Friday, April 11, 2014

When outrage over a changing Saudi society turns ugly

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 6/12/2013

As someone who has been on the receiving end of hundreds of hate postings on the Internet because I dared to show my face on television during a news interview, I sympathize with the women workers at the Jeddah fast-food restaurant who have been libeled with the worst name.
Saudis are heavy users of Twitter, Facebook and other social media. And with the prolific dialogue throughout the blogosphere people can pretty much say what we feel with few consequences.
Now we have a “sheikh” no less who whines that women workers at the Jeddah Hardee’s fast-food restaurant will end their shift as prostitutes. Why? Because they serve men. Apparently if a woman serves a man a meal, a conversation ensues, and, well, seclusion and bad behavior will follow.
I have lived in England, which is probably one of the most uninhibited countries on the planet, and often frequented McDonald’s and the occasional Burger King. These places are packed with men and women. The women at the counter take guys’ money and hand bags of burgers to them. In all the time I frequented these places, I have never seen anyone engage in the oldest profession either at the counter or on a dining table. I can’t speak for the kitchen area, though.
Yet women restaurant workers in Saudi Arabia are far more likely to engage in that dirty business, according to our so-called sheikh friend. Oh, ye of little faith in the Kingdom’s women.
Our friend is calling for a boycott of Hardee’s, noting on a social media website that, “At the beginning of her shift she’s a waitress. When her shift ends she becomes a prostitute. The more she’s around men the easier it becomes to get closer to her.”
Hey, buddy, they are not waitresses. They are counter clerks. They stand behind a counter wearing a loose white smock and a niqab and ask you if you want Number 1, Number 2 or Number 3 and do you want to supersize that for an extra SR 10. Waitresses go out to your dining table, take your order, refill your coffee and make sure the kids have high chairs or booster seats. At the end of the meal she may even give you a take away box for that piece of chicken you are going to give the cat.
So the question is, how does the briefest of conversations taking place over a countertop and the exchange of money make a woman as bad as this man’s definition? Does every women possess loose morals who stands in the female line at a mall food court and transacts business with a male clerk? How does our friend feel about the female companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) buying and selling goods in the marketplace at the time of the Prophet?
The real issue is not whether this so-called sheikh and his 5,000 twitter followers believe a fast-food job will lead to moral corruption, but instead the rage over the fact that some women want to leave home for part-time work.
Like most Saudis I firmly believe in the family. But as my brother said to me the other night, we spend our time with our families cooped up in our apartments. Children are raised in apartments with few places in the neighborhood to play. Daughters, sisters and wives feel as claustrophobic as the children inside the home with few opportunities to exercise their bodies and brains, let alone provide income for the household.
The anger and slander stem from the threat that women want to achieve something that doesn’t limit to the house. Saudi society is changing with it new roles for women.
The so-called sheikh’s outrage represents a minority in Saudi society. When women first went to work in supermarkets, there was an outcry in conservative circles. Complaints prompted one supermarket to initially stop hiring women checkout clerks. The crisis blew over and now many supermarkets employ female clerks as do now the cosmetic shops. Soon, women will staff the perfume and abaya shops.
And guess what? The sky didn’t fall. Moral corruption hasn’t run rampant. 
There will always be people like our friend who feel the need to belittle and condemn hardworking women. But the reality is that families — the backbone of Saudi society — support it. They see the need for the extra income. They see the need for their daughters lead fulfilling lives. 
Women who choose to stay at home and raise children and act as caregivers to the entire family are the most important element of any household. However, it’s up to the family whether women should work outside the home. Not outraged men. 

No comments: