When the issue of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia comes up it sometimes leads outsiders to question the contradiction between gender segregation and a woman spending so much time alone in a car with an unrelated man. To completely understand how this came about you have to go back in history to when slavery was the norm. Back then, women did not stringently cover from their male slaves and in some families they did not cover at all. The neutering of some male slaves was socially acceptable. This attitude somehow transferred to the modern day drivers. Women who are religious strictly cover from their drivers but the majority treat drivers like a little less than a man.
Another aspect that plays into this contradiction is the driver’s nationality. As a writer, I do not mean to offend anyone but this is an unspoken fact that I have observed as part of this society. The main point of covering up besides just obeying Allah is to discourage unwonted attention and to nip any idea of a romantic relationship. On that latter point’s basis, the driver’s nationality eases the restriction on interaction and covering because a relationship is completely out of the question. This is true for any nationality east of the Middle East. And it is also true for waiters, cleaners and cooks. I have sat at restaurants with women who cover at all times but once the table partition is put up they take off all their head covering because the waiter is an Indian, or Pilipino.
The mostly manliest men that women will go running behind a curtain if they don’t have a abaya nearby, are men within the same age range and come from the same region and tribe. If they are too young or too old she’ll probably just hold a sofa cushion in front of her face until a child or maid hands her her abaya. So when Qassimi women come to Riyadh, they won’t be so strict about their abayas and scarves at the mall because there is less of a chance of them running into a male cousin, neighbor or family friend. And women from Riyadh are known to relatively go wild when visiting the Eastern or Western Region based on that same principle. A Husband pays little attention to his wife’s abaya after they leave the house. But if he happens to see a colleague or cousin coming his way, trust that he will quickly scrutinize his wife’s attire and if it is the least bit revealing he will distance himself. And this is also why a Saudi female customer will interact differently with a Saudi shop assistant based on his regional accent.
At the next level you have Saudis in general. This is observable abroad. Saudis will mingle with the general population of their host countries without worry about proper hijab. This will remain the state if only a few other Saudi families are within the bumping into each other zone. Once the number of families grows into the double digits, even the most liberal women will consider covering up.
Other male Arabs and Westerners with the exception of Egyptians are almost looked at as gay. Because many Saudi women have come to believe that these men, unlike their Saudi counterparts, unquestionably respect women. Saudi women cover in their presence. However they are a lot more relaxed in conversation and body language.
Unfortunately, Egyptian men here have not been able to cultivate the above reputation. I don’t know if this is because of the bad impression people get from Egyptian movies or because of the conduct of a few bad apples.
In Saudi Arabia you can tell a lot about a woman by her relationship with her driver. Yes I call it a relationship. Because, unlike anywhere in the world, drivers are a necessity and not a luxury that is used on a whim. A driver here knows his employer’s (or charge, depending on how conservative the family is) every single habit. Is she punctual or late? How social she is and who calls her and whom does she call. And depending on the size of the car, he probably even knows the smell of her morning breath. Her moods, shopping habits and favorite drink are common knowledge to not only her own driver but also to the neighbors’ drivers. Just as an example of how suffocatingly close a driver is, when my husband cannot reach me on my cell phone, he contacts the driver because wherever I am, the driver will of course be there too.
With someone that close, a relationship has to evolve. For some of my friends, it is a nurturing relationship. Just as long ago when people had horses and at stops the first thing they would do is make sure that the horse is put in a stable and provided with nourishment, these friends first make sure that the driver is let in to wait in the little cramped host’s driver room. Some even go as far as to prepare at home before going out tea in a thermos and some snacks for the driver to enjoy while he waits. When I ask them why go to all that trouble? They tell me that they cannot afford another runaway so they’re trying to make the job as pleasurable and easy as possible.
Others have a more master- slave relationship. They scream at their drivers. I’ve personally witnessed a woman hit her driver when he made a wrong turn. And if you try to comment they’ll say he should thank God that I’m willing to give him a job. Ironically, these women always end up with the loyal drivers who stick around for years. The driver that I witnessed being hit stayed with that employer for over 14 years.
And then there are the delusional, who try to ignore the presence of another human being in the car as much as they can. They gab on their phones and get in and out of the car just barely informing the driver of the destination. When they get there, they leave the car with no instructions as though the driver is just another auto part that will be there with the rest of the car when they finish their errand or visit.
No matter what type of relationship it is, the bottom line is pure unadulterated frustration. Why do we have to put up with this? Why do we have to fork out salaries and accommodations? Why do we have to figure out if we should let the driver wait outside or cruise around Riyadh on our gas money every time we reach a destination?
They are called Mashghal in Arabic which literally means a working place, from the Arabic noun shoogal (work in general). This term was coined to refer to little shops where a group of usually Pakistani tailors make women dresses. About 30 years ago readymade women clothes were mostly unavailable to the general public and women drew designs on paper and took then to these tailor shops with fabric bought by the meter from areas similar to outdoor malls. For measurement, they would give the tailor a previously made dress that fits and he would use it as a measurement model. And that’s to avoid any physical contact between the tailor and the customer. I know now you’re wondering where did women get there first well measured dress and I too wonder.
These little tailor shops started to evolve into closed women shops where the tailors are women from the Philippines. The shops became bigger and the décor slightly better. However these women only shops are pricier, so the male version stuck around. The women mashghal started to quickly expand into the beauty salon business. So a women could go get her hair done and have a dress made at the same time. But when Al Eissaee, a big name in the fabric import business, started to also bring in quality readymade clothes, he started a huge trend that snowballed into our current mega malls. This in turn affected the tailor business for both the male and female shops. The male mostly went out of business except for a lucky few and the female shops concentrated more on the beauty salon side of the business, so much so that some even closed the dress making side. But for some unexplainable reason they are still called a mashghal even on official ministry of commerce licensing papers.
Yes it is true. If you are a woman you have to have special travel documents. If your main mahram (legal male guardian) is with you then him escorting you will suffice. But if you happen to be a Saudi woman and need or want to leave the country without your main mahram, you have to have a special yellow card. This card is issued by the same office that issues passports and it has to be requested and signed by your main mahram. A main mahram is the legal guardian which basically means the father until marriage and then the husband. If a woman’s father and husband both pass away then guardianship passes to her son, brother or uncle; whichever one is an adult and closest. This mahram not only can he stop a woman from leaving the country without his permission but also can limit the countries to which his “ward” can go to. All he has to do is list the country or countries he will allow the woman to travel to on the card or he can leave it blank which means she can go anywhere. This part is just stupid because yes a woman might be limited to the countries on the card in a Saudi airport but once she’s in any other country’s airport, then it’s only a matter of a tourist visa. In regards to age, legally a woman does not have to have the yellow permission card after 45. However, the airport employees don’t seem to be aware of this. And if you do go to the passport offices and request the yellow card for a woman over 45, they’ll issue it.
Coming back to the country is a lot smoother for Saudi women. No one stops her or asks questions but if the woman does not hold a Saudi passport and does not have a male relative accompanying her then she is held at the airport until her sponsor whether an employer or relative comes to get her. But if a non-Saudi woman is leaving the country, and she has all her visa papers in order then she can leave with or without a male guardian.
Any Saudi who is against women driving, when asked about it will first say: This is an old topic and it is done with and that Saudis have all agreed that they do NOT want women to drive except for an ignorant and misled few. Besides it is also a minor issue that not that many women care about. If the issue is still pressed then the Saudi will promptly give you the following reasons:
There are two rules in Ifta (the science of writing a fatwa):
a) Whatever leads to an Islamic prohibition, should be prohibited.
b) And if an issue’s detriments outweigh or equal its benefits then it should be prohibited.
Based on the above two Ifta rules, women should not drive because:
- Women driving cars will lead them to take off the face-cover.
- It will lead to women losing their modesty and feminine shyness.
- It will make it easier for women to leave their houses without need.
- It will lead women to be free to go wherever they want and whenever they want.
- It will be a tool of rebellion against husbands and families in that if a woman is upset she can get in her car and go someplace to cool down.
- It will lead to Fitna (a door to sin)in many ways:
a) at stoplights
b) at gas stations
c) at investigation points
d) if a woman is stopped for an accident or traffic violation
e) if she needs to fill her tires with air
f) If a woman’s car stops because of a malfunction and in this case a scumbag guy might come and bargain with her for sex in exchange for fixing her car.
- It is reason for financial excess because women are naturally frivolous and they are known to throw away clothes every time a new style comes out and as such she will do the same with cars; getting every new model as soon as it comes out.
These reasons and more are all across the internet and they are taken very seriously by a large number of Saudis. Some of the websites that carry these reasons include:
You hear a lot about misyar marriages all over the Saudi media. Some people are against it and others think that it is the magical pill for all our society’s ailments. Many non Saudis have the misconception that this type of marriage is sanctioned by law and that the actual marriage contract document is different from the one used for conventional Saudi marriages. Well that is just not true. There is only one marriage contract document and whether the marriage is conventional or misyar depends on a verbal agreement. The marriage contract itself looks somewhat like a passport. So what are miyar marriages? Well to answer that you first have to understand our regular marriages. First off a conventional marriage means that the groom pays the bride a dowry ranging between 8000 dollars and can go up to 27000 dollars depending on the bride’s tribe, age, beauty…etc. A government approved sheikh is brought to the house and writes up the marriage in a big marriage notebook. Everyone signs it and then it is sent to the bride for signature. Islamically, the sheikh must make sure that the bride agrees to the marriage by asking her himself. But this is not done in many households. The sheikh does not see or speak to the bride. The bride’s father or any other male relative represents her and speaks for her. When it comes to the dowry, it is considered impolite to have it written in the marriage contract, even though there is a little blank for it. The groom waits a couple of days and then goes to the Saudi courts to get the document. Then the groom also has to ensure that they have a place to stay, which could be a couple of rooms at his parent’s house, an apartment, or a villa. And most importantly they tell everyone about their marriage, usually at a big wedding party. Finally impregnation is expected within the first three years.
With a misyar marriage, you still have a sheikh and he comes to the house with the big notebook and does his thing. But with this marriage the bride makes a lot of compromises that are agreed upon verbally prior to the shiekh’s arrival. She still gets a dowry but the marriage itself is considered a secret. Only close relative are allowed to know. When it comes to the love nest, that is most commonly the bride’s own bedroom at her parent’s home. Sometimes, especially for richer grooms, an apartment is rented for the bride. The husband can come and go as he pleases and does not have to spend nights over unless he wants to. Having children is discouraged in these marriages. And they are designed just so the husband can divorce anytime without obligations.
Why would a woman put herself in this position? It differs from one to the other but ultimately it boils down to these reasons:
- She’s a divorcee or spinster and unlikely to get a better offer. These women tell themselves that he’ll love me and want me as a full wife once he gets to know me.
- Lower class households that quite frankly pimp out their daughters and use the dowry kind of like a prostitution fee.
- The groom is really rich and made an offer that just can’t be refused. Rich practicing Muslim men do misyar out of fear of their first wife and at the same time they can tell themselves it’s hallal (Islamically sanctioned)
I know a woman who went into a misyar marriage four year ago. She’s been divorced twice before then and approaching forty. Fortunately it worked out for her and a couple of months back her misyar husband bought her a house and publically acknowledged her.
Shhh! If you are a Saudi male please pretend that you do not know that my name is Eman daughter of Fahad Al Nafjan. I’m um Sulaiman (mother of Sulaiman) to you. Apparently it is still a huge embarrassment for the male part of our society to know each other’s female relatives’ names. Little boys get into fights at school that start because one boy informs others the name of another boy’s mother. It is so bad that a Saudi from Jeddah sued a car company this week because they sent an exhibition invitation to his wife with her full name on the outside of the envelope. He claims that they dishonored him and his wife by making her name public. All over Saudi, you can find mosques that are built in the name of mothers, since it is considered a great Islamic deed to build mosques. These women pay for these mosques to be built but have to name the mosque in their firstborn son’s name so as to not shame the family by putting their name on a sign. In Al Waha district in Riyadh there is one of these mosques called um Khalid Al Baltan Mosque. I’ll try to get a picture of it tomorrow morning on my way to work. And here it is:
A while back, a new law was issued that stated that small businesses had to have the name of the owner on the sign. I would love to know the number of businesses that suddenly changed ownership or closed down just to avoid putting the name of a Saudi woman on a sign. I know for sure that there were rants about it for a long while in newspapers.
And just like almost everything else, we contradict ourselves. King Abdulazziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia used to esteem and revere his sister Nora. He had talked about her by name in many of his official meetings. It’s said that he used to go to her for advice and even sent his children to her when he need help in disciplinary issues. The prophet Mohammed (PBUH) too used to mention his wives and daughter by name in several of his hadeeths. You would think that Saudis would look up to these two men and try to emulate them but that is not the case.
I bet you’re asking yourself, what if a woman does not have a son, what name does she put after the um (mother prefix). If she has never been married, then nothing and it is not that big of an issue to call her by name. If she is married and does not have a son, she either uses her firstborn daughter’s name or uses her father in law’s first name, the latter being due to the Saudi convention of naming the firstborn son after the paternal grandfather. The worst would be if she were divorced and childless, in this case, she is nameless and invisible.
Today in Arab News there was an article about a talk given on women’s Rights by Al Jowhara Al Angari, vice chairman of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) on Saturday night at a meeting organized by the Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). In it she mentioned that most Saudi women do not know that once they are 45 years old and older they do not need their male guardian’s permission travel. This is news to me. I know my mother had gone on several trips abroad and each time the officials would ask her for her permission slip signed by my father. She even went to Jordan with my older brother and they still asked her to show her permission slip. But she has never taken the risk of going all the way to the airport without the slip. If it wasn’t required of her, shouldn’t the officials checking her passport have told her? Or when my father went to get it done and stamped, wouldn’t they have informed him that there was no need for it since she is above the age limit?
And then Al Angari spoke about how women do not ask for their rights out of ignorance. This might be true for the idealistic young but I know for a fact that many women here do NOT want their rights for themselves nor do they want any other woman to have them. That is because they are in their comfort zone, especially the fanatic religion students. These latter are continuously exposed to stories and evidence from the Quran that inform them of their rights but they don’t want them. Their excuse is “prevention of sin” or when they are hard-pressed they’ll say “these times are different from when the prophet (PBUH) lived”. And to this I always reply with the hadeeth* that Islam as it was revealed to the prophet is good for all time and all places. There is also an Islamic principle that states that all things should be considered permissible in Islam unless clearly prohibited by Allah in the holy Quran or hadeeth. And I go on to ask them if they believe that their judgment about the times is better than Allah’s. This ultimately shuts them up and I have yet to meet a mutawa who can still carry an argument after that point.
Back to Saudi women comfort zone. Why would they ask for rights when that would mean taking on responsibility. They don’t want rights that would take away their current excuses for not being educated and independent and turn them obsolete. It will take away their convenient excuse for not studying, getting a job or even getting milk from the nearest grocer.
*Hadeeth: the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) sayings and acts
Salwa AL Hazza is a rare breed of Saudi women. She has managed to gain and keep the respect of the male half of our society without strictly observing the hijab. This is due to three reasons; first that she has excelled in her medical field of ophthalmology, she got married and stayed married and finally has close ties with the royals.
