Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What Is It Like to Be a Saudi Woman?

Khaled Batarfi is a senior editor at Al Madina, an Arabic-language newspaper in Jedda, and who also writes a weekly column for Arab News, an English-language paper in the city. He earned a doctoral degree at the University of Oregon. His article is reprinted with permission.

By Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Lila is the daughter of a brand-name family. This is important in the marriage market, but she has other important qualifications too. She is beautiful, smart, cute and moderately religious. In the beauty section, she is golden dark, tall with thick, long, flowing hair. In school, she had always been top of her class. Her friends and family love her for her good nature, optimism and sense of humor. She never misses a prayer or a religious duty, and lives a modern life with sophisticated attitude. In short, she is a poster-wife.

Her first shocking lesson came at an early age. The family promised to send her to medical school if she achieved A+ grade in high school. She did, but they changed their mind. That was her life’s dream and it was brutally shattered. Instead of becoming a heart surgeon, as she hoped, she is now a high school teacher. Why? Because this is a job where she doesn’t have to mix with men!

Later, there were more shocking lessons. Her suitors were turned away, one after another. Reasons varied, but mostly it was about their social and economic class. Since she inherited a fortune from her father and has a good salary, her brothers suspected that any man with lesser fortunes was after her money.

By the time the “right” suitor arrived, they had already soaked most of her savings. With promises of profitable investment and wiser management they divided her inheritance as well as that of their mother and sisters among themselves. If persuasion didn’t work, they applied social pressure. A woman who refuses to accommodate her own sons and brothers is called names and denied peace of mind.
Finally, they agreed to a suitor. She wasn’t given enough time to check him out, let alone love him. He turned out to have no merits except coming from a brand-name family. He has a shallow, childish personality, who lets his mother run all his affairs and make all his decisions. She couldn’t communicate or meet at any intellectual or emotional level with him from day one.

No one understood her reasons to demand divorce. Her family, tribe, the court and the whole community were against her. As long as he provides for her, and doesn’t mistreat her physically, there were no acceptable legal, logical or social grounds for divorce. She was lucky, because her husband gave up on her, and his mother agreed. They demanded compensations and got them. Gladly, she paid them back the dowry, gifts, jewelry, and whatever cost them for the wedding party and other events.
After divorce, she was socially punished for her rebellion. Her male guardians still wouldn’t accept suitors of lesser class. Suitable ones wouldn’t marry a divorced woman with rebellious attitude. And she wouldn’t accept silly, shallow, old and expired men just because they happen to come from the right tribe.

Now in her mid-thirties, her chances and choices are increasingly limited. The few suitors who trickle now are mostly in their fifties and sixties with wives and kids. In this range they are usually too traditional for her taste. Some are looking for self-financing, salary-earning wives. Others want to escape busy wives and noisy kids to spend some time every now and then with a young, light and lonely woman. Who needs that?

Lila is still waiting. There are many like her — some in a worse situation than hers. At least, Lila can work — a good investment of energy and time. She can go on the net and communicate with people like me. But others I know are not permitted even to leave home, unless really necessary. More decided to accept the hell they know, rather than try the terrible life of the divorced. Then, there is the problem of kids. Mothers have to stay the course with unpleasant husbands and continue to lead unhappy lives so their children won’t be taken away from them.

A lot has to be reviewed, changed and improved: Laws, rules and customs. Islam gave women their due rights and traditions took them away. Since we claim to be Muslims, we should abide by Islamic rules and follow the noble example set by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).