A Saudi Arabian moment
When I was in Qatar, I appreciated its fresh air and clear skies. It was a taste of freedom following a short stay in Saudi Arabia.
Whenever I left my hotel, I had to wear a traditional abaya and niqab to cover my face and body. I was warned that my hair should never be visible if I want to evade harassment from the religious police. But the veil constantly slipped and I had to adjust it frequently. Thankfully, I didn’t get into trouble and thought maybe the rule applied more loosely to foreigners.
I was wrong.
The several women who were in my group were very beautiful. They went out onto the street wearing just the traditional cloak, only to be immediately returned. Because their hair was visible, they were approached by the religious police almost instantly. Needless to say, the experience rattled them.
It made me conclude that women who do not disturb the religious peace of the Saudi men are saved from crackdowns.
We had another strange experience at a restaurant. Because women are not allowed to sit together with men who are not family, I was put in the back room and had to eat with strangers.
I argued, “The men in that room are my friends, and the men in this room are total strangers,” but they wouldn’t relent. I was getting drunk on alcohol-free beer.
Then I saw how the women in Saudi Arabia lived when they were completely by themselves, in places like the female-only floors of the shopping malls. All I could see on the streets were their eyes, but here, the women were joyous, walking freely without the restriction of veils and robes.
I thought, “I’d rather go live on Mars than live in Saudi Arabia.” But that may not be fair.
Seventeenth-century and 18th-century Europeans were fascinated by how Muslim women’s lives were better and more diverse than in the West.
But after Western values started to penetrate Islam, Muslims began to more strictly enforce their rules. They stressed modesty and virtue, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, took this to heart. Saudi Arabia has too much of a complicated history to be criticized so simply as a backward country for women’s rights. They care for their women in their own ways.
Nevertheless, I was completely surprised to learn last week that Saudi women had been given - for the first time in history - the right to vote and hold office. Their tears contained a strong desire to overcome the limitations imposed upon them.
But Saudi women aren’t the only ones struggling. In fact, every woman experiences her own moments in daily life, doesn’t she?
The author is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 17, Page 39
by KO JUNG-AE