There’s more to Saudi women than the niqab

Western media should not trivialize our issues by focusing only on our driving rights or the way we dress. We are gaining ground every day.

February 14, 2010 03:20
3 minute read.
A covered Muslim woman in France

burqa 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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Saudi Arabia is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped countries in the world, particularly when it comes to its women. Some of these negative perceptions could be justified. After all, it is 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 driver’s licenses.

Saudi women are 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, child care, legal proceedings and health care – basically, every aspect of her life. It is a system that renders half the country’s population helpless dependents.

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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 and successful, women who are prominent leaders in their communities. They ask them all kinds of questions and receive honest answers. However, these journalists often only report on the usual stereotypes: the hijab (head scarf) 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 primarily rooted in local customs and traditions, as well as some – but certainly not all – religious interpretations within the country. 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 high 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 to describe how she covered her hair when he asked to take her picture.

When a picture of Saudi women is published in a Western media outlet, it usually portrays them wearing the black niqab, even though there are many women who do not cover their face or their hair and do not mind being photographed without the veil. This insistence on reinforcing certain images of Saudi women creates distrust and cynicism toward Western media.

As another friend of mine 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 and successful working women. The headscarf or face veil does not prevent us from reaching our goals and objectives.

Whether or not I choose to cover my hair 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 women are recognized as independent adults who have equal standing with men in society, we will continue to experience marginalization and discrimination.

Despite the images perpetrated by Western media, Saudi women have come a long way and are increasingly recognized for our achievements despite the obstacles we face. We are managers of multi-billion dollar companies, world-renowned scientists, university deans and bank CEOs, as well as a director of the United Nations Population Fund and a deputy minister.

Western media should not trivialize our issues by focusing only on our driving rights or the way we dress. 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 recognized in the media and elsewhere.

The writer is a Saudi journalist
– Common Ground News Service/MCT.

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