The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 21/3/2013
Reading articles in the foreign press about Saudi Arabia almost always ends with unfulfilled expectations. Never mind the articles on politics, oil and the usual tripe about Wahhabism. It’s the well-meaning, somewhat naïve and stage-managed reports from high school teachers and Western university students who come to the Kingdom for a week or so and leave as instant experts on all things Saudi.
Here’s a typical reaction from an American school teacher about Saudi Arabia: Saudi women wear abayas. Saudi women wear jeans under their abayas. Saudi women are smarter than they look. Saudi women can’t drive cars. Saudi shopping malls are big. Saudi Arabia has a Victoria’s Secret shop. Woo-hoo!
Here’s a typical published report from an American post-graduate student studying for his master’s degree in political science: Saudi women wear abayas. Saudi women are smarter than they look. Saudi women can’t drive cars. Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal society. Saudi Arabia oppresses women. Saudi Arabia’s “brand” of Islam is “ultra-conservative.” Saudi women need to spread their wings and fly like butterflies.
Yarrabi (Oh my God).
Give the various Saudi ministries credit for inviting young non-Muslim Westerners to Saudi Arabia to learn about our culture. Unfortunately, the time visitors spend in the Kingdom is not only too short, but tightly controlled. A week visiting schools, meeting with Saudi men and women selected especially for the visits, and time for shopping at the Al-Faisaliah Mall in Riyadh provides little more than a superficial, if not skewed look at Saudi culture.
Instead of demythicizing Saudi Arabia and Islam, these short, unproductive visits only add to the generalization and stereotyping of Saudis. It’s not the fault of our guests, who only write of the experiences from what they see. And in many ways these visits only reinforce what the writer is prone to believe in the first place. The American school teacher, for example, appears open to understanding Saudi women, while the postgraduate student’s deep beliefs about women’s rights and Islam are reinforced by his visit.
I read these news reports that pretty much say the same thing over and over, and wonder why the true story about Saudis is never told.
Take Intisar Filimban, for instance. She recently headed the Saudi delegation in the Arab Organization for Road Safety at the 30th Session of the Arab Ministers of Interior. She is the head of the women and family affairs branch of the Arab Organization for Road Safety. She is responsible for spreading public awareness about traffic safety. Six years ago, I asked her what is the use of such campaigns when Saudi women are not permitted to drive. She replied wisely that we are the real drivers in the back seat. As mothers, wives and employers of drivers, we must know the rules of the road and the basics of traffic safety, such as wearing seatbelts. If we can’t control the vehicle, at least we can protect our families. Intisar is a strong and forward-thinking woman who is serving her country.
Through her actions, Intisar is proving to the world and to people still obsessed with Saudi women covering their faces that there are more important issues to consider. There is more to life than sex and corruption, and Saudi women’s lives should not be defined as something corruptible. Instead, we should consider that things like Instisar’s safety campaign is far more important.
Foreigners visiting Effat College and Dar Al-Hekma University is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t give our visitors the opportunity to meet important women who are becoming the movers and shakers who can effect change in Saudi society. Saudi Arabia has done very little to provide our visitors with tangible examples of women’s success, especially in the fields of science and technology, membership in the Shoura Council and the growing influence we have in the workplace.
When I went to South Korea for a month on a fellowship a few years ago, our hosts didn’t just take us to the hot tourist spots and meet selected members of Korean society. We took classes in politics and culture. We were taught about the difficult relationship South Korea has with North Korea. They took us to the demilitarized zone. We toured the Hyundai auto and Samsung electronics factories. We could have come back with the knowledge that South Koreans eat worms and insects, and we could have toured the old neighborhoods of Seoul. But that experience would have been one-dimensional. Instead, I came back with a place in my heart for South Korea because I had an opportunity to live a natural life.
Saudi Arabia is to be admired for opening its borders to the West. I look forward to the next step that gives foreigners a much clearer picture of what we are about. It’s a lot more than what we look like in an abaya.