion in 1991. A group of young women dared to take the wheel as a protest for the right to drive. Their audacity provoked the ultraconservatives to close ranks and denounce their behavior as scandalous and sinful. Fingers were pointed at the university for fostering such decadence. The women professors who had participated in the protests were dismissed; the university rector created a Department of Islamic Higher Studies and implemented the total segregation of the sexes. From then on, all male teachers taught their female students remotely, via closed-circuit television screens.

In the absence of any secularizing interference from the government, the religious extremists were free to do as they pleased. One student noted the link between the political and religious powers that be. “When the former weakens, the second grows stronger.” Little by little, dogmatic rigor reached the point of absurdity. Abusive religious interference is the norm, even in the smallest details.

According to the young women, they are forbidden to leave the campus when they have free time. In order to prevent anyone from circumventing the rule, teaching is concentrated between 8 a.m. and noon. Officially, this is to free the rest of students’ days; in reality, they say, it is to kill the very notion of free time. If, for example, one of them has to wait for the arrival of her chauffeur, her father, or her brother to chaperon her home, she is supposed to retreat into an ad hoc waiting room, where a nonstop videotape hammers home the lessons of supposedly Muslim rules of behavior.

But woe, as well, to the young woman who, for whatever reason, arrives before the opening hour. Recently a father accompanied his daughter to the university an hour early because he had to take a flight at 8 a.m. This action earned him an interrogation by the guardians of morality, those young women—they are the same age as their “victims”—charged by the mutawaa'in with the task of “preventing vice and promoting virtue” on campus.

These vigilantes keep an eye on everything, considering themselves unaccountable to anyone, although no law exists to sanction their conduct. As a result, though not so much as the shadow of a man ever appears inside the campus, the students find they are all but forced to go veiled. No bright colors are tolerated, only shades of black, brown, or gray. Blouses must be long-sleeved and skirts must cover the legs completely, right down to the ankle. Young women who violate the rules are forced to purchase “appropriate” attire from these watchdogs and draft an official statement confessing to their “error.” And what can you say about young women who dare to shape their eyebrows—as is the fashion more or less everywhere in the Middle East—polish their nails, or wear makeup?

It is forbidden to laugh loudly. During a university field trip, female students are not only expected to dress “appropriately” from head to toe, they are transported in a bus with heavily tinted windows.

It is forbidden to have a mobile phone on campus. Talking on a mobile phone is suspect, as is any tête-à-tête between two young women in class. One example: After a language course in which the teachers asked their students to obtain foreign magazines to translate, two young girls were leafing through a magazine together, searching for a text to submit to the professor. The ever-vigilant guardians of morality jumped on them and launched an investigation, judging their behavior suspicious. One might be tempted to laugh if the situation weren’t so sad for the people involved.

As one student put it, the basic equation is: “Woman and vice are quite simply one and the same.” All behavior judged inappropriate results in the signature of an official statement in which the student recognizes her error.

In order to prevent the celebration of Valentine’s Day, the guardians seized everything that could have the remotest bearing on the Christian holiday, the color red serving in this case as the very symbol of vice, whether it takes the form of a rose, a purse, or anything else. To counteract the diabolic, the moral guardians stepped up the distribution of manuals, brochures, and audiocassettes reiterating the appropriate rules of behavior at the entrance to the campus. At the same time, the notorious body charged with “promoting virtue and preventing vice” seized everything in the city that could possibly remind one of Saint Valentine, even forbidding florists to sell red roses on that day.

These educational shackles, in the words of one young university student, “terrify more than they educate and provoke loathing and anguish. Some claim that all this is aimed at protecting the female sex. But isn’t it a confession of failure as regards the education of men? They have the right to everything. They are taught their rights, but not their duties. Young women have practically no rights—only duties to respect.”

There are some who think they have found a kind of solution: the creation of shopping malls reserved exclusively for women. They argue that women would be more at ease, which is perhaps true—some women say as much. But “that is like treating the symptoms of the illness rather than its roots,” Abir Mishkhas wrote in a Dec. 9 article in the Saudi Gazette. “It would mean ignoring the fundamental problem in favor of temporary solutions….For, whatever one says or does, men and women must communicate on a daily basis. And not only within the family, but also with taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, policemen, and simple pedestrians. Even if we create unisex cities, won’t women still have to deal with a male government official at one time or another? Are not businesswomen obliged to have a man as an agent?”

Citing examples to emphasize that nothing in Islam forbids a woman to participate normally in city life, Mishkhas heaps scorn on the authors of this crazy idea, rhetorically asking why “the people who now propose creating separate shopping centers for the sexes” have never yet become indignant that “the sellers of lingerie are men,” precisely because women do not have the right to be merchants in the city. “The heart of the matter is that…the majority of men have a real problem in the way they relate to women. They must simply learn to respect them.”

The university professor and editorialist Suleiman al-Hattlan is more truculent in an article published in the daily Al-Watan on Dec. 12 titled “McCarthyism, the Saudi Way,” in which he recounts a conversation about a woman’s right to drive a car. Appalled by the arguments of those still opposed to the idea of Saudi women behind the wheel, he rages against the fanatics who use the mantel of religion to impose their dogmatic edicts and against the intellectuals who have indulged them, passing over in secrecy the reality of a society paralyzed by its problems.

As for women, “the terrible injustice that has been done to them in our society, the relegation of their humanity and their national pride behind the bars of taboo and suspicion, are nothing else,” he thunders, “than an injustice that we have committed against ourselves. Is it not shameful that all of us, in spite of our multiple paths as thinkers and our varied social experiences, have become products of the same mold, without color, odor, or flavor? How has our vision of woman been taken hostage by a handful of pre-Islamic fanatics?”