Posts Tagged Muslim Women

Unlived Lives, Unanswered What Ifs

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was 7 years old and was left alone on a plane heading to Ottawa?

I was flying to Montreal with my parents and friends of the family. We were seated in front rows and our friends – whose daughter was at my age – were in the back, so I spent the entire flight sitting with them. When the plane landed I decided to go back to the front to find my parents and remind my mother of my little bag. I went up to my seat and found that my parents had already left the plane – trusting that I was leaving with their friends – and I went back to my friend’s family and found that they had left too. The door was closing and the flight attendants were buckling up in preparation for the final stretch to Ottawa. In shock and despair I tried to meet my new fate and go back to my old seat, but I began to cry. I got up, ran to the flight attendant and with a quivering voice I said “I want to go down.” She was shocked. “Where are your parents?” she asked, “Did they leave you in the bathroom?” The story was too complicated for me to explain in the midst of my gasps and yelps. So I just repeated my request. Soon I was let out of the plane and taken in a nice car to the terminal, where I found my mother a weeping wreck and my father trying to book a flight to Ottawa.

It was the most traumatizing experience of my life then.

Years later, as the hormones began to rage and I became an angry 14 year old wondering why oh why my father wouldn’t let me go down to the nightclub with my friends, I began to wonder what would have happened if I really had gone to Ottawa and begun a new life of my own (ignoring the fact that there existed authorities that wouldn’t let a 7 year old just “be” on her own and a father who would come get me a couple of hours later).

When I was 16 I considered running away with my cousin and finding a new life in America. The reason was that I was offended and insulted that my father objected to the presumptuous dance we did on the roof of the house, right next to the water storage tank (which is usually placed on the highest point in the roof). I had no visa to the US and there was no way I could apply for one alone at 16. Yet still I asked myself later what if I did run away then? Who, or rather what, would I have become?

I spent a good deal of my life asking these kinds of questions to myself, and I still catch myself doing this every now and then.

What if I did marry the stalker who knew where I lived and knew every member of my family and had the guts to walk into my father’s office and ask for my hand in marriage?

What if I hadn’t put on the Muslim headscarf at 22? What if I hadn’t taken it off at 39?

What if I hadn’t taken my editing job in Cairo and went after what I wanted and applied to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government after I finished my studies in AUC? What if I got accepted then? I would have never left Boston, that’s for sure, but what would my life have been now? What would my problems be? Would I have had time to clack away on my keyboard or would I have been too busy lecturing and writing academic books and brushing shoulders with policy makers?

What if I did accept that job offer I got on Aljazeera when I was 30 and moved to Qatar? Perhaps I would have continued on in my career as an editor, and I certainly would have had a very different world around me, shaping my view of everything.

What if I wasn’t so intimidated by the UK’s old quarantine laws for incoming pets and put my cat in there for 6 months and found a job in London when I had the chance? (Yes I’m one of those crazy cat women that let their cats run their lives, but in truth I think my cat was and still is just an excuse).

What if I did convert to Shiism when I considered it?

What if I did tell that self-righteous jerk exactly what I thought of him?

What if I did go out to dinner with that Canadian stranger on the plane?

Many times when the world takes on a shade just a little bit darker than the usual dark I find myself asking these questions and wondering about those alternative lives I could have had. My mind works them out perfectly in my head that I think of them more as parallel lives of parallel selves I already am. Each of those lives does fulfill a bit of me, or perhaps they fulfill the me I was in different phases of my life.

But in the midst of all of this I seem to forget the life I did have.

I didn’t walk away from my family at a young age, I stayed with my parents till the last day of their lives doing the best I could to be good to them. I stayed in my country and became more rooted in the culture and more comfortable with its oddities. I stayed in my job and through it I was exposed to a world I may never have gotten the chance to see. I got close to Muslim Brotherhood members and was exposed to their thought. I got to speak in front of the Danish editor who commissioned the cartoon that offended millions of Muslims worldwide and looked him in the eye, and I got to see the other side of the coin too. I met Hizbullah fighters, commanders, slept in their villages, had their coffee, shared their dishes, and heard inside stories of the 2006 war on the Lebanese south. I ran away from tear gas with a fearless friend I only met because I chose to stay in this life. I thought, I considered and I reconsidered until I became the person I am today. I had first hand experience about everything I talk so passionately about because, thankfully, I’ve seen stuff. That to me is worth a thousand books written on theories, based on theories, and protected by the comfortable bubble of assumptions and secondhand knowledge.

