Tuesday, 25 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar
Every time I step into the lecture hall at Newcastle University, I offer silent thanks to Allah and then to my family for their support and encouragement while I pursue my education. There are many Saudi women like me who, despite being away from home, are seeking out a future and their own identity not only to make themselves better persons but also to make Saudi Arabia a better country. As a rule, Saudi society frowns on giving women this kind of freedom. Society says it must protect its women from temptation, but doesn't apply the same rule for men.
Society says that our freedoms must be restricted to keep families intact but it exempts men from these restrictions.
Islam is clear about our equal but separate rights. It's clear about divorce, education, inheritance and a host of other rights. But somewhere down the line they have been conveniently lost to favor a minority who make the rules for us according to their own viewpoint.
As a society, we ignore the impact that these arbitrary rules had on women.
The tragedy that befell the Qatif girl put a spotlight on this problem. We all agree that our society doesn't allow mingling of men and women. But her punishment of six months in prison and 200 lashes appears to be too harsh and does not match the crime after she was gang-raped.
King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in his wisdom, pardoned the Qatif girl when the judicial system showed no compassion. The case of the Qatif girl is only a symptom of a much larger problem. The pressures on young women is almost unbearable.
It was reported last month that a 2006 study conducted by King Saud University researcher Salwa Al-Khatib found that 96 of 100 suicide attempts recorded by the hospital were committed by women. She added that the hospital receives on average 11 suicide-attempt cases by women each month.
Suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam. It is sinful that death by suicide is not recorded as a suicide but "misuse of medicine."
What could drive such a high number of women to take their own lives? Let's face it. We live a restricted lifestyle - our social life, where we go and with whom we are, our decision to go to college and even how many children we have are closely watched and guarded.
Maha Hamad, 23-year-old, recently told the British news agency Reuters that she attempted suicide two years ago.
"I was desperate back then because of family problems," she said. "My mother got divorced and I had to stay with her while my two older brothers stayed with my father. I faced too much pressure from my mother in everything I do. It was impossible for me to live my life without her dictating to me what to do and what not to do."
The rules that we live by appear to have been created to set women up to fail and are enforced in such a way that they can easily get themselves into trouble on the slightest pretence that what they do is wrong.
In Jeddah, I have seen a lot of women who live alone without talking to any man in their daily lives simply because this is taboo. When a woman is alone in a car with a driver, when a woman talks to a man who repairs something in her family's apartment or talking to a man who sells lingerie, does it become a crime? Should a woman receive 200 lashes for supervising two Pakistani workmen who are installing a ceiling lamp in her apartment?
The point I am trying to drive at is that it's impossible to survive in any society without mingling, especially in cases where there is no man in the family or, if there is, the man is abusive or irresponsible.
It's almost impossible to get around in a city without using a car. We haven't talked about these issues for a long time so much so that we simply accept them without questions.
How many times have I heard, "Well, this is Saudi Arabia." We all laugh and go about our business. But the pressure to get through the days with so much restrictions is sometimes difficult to comprehend by anyone other than a Saudi woman.
In the past two years, I've noticed a slight change in how women conduct themselves in public that gives me hope. Many young women are coming of age and sometimes go to coffee shops in groups or in pairs. They have fun and exchange conversation in a respectful way that, I bet, harms no one.
These bold, unafraid girls have the support of their families. They are given the right to choose their careers and the lifestyle they desire for themselves within the framework of Islam. They seek to deviate from old traditions that have added nothing to the development of our society.
I see Saudi society loosening the shackles of some arbitrary rules I have lived through as a teenager and young woman. And I am glad to see this development.
Maybe the case of the Qatif girl or the study of suicides by women have helped point out that we need to evaluate the restrictions placed on us, women.
Prince Saud Al-Faisal told a journalist from a British television last month that women in Saudi Arabia will drive cars when Saudi society is ready. Prince Saud has taken a bold step when he said he believes women should be allowed to drive.
By Saudi society, he means families, and I am thankful that my family recognizes my value and gives me the independence I am entitled to.
But if we are going to wait for all families to recognize the right of their wives, daughters and sisters, we will be waiting for a long time. We need a few more people like Prince Saud to give us a gentle push.