The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Saudi women are being drip-fed rights, and we're expected to be grateful Open in fullscreen

E. Antigone

Saudi women are being drip-fed rights, and we're expected to be grateful

Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws do not see women as capable and autonomous individuals [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 March, 2018

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
Comment: Royal decrees affording basic rights to women are not emancipatory, as male guardians still have the last word in Saudi Arabia, writes E. Antigone.
"Because she is woman, the girl knows that the sea and the poles, a thousand adventures, a thousand joys, are forbidden to her: She is born on the wrong side" writes Simone de Beauvoir, in 'The Second Sex'. 

Physics and culture are two interchanging catalysts in the formation of the existential identity of Saudi women today.

Traditions, the arrangement of physical spaces and law or politicised religion, have come to regulate and maintain the Saudi female identity.

Under the country's guardianship laws, the Saudi woman exists as a minor.

She's a minor because the state does not recognise her as a fully capable and autonomous individual.

In Saudi society, a woman is entrusted to nurture others and to support and look after her family. Yet when it comes to matters concerning her autonomy and individuality, her education, work and travel she is reduced to a minor and unable to make her own decisions.

As a result, when dreaming and setting professional goals, Saudi women must calculate into their ambitions the opinions and feelings of their male guardians.

The discussion of the legality of guardianship laws should not even enter into the debate, because any educated and enlightened Saudi man or woman should be able to recognise the facets of oppression these laws enable.

My concern here, is the existential attitude Saudi women are taking up because of how history, Saudi society and culture has shaped them.
I should look down, in fact, I shouldn't look anywhere. I should be quiet, recipient and obedient
Some are in denial of their situation, and some have internalised guardianship as "Islamic".

Others are blinded by privilege and are enjoying being the tokens of progress, and others still are tweeting out of a sense of injustice, because that is their only platform.

At issue here, is the fragmented identity resulting from a deeply rooted and internalised oppression. It seems appropriate to begin this dialogue now, at a time when the zeitgeist in Saudi Arabia talks of "progress" and "change".

The separation of genders in public spaces has long played a role in assigning each gender their role.

Men have enjoyed the public sphere, while women have been confined to the private one. This binary has separated professions and interests into male and female.

As Saudis, we take for granted the arrangement of physical spaces and how they facilitate the hierarchy of genders. We take for granted how buildings tell and have been telling women that they are inferior to men.
What is the point of driving if women need consent for it?
Many Saudi cultural and physical practices, especially practices of separation, continue to reinforce the mentality of guardianship. For guardianship is not just a law that defines the legal capacities of women, it is an ideology, a psychology and a lifestyle.

Men and women are socialised from the cradle to "learn to feel invisible fences as they crawl, to sense unwritten boundaries as they walk", to borrow the words of Juan Williams. 

They are conditioned to think and behave in ways that maintain the unequal balance of power.

As a result, a royal decree allowing women to drive does not shatter this ideology, and in fact, only complicates women's situation further.

Allowing women to drive while guardianship laws still stand, is nothing short of an insult. What is the point of driving if women need consent for it?

A typical high school for young women in Saudi Arabia provides a good example of how a physical space creates an internalised sense of inferiority.

The architecture is characterised by long walls, iron fences and no clear windows. We walk into these buildings with the impression of entering a prison; being punished for something. 
Since my environment is the limit of my freedom, what possible options do I have in a space that imprisons me?
Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that our bodies are connected to our environments. They shape us, take hold of us and affect us. As a female student of this school, I already know how this building is revealing itself to me.

My reflex is to be exactly like it. I have been in these buildings all my life and I take up their character. I am as closed off and as isolated as they are. There are no windows or open areas. The building shields and "protects" me from the outside "masculine" world. That is how my gender is positioned in society.

Protection means control and it is for my own good, I am told. That is how power structures are preserving me.

I should go to school without complaining from the lack of ventilation or the excess heat. I should look down, in fact, I shouldn't look anywhere. I should be quiet, recipient and obedient. In this confined, walled and closed space, my reflexes have created habits and a particular, oppressed existence.

Since my environment is the limit of my freedom, what possible options do I have in a space that imprisons me?

If my ambitions lie beyond these walls, beyond my place in society, beyond my role as woman, where does that leave me?
The confusion of traditions with religion produced guardianship laws that give absolute authority for men to dictate women's lives
Physically and intellectually, I am crippled and fed information that is far from reality.

Culturally and societally, I must know my limits and remain within them. I should only be as ambitious as the pale color of these walls. I am a woman; I am only as enabled as my guardian allows.

Merleau-Ponty's point about the impact of environment on a person's psychology is useful for understanding how women in Saudi Arabia today are conditioned into certain behaviours and decisions.

The space that the school creates affects its students' experience of education, of life and of themselves.

The restricted cultural spaces that Saudi women have access to create within them an inferiority complex that is reinforced every time they leave their private space. Such a power dynamic is reinforced every time a woman needs permission to enjoy herself and travel, whether with friends or for work.

It is reinforced when she needs consent from her guardian so that she can have surgery. It is reinforced anytime her movement changes shape, form and function.

Physical spaces, law and culture all work together in a lifestyle that marks women as needing control, regulation and confinement.

The confusion of traditions with religion produced guardianship laws that give absolute authority for men to dictate women's lives.

Today's Saudi Arabia is undergoing economic and social changes. Women in particular are facing such a profound existential crisis that even if empowerment came knocking on their door, many would not know what to do with it.

The issue of women's rights in Saudi Arabia divides women  themselves, depending on their privilege and social and economic background.

Change in Saudi Arabia comes from the hands of power, and from the top down. As such, women are being drip-fed a selection of rights with the expectation of gratitude.

But these filtered rights do not emancipate women as they should.

To be born and to exist as an adult minor is to live a life that belongs to others.

This life relies heavily on the good faith of men.

How can we rationally expect women to be empowered if their social and cultural conditioning wires them to seek male validation?

Becoming a woman, a Saudi woman, is thus, an uneventful miserable socialisation. Indeed, to be born a woman in Saudi Arabia, is to leave your entire existence to probabilities and likelihoods. It is time for that to change. 



E. Antigone is a US-based Saudi journalist.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More