I felt the suffocation of my job, my life, the message I thought I was carrying to the world. I got disenchanted with it all and went and climbed Kilimanjaro, then went to the Himalayas, then the Andes. And somewhere in the middle of this I went to Florence and stole six perfect shots of David with my own camera right under the guards’ noses.

I may not have been able to reflect on all of this if I’d chosen to take any of the different life paths that presented themselves to me. Much of what I went through gave me pain, but I don’t believe I would have learned anything if it hadn’t.

So I know it sounds miserably cliché, but really, I just wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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Mournful Ghosts or Uncovered Meat? The “Saudi Woman” Effect

By Arwa Mahmoud
Additional reporting by Ahmad Al Amoudi – Jeddah
(First published in 2007 by IslamOnline.net)

“Stop! Stop it NOW!”

“I don’t know how to!!”

“Jump from it!!”

“I CAN’T!!”

The sound of a big splash combined with a loud engine overrode the girl’s screams as teenage Hoda, dressed in a T-shirt and swimming suit, drove into the Red Sea with her brother’s motorcycle in a public seashore in Jeddah.

Today, Hoda is 41 years old, married to an imam, and runs a self-development center specialized for women and children.

“Jeddah’s sea resorts have always attracted young men and women from different nationalities. Back in the late ’70s, it was never an uncommon thing to see a foreign woman on a boat in her swimming suit. Today, many girls continue to find their ways around these places,” said Hoda.

Saudi Arabia is a place that surely challenges a journalist’s professional ego. The common image of it being a desert with rich princes and women in black cloaks covering them from head to toe often tempts a writer to write about it with a great deal of sensationalism. Some of the Western literature on Saudi Arabia gives the immediate impression to an insider that the author has chosen the easy way: entering the country with a previously established idea, being guided throughout with selective perception, and eventually writing what sells.

BBC correspondent Rachel Reid’s recent reflection on Saudi, initially titled “The First Woman to Swim in Saudi,” and then changed to “Making a Public Splash in Saudi,” is reminiscent of such literature.

“Reading through Reid’s article, it was as if she wrote about Saudi some 50 or more years ago… women are depicted as subjects, recipients. Expressions such as ‘folded away’ and ‘ushered’ draw a dim picture of oppressed women beaten around like cattle,” commented Hoda. I listened to her as I looked back into the article, up to the third paragraph, where I reread her description of Gulf women in abaya as “mournful ghosts.”

As a half-Egyptian, half-Saudi woman, my life has always been divided between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, I drive and I wear whatever I want. In Saudi Arabia, I can’t drive and I have to wear an abaya on top of whatever I’m wearing. I switch between both modes naturally. I hardly give it a thought.

The black abaya that women wear in public places in Saudi has always been in my wardrobe. I put it on as I go to the airport to take my flight to Jeddah or Riyadh, always have it on as I walk in shopping malls or in the streets of Makkah and Madinah, and sometimes forget I have it on when I go visit a cousin and immediately start catching up with old conversations. Sometimes it gets in the way as I come out of a car, sometimes I trip over it when I come up or down the stairs, but I always attribute it to malpractice. As I try to hide my embarrassment, most of the women around me always seem to walk in it with grace and ease.

It never occurred to me once that I looked like a mournful ghost – no child ever screamed when they saw me.

You can never enforce a single uniform on people, let alone women. The Saudi abaya does appear to be a hassle to any foreign woman used to more overt expressions of her individuality. But many Saudi women still manage to find their ways around it. Walk in any fancy mall and you will be stunned by the variety of fabrics, designs, and decorated color appliques, not to mention the high heels, luxury bags, and full makeup that nearly always come with it. So even as the abaya is an enforced uniform on women, it never snatched away their personal taste or preference. Saudi women who do cover in plain black, head to toe, are culturally accustomed to it. In fact, some of them continue to wear it even outside the country.

