In Saudi, You Gotta Fight…For Your Right…Not to Have Rights!

by Lisa Kirchner

In a print edition of the New York Times I oddly came across last weekend, I read an article by Katherine Zoepf about a woman in Saudi Arabia who is leading a campaign called, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Simply put, all women in Saudi Arabia are accorded legal and human rights by their closest, eldest male relative. This typically goes from father to husband. And eventually to son, but that’s getting ahead of the story. The point being, one woman–tired of other women campaigning for expanded rights–stood up and said, “Enough.” She likes her life the way it is.

I could not find this article to point to online, and yet I don’t want to go too far into repeating the information. The story described various (totally unsuccessful) efforts to gain rights. And contrasted the life of this activist–a divorced princess who has managed to keep her three offspring–with the grim reality of other Saudi women, the majority of whom face divorce circumscribed to life on the family compound without their own children. Interestingly, the reporter did not point out that mobilizing groups of any kind is illegal in Saudi Arabia, but maybe that’s just interesting to me. The fact is (based on a friend’s observation who lives in KSA and is a reporter for The Financial Times) this “effort” is pretty limited.

What didn’t get reported on was the last and most interesting tidbit. The reporter was so busy with her, gosh, these women just don’t know what’s best for them and need to get enlightened! perspective she failed to get into why these women would want such a thing. Even the 31-year-old grad student rabble rouser who calls the campaign “a stand to be against women who want to be treated as adults” concedes in the end that “most people want things to stay the same.” Now that’s a story. But perhaps she is saving it for her book.

What living in Qatar (right next door) did for me was make me uncomfortably familiar with my own, deep-seated, inner housewife. On the occasion I expressed the old–I sometimes fear I’ll end up as a homeless lady–I was met with incomprehending stares. That’s simply not an option here. While it’s true, these women can’t go out and rent their own apartments, neither shall they ever want for a roof. Their family will take care of them; the family is everything. When I once dared to suggest to a group of students they might want to work a while, and wait before getting married, again with the stares. “But you’ll just have to move in with your mother-in-law,” I protested, thinking this an ace-in-the-hole. It got big laughs. “Then you must have picked the wrong mother-in-law!” These women were strong, highly intelligent and savvy about Western culture. And they had a point…

Simply put, their lives are so incredibly different to ours, the idea of feminism just can’t be viewed the same way. Hells no I couldn’t tolerate being told how to dress or if I could travel. Or could I? There are cultural restrictions we all adhere to; it’s not like I can run around naked. I’d say it’s because I don’t want to, but is it? (Really, I strongly suspect I have no desire to, but let’s just go with the thought for a moment.) Many of these women told me they dressed the way they did because they wanted to. I know that when I was living there I once found myself in an airport in Germany and at the site of a woman in a mini skirt the first thought that came to mind was, “Cover yourself!” For me this simply meant it was time to get the hell out, and since I could, I did.  

As the word “feminism” undergoes a Momma Grizzly-style makeover here, I’m keeping an eye on what unfolds in that part of the world. To know those women is to know a kind of strength and power that many of us might find surprising, and many of us could learn from, even if we don’t want to emulate. I’ve been told they feel the same.


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