Dr. Al Hazza was educated in the United States at a young age but she did her bachelors here in Riyadh at King Saud University. She, accompanied by her husband, got her residency at John Hopkins. She became the late King Fahad’s personal ophthalmologist. She is the first Saudi woman to head a medical department; the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. Dr. Al Hazza has numerous publications including an encyclopedia on Saudi genetic diseases and groundbreaking research in rescuing the eyesight of premature babies.
According to her interviews, Dr. Al Hazza’s views on the current situation for women are that we should be patient and try to change things only after accepting and understanding them. She believes in quiet change from within. In the Al Riyadh Newspaper Interview she told a story about how when she came back with her family from the USA after her father had finished his Masters degree and she overheard one of her father’s friends saying what a shame that she and her four sisters weren’t sons because with their obvious genius and language abilities they would have grown to be great men in society.
Every time Saudi Arabia is criticized for its policies and laws regarding women, the government trots out Dr. Al Hazza to prove them wrong. Yes, she’s Saudi and yes she is a sign that things are going in the right direction but she by no means represents the average woman. Through luck she was married to an understanding man that let her be the great role model she is today. I wonder how many other potential Salwas are buried under our traditions.
This is a video from utube. It has been on there for 4 months. It’s a typical Islamic lecture from a quite eloquent and articulate sheikh. Below I’ve translated the whole thing and I tried to stay as literal in my translation as possible. You can’t experience his eloquence in Arabic but you’ll have to take my word for it, he’s pretty good. Read on and make your own conclusions.
Look to the vice cops, God bless them, what they did with the illegitimate children (orphan bastards) that came into this world not knowing who their parents are. One social worker told me about a field trip they took these children on. They took them to Abha and they were enjoying the scenery. Then they saw a group of monkeys frolicking and playing. So the kids started to yell: look at the monkeys! There’s one with its mother. Another child replied yes he is a monkey but he’s better off than us because he at least has a mother. The social worker said I couldn’t even turn to the child. I was that speechless. So I waited until the child moved away and I said God bless the vice cops. How many cases have they prevented that would have produced more miserable bastards.
Now look at what crime the devil has pushed people into committing. When she was flirting with him she didn’t know and when he was flirting with her, he didn’t know. And when they were exchanging gifts, they didn’t know. They are like us but the devil pushed them step by step until they got into trouble. The important issue here is that she became pregnant through fornication. She’s in trouble. The devil got her and it’s making her walk its path. The devil told her to kill the baby and everything will end. And the case ends here in that the infant is killed and put into the toilet. (points to the photo)
But the case has not ended. I swear that this murdered infant will rise up judgment day and she’ll go looking through all of creation and she will speak as Allah mentioned in the holy Quran: (quote from the Quran: rough translation: And when the murdered infant girls will ask for what sin was I killed)
For what sin was I killed, oh Lord? And Allah will not leave us to fend for ourselves. I swear by Allah who is the only god and who has obligated us to follow the Quran. He wanted so for a certain end (or reason). When we see the vice cops… The vice cops, I ask Allah to bless them because I swear they are the safety clip (or cap) for this ummah (people). I swear how many incident were prevented that were going to bear the likes of those (fornication, illegitimate pregnancies and children).
But now let me give you the last part of this lecture. One illegitimate young man told me that he saved and saved to go to Hajj. And he swore that when he got there people were praying and asking Allah but he waited until Arafah, the day that prayers are most likely to be answered. The day Allah comes down in a way that’s appropriate and suiting to his holiness to display to his angels his human servants. The young man went on to say that other people were praying to be saved from hell and some were praying to go to heaven. But that he was only praying for one thing all day: Oh Lord whoever was the reason behind me being in this world, Oh Lord just as they have deprived me my rights, rights that animals have and I don’t. A mother and a father. Oh Lord do not grant them heaven. Oh Lord of all worlds.
I wonder does his mother know? At the time he was praying was she above the ground or below it? And that father? Where is he? We don’t know but Allah in all his holiness does know.