The Private Public

Saudi women do not have to be escorted by men everywhere they go. Any visit to a “family” section in a restaurant shows it. Yes, they live segregated lives, but this has created a parallel public world with its own social codes and standards. It is also a world of ease and luxury that can easily get you into thinking that it is unsurpassed even by the Saudi man’s world.

There is very little that Saudi women cannot do in their own world. As a practicing Muslim wearing the hijab, I find my clothes nearly have no place in Saudi. I catch myself digging for jeans and dresses each time I have to travel there. Underneath the abayas, women there wear anything they please. It even gets competitive.

The busier women are always caught in their work, and in their leisure time they practice a wide variety of sports ranging from martial arts to horseback riding, the latter often taught by a male trainer.

“Saudi Arabia is loaded with a number of social and sports clubs that offer special services for women, and swimming is no exception,” commented Maida Zaazou, a Saudi poet and writer who takes swimming as a primary sport.

“My best friend goes swimming with her children every week in Al-Bilad Hotel. It has a certain number of hours for ladies. Most hotels here do,” added Hoda. “What the hotel provided for Reid was a private hour. This wasn’t so public. They just gave her another private public space, something normally offered in many other hotels.”

Reid created a catchy story from a single incident in one of the hotels, and she fit it perfectly at home with what many readers want to read about Saudi.

Saudi women’s roles are not necessarily confined to the “private public” sphere. An increasing number have joined the workforce, and many of them can be seen in less “scary” abayas, smiling, and joining male counterparts in meetings and discussions.

Currently, there is a large number of women members in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “There are four women in the board of directors,” added Salih Al Turki, the chairman of the board.

Segregated life in Saudi is still not easy. Especially as a woman who does not live in the country, I sometimes find it frustrating to constantly be interrupted by figuring out where to sit, or having to rely on someone else to drive me to the place I’m going. Also, Saudi society has started to develop its own list of problems and complications that many Saudi youth are now trying to find solutions to. However, the problem is far from being the old cliché of a suppressed, covered woman always in the shadow of a ruthless, selfish man. A closer look at the society exposes a whole new set of issues that are by far more real and more pressing.

The Controversial Vote

With the image of the covered Saudi woman and her imaginary male escort still fresh in Reid’s mind, she concluded her piece with a reflection on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with special attention to voting. She commented that if women were allowed to vote in the 2009 elections, it would be a “revolution.”

“What revolution? We have an existing problem with the voting system itself! Even men suffer from inequality in this regard,” Hoda giggled. “Did everyone forget that we live under the most tyrannical monarchy in the region? Focusing on voting as the sign of women’s liberation is laughable. It simply does not apply.”

She added, “This country needs serious human development, good education, more social awareness and cohesion, and professional training in order to reach a phase in which voting is actually efficient and effective.”

How Far Can Labels Go?

Reid’s reflection story promises problematic reporting. Because it is an opinion piece, Reid has unknowingly given her prejudice so much liberty that she easily used terms and labels that are culturally offensive. She equaled herself to Australian imam Taj Din Al-Hilali when he labeled women who did not wear the hijab as “uncovered meat,” which was equally offensive.

“It’s about what people are culturally used to and how they conduct their lives accordingly,” said Nadia El-Awady, a half-Egyptian, half-American journalist. “In some beaches I see topless European women tanning or having cocktails with great ease, an uncomfortable scene for any person who is not used to nudity. It’s the same feeling others get when they see women covered head to toe, which is an opposite extreme. In the end it is what each of those women is culturally used to.”

One of the key skills journalists often feel compelled to learn at the very beginning of their career is the ability to detach themselves from their personal prejudices and cultural standards, to be able to take a clear and pure look at everything new a foreign society has to offer them. The further journalists manage to go down that path, the more they will be able to mirror what they find as accurately and as credibly as possible.

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