Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The invisibility of the Saudi woman

The column was originally published  in Arab News

I was struck the other day by the message that two unrelated photographs conveyed.

One was of President Barack Obama on stage with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, moments before he gave his victory speech after his re-election Tuesday night. The other photo was of a conference on contemporary women held in Saudi Arabia. There were no women in the photo, but hundreds of men in short thobes.

The photo of the Obama family sent a strong message that family is the core value of the leader of the largest and richest nation on earth. The other photograph told me that women are invisible and they have no voice in their future.

I am sure there were many women at the Saudi conference working behind the scenes, but if a photograph speaks a thousand words, then only one is really needed: “absent.”
As a Saudi woman I don’t want or need a man to hide me away from society. I don’t need my husband to go to government offices to do my business for me, nor do I need him to run routine errands for me like going down to the corner fish market to pick up dinner.

As Saudis we have managed over two generations to strip away women’s identity. The proud names of Saudi mothers have been removed from the outside of homes in Old Jeddah. In the days of my grandparents, the name of the mother of the house was once proudly displayed. Her identity was the family’s identity. My mother, Alia Muhammad Al-Atayyah, had literally thousands of people attend her funeral in Madinah. That’s the kind of impact she had on her community. Her name is our family’s legacy.

Today, husbands and fathers fight to ensure our national identity card photos are obscured so government officials don’t see our images. Men refuse to talk about their wives or daughters to other men for the irrational fear that the women in their families will have their reputations tarnished. And even women going about their business in public places demand that men lower their gazes if their eyes linger on us a little too long.

When I watched the Obamas on stage the other night, I was a bit envious. This husband and father had no problem showing off his family and how proud he was of the women in his life. The scene reminded of rare photographs of King Abdullah and Prince Salman and with their grandchildren.

The image of Prince Salman and his grandchildren was especially touching, with one of the young girls going about straightening out the gutra of her grandfather as he sat patiently waiting for her to get it exactly right. I got a glimpse of our leaders’ personal lives and feel more secure as a Saudi and more proud of my country.
King Abdullah has consistently been photographed in public with women and considers himself an advocate for women. So it’s difficult to understand why the men at the women’s conference felt compelled to discuss women’s issues away from women.

Barack Obama’s re-election to a second term as president and his speech also reminded me why Saudis admire the US so much despite its questionable Middle East foreign policy goals. He fought a furious campaign and former Gov. Mitt Romney lost. Romney, however, was a gracious loser and Obama struck a conciliatory note by promising to work with both Democrats and Republicans to ensure that the US prospers.

In the Middle East, we have few gracious losers. Defeat is not easily accepted and differences become starker as the winners take control of a government. Political and religious leaders defame each other and wars continue to be fought and often won through attrition. A look at a tumultuous post-revolution Libya and the continuing civil war in Syria are examples of how winners are never satisfied and how in the face of overwhelming evidence that a dictator is hated, he still clings to his power.

While Obama still faces a hostile Congress, Romney set the right tone with his hope that the president will guide his nation on the right path.

Our disappointments in Obama’s Middle East policies and whatever shortcomings he has as president don’t erase the fact that for the US the system of government works. And that despite harsh tone of the campaign it’s in the best interest of the United States to forge common ground between the two political parties.

But on a personal level, I find the pride Obama displays every time he shows off the beautiful women in his family is representative of the true values of this man. And I will preempt the literal-minded critics right here: It’s not about showing off women in western dress or showing off their legs. It’s about honoring the family. I don’t buy the argument that Saudi society is different and should be respected. I don’t buy it because I really don’t appreciate a roomful of men gathering at a conference to evaluate my role as a woman in Saudi society without my input. 
I am not invisible and I am not going away.

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