Thursday, February 08, 2007
Lifting the veil in Saudi Arabia
Late yesterday evening I left my hotel to buy a new battery for my mobile phone and was completely blown away by what I saw.
Saudi women without veils. I had never seen this in public before. Until now, women have always been covered, often head to toe in a black chador or cloak and a veil covering at least their hair and often their face as well. I was shocked and really had to keep doing a double take.
Perhaps they were foreigners who occasionally could get away without their hair covered? Was I really in Saudi Arabia?
I’ve been coming to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, for close to five years. It is at the heart of the country’s vast desert and is known as the Najd region. Islam here has always been conservatively interpreted. The area’s austere desert-based culture is interwoven inseparably with religious teachings. It’s where the Wahhabis came from and is what has always put the more cosmopolitan residents of the port city of Jeddah in the Hijaz region at odds with their conservative desert cousins.
In short, what I am saying, is that such a change in Riyadh is fundamental to the country -- not a freak of some isolated pocket of liberal rebellion. It may seem like a miniscule change by Western standards, but here it is a massive shift away from the overbearing religious policemen of the past who often harshly enforced strict dress codes forcing women to wear a veil.
About three years ago, I did a story featuring religious policemen in Riyadh shopping malls, just like the one I visited last night. Their job was to make sure men and women do not mix unless they are related (this particularly applied to young men) and to make sure women were covered up. I remember some expatriate women telling me they had been accosted by religious policemen and being told off for wearing nail polish in public. If they wanted to do that they were told they should wear gloves. Any woman letting her veil slip to show her hair was quickly accosted.
Last night, I saw no religious policemen in the mall. There were young, quite casual security guards who did ask us what nationality we were before allowing us off the street into the mall, but nothing overbearing.
Women, particularly older teenagers -- maybe as many as one in five -- were walking around chatting and window shopping arm in arm with female friends, their hair permed, wavy, treated, made up to look attractive. There was an energy and excitement about many of those who had taken the cultural plunge to unveil so to speak. It was clear they were having fun with this novel freedom.
Of course, not all women removed their veil, some completely covered their faces with a black scarf, others left slits for their eyes only while others kept their veil over their hair but allowed their faces to be uncovered. Choice is still driven by family values.
It was also noticeable that while there were plenty of young women in the mall, there were relatively few young men. As recently as the year before last, I spoke to a young man who had been chased out of a mall by religious police as he and his friends had sought to meet girls. It was for him a huge frustration that there are no places where young men and women could meet legally.
But what I do detect in this new relaxation of religious interpretation is the first major softening of Saudi Arabia’s harsh image. Is it far enough? Is it fast enough to meet the expectations of the country’s booming young population? (More than half have been born since 1990, 75 percent are under 27.) I don’t know. I have argued in the past it may not be.
I was here a year-and-a-half ago when the country’s ruler King Abdullah came to the throne after almost a decade as Crown Prince and defacto ruler during the then King Fahad’s ill health. I was told the octogenarian monarch wanted to bring reforms. Now I feel like I can say I’m beginning to see them.
I don’t want to say lifting a veil or two will solve the country’s ills; it won’t. Women here still cannot vote, cannot stand for election, cannot drive, cannot go out alone. But as my elder daughter, Lowrie, studies the British suffragette movement at school in London, I am reminded that women went to prison and died to get the vote in Britain, and that change comes slowly and often at a cost.
Incredible as it may seem today, barely 100 years ago, against a very vocal conservative male-dominated opposition, wealthy women over 30 won the right to cast their ballot in elections. Only years later did women finally achieve equal voting status with men.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah faces no less conservative forces as he inches reforms ahead. He is weighted by being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites -- Mecca and Medina -- a religious responsibility that cannot be overestimated. The concern expressed here is that if change is too fast it will backfire. Conservatives will jump on any failure to say they were right, and the king is wrong.
Beyond lifting the veil, I do see other changes. For one, it is getting easier (fumbling bureaucracy apart) to get in and out of this country. The Saudis are more willing than they have ever been to host international journalists and others. They are planning new cities to diversify the economy from one solely dependent on exporting oil, and to employ the booming population. Things are moving in the direction the West has been demanding for decades.
Change here is glacial, but there is a thaw.
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