Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped countries in the world is Saudi Arabia, particularly when it comes to its women.
Some of the negative perceptions surrounding Saudi women could be justified. After all, we are the only country that does not allow women to drive, though the government has declared numerous times that it has no objections to giving women licenses. Saudi women are also denied many of the rights granted to women in Islam. Under the Saudi system, male guardians control decisions concerning a woman’s education, employment, travel, marriage, divorce, childcare, legal proceedings and health care–basically, every aspect of her life. It is a system that renders half the country’s population helpless dependents.
Nevertheless, there are Western perceptions of Saudi women that need to be addressed objectively.
Whenever Western journalists visit Saudi Arabia, they meet Saudi women who are educated, employed, successful, prominent leaders in their communities. They ask them all kinds of questions and receive honest and transparent answers. However, these journalists often only report on the usual stereotypes–the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (a garment that covers a woman’s face and body), the segregation of men and women in most public and private institutions and, of course, the ban on driving.
Segregation hinders women’s daily activities and career advancement; but it is more rooted in local customs and traditions, as well as some–but certainly not all–religious interpretations within the country. Thus, it is not strictly or consistently enforced.
The hijab and niqab, comprise a religious and social issue that is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia. In Islam, women are expected to dress modestly, and every Muslim society has different views on what this means. Because Saudi Arabia is the place where Islam was born and where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, people tend to respect modest dress in their public appearance.
But this aspect of Saudi women’s lives is often misunderstood. A friend of mine in a prominent government position was furious when she talked to an American journalist for two hours about Saudi women’s achievements, progress, obstacles and challenges only to be mentioned in passing in his report to describe how she covered her hair when he asked to take her picture.
When a picture of Saudi women is published in Western media, it usually portrays them wearing the black niqab, even though there are many who do not cover their face or their hair and do not mind being photographed without the face covering. This insistence on reinforcing certain images of Saudi women creates distrust and cynicism towards Western media.
As another friend said to a European journalist, it should not matter what is on my head, but what is in my head.
Many of the Saudi women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab are highly educated, intelligent, successful, working women. The headscarf or face covering does not prevent us from reaching our goals and objectives.
Whether I choose to cover my hair or not should not be a measure to judge me by. It should not define me as “conservative” or “liberal”. It should not indicate whether I’m oppressed or liberated because there are many factors that affect my decision to wear the hijab or niqab.
Understandably, driving is symbolic of Saudi women’s lack of freedom. However, in terms of rights, we have many other serious issues to consider. Until we are recognised as independent adults who have an equal standing in society as men, we will continue to be marginalised and discriminated against in various ways.
Despite the images perpetrated by Western media, Saudi women have come a long way and are increasingly recognised for our achievements despite the obstacles we face. We are managers of multi-billion dollar companies, world-renowned scientists, university deans, bank CEOs, deputy ministers, as well as the director of the UN Population Fund.
Western media should not trivialise our issues by focusing only on the way we dress or by our driving rights. We are gaining ground every day. Like other women around the world, achieving independence is an ongoing struggle for us, and one that deserves to be recognised in the media and elsewhere.
* Maha Akeel is a Saudi journalist. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).