I have a friend who lives under the constant pressure of her brothers conspiring to cheat her out of her rightful inheritance after her father died. I have another friend who has accumulated some wealth only to give in to pressure from her husband to finance her mother-in-law’s comfortable lifestyle. I have another who can’t study abroad because her mother emotionally blackmails her into believing the mother can’t survive without her adult daughter next to her every day.
These women are Saudis and all suffer from the same affliction: They are weak in the matters of family.
Many Saudi women from birth are trained to put their personal aspirations aside to serve their families. Their opinions, wants and needs are often ignored for the greater good of the family. There’s an aspect of servitude, but to be more accurate many Saudi girls I know are placed in a lifetime role of caregiver. They provide the emotional support for their sisters, brothers and parents. The men of the family readily acknowledge that the women are the glue that keeps the familial bond strong.
The warmth of the family’s embrace is strongly desired by all Saudi women, but in all too many cases that embrace never loosens. Rather, it becomes restrictive and suffocating to the point that unmarried Saudi women are still living at home well into their 30s. Perhaps worse, they have traded one gilded cage for another by marrying men who see her as a source of income and their concubine. The reality is that the caregiving role that Saudi women play is entrenched in Saudi families so deeply that it’s difficult for parents and brothers to willingly let go of their daughters and sisters.
And if these girls are permitted to live independent lives it’s often an illusion. There are brothers who insist their sisters pay their unpaid bills and act as arbitrator in family disputes. There are fathers who demand half the income a daughter earns in the workplace.
Like an emotionally abused child, the Saudi woman fails to thrive. Many Saudi women will not assert their independence. They will not say “no.” They live in a constant state of anxiety because they must protect their property and income from the very people that profess love for her.
There are also a large number of Saudi women who never experience these issues. Their families encourage their daughters to seek independence, a university education and employment. Such families establish the emotional foundation in their daughters at an early age. When the girls reach adulthood they have clear vision of what they want for a future.
This doesn’t mean that Saudi families less enlightened are intentionally cruel. It’s simply a dependency that has grown to unhealthy proportions and exacerbated by an adult daughter who lacks the emotional strength to seek independence.
I don’t deny there’s a level of cruelty among some Saudi men who think nothing of enjoying women like he’s eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
One of my friends has a brother who demanded that his family find him a wife. His requirements for a Saudi wife were simple: She must be beautiful and dumb.
The brother wanted beauty but the brains had to be left behind because she would pose too much of a challenge for him. The family obliged the brother and found him a wife with fair skin and hair that would make Rapunzel envious. A couple of years and kids later, the brother had enough. Like a 12-year-old who discovers that the graphics on his X-Box are not as cool as the Playstation model, he was ready for a trade-in. “I can’t carry on a conversation with her, she has no idea what I’m talking about!”
These scenarios are all too familiar to Saudi women. Self-expression is stifled not only by insecure male family members who haven’t quite outgrown adolescence but by Saudi women who have yet to discover their voice to express their emotions.
There has been a ripple of change in which Saudi women are claiming ownership to a field that has been largely ignored by Saudi men. More and more women are turning to the arts and literature. Usually scorned by Saudi conservatives as having little or no value to society, literature in particular has attracted Saudi women in large numbers.
Among some agents of change are Saudi writers Badriya Al Bishr, author of “Hind and the Soldiers” and “The Swing”, and Laila Al Gohani, who wrote “The Waste Paradise.”
The Saudi female literature movement is in its infancy. But it also will have more influence on future generations of Saudi women than human rights watchdog reports and scoldings from the West.
But as with anything that involves Saudi women, their writing will be relegated to the margins of Arab literature. Female Arab writers are perceived as pursuing a hobby instead of a profession. And when they are taken seriously as writers, it will only be within the confines of being a female author and not part of the larger world of literature.
Sherren Abou El Naga of Cairo University noted at a 2007 “Women of the Arab World” conference at Oxford that Western and Arab societies have set a double standard for female writers. She said, “A woman shouldn’t write, and in the worst cases, the writings of women could be taken as autobiographical. Whatever the woman writes is part of her life, which really restricts the freedom of the writer, whereas, this does not apply to the men in profession.”
From Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters to Virginia Woolf women writers have been pushed to the margins of world literature.
But as Badriya Al Bishr told Agence France-Presse earlier this month: "There is a new generation of novelists that uses a new language, simple and direct, in dealing with subjects that were not evoked in the past, like the right of a woman to be in love or to work."
Female authors like Al Bishr and Al Gohani may never cross gender lines and be embraced for their work as writers and not just women. But that matters less than the fact they are reaching a female Saudi audience who may be inspired to reach beyond domestic life for a larger piece of the pie.