The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Well she would, wouldn't she? 

The title is prompted by memories of a court case in England, long before my first visit here. It was at the time of the "Profumo Scandal", a salacious affair involving government ministers, prostitutes, Russian spies, and peers of the realm. One of the prostitutes (or "Call Girls", because her client appointments were arranged by telephone), was a Miss Mandy Rice-Davies. In a court case, when a rather pompous barrister put it to her that "Lord Astor denied having an affair or having even met her", she cheekily replied, to laughter round the court, "Well, he would, wouldn't he?". Middle class notions about the impeccable morals of the Upper classes deflated by the cynical no-nonsense realism of the Lower classes. I've always treasured that reply.

It came to mind again when I read this item, sent in by "Asher".

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 27 - The audience - 500 women covered in black at a Saudi university - seemed an ideal place for Karen P. Hughes, a senior Bush administration official charged with spreading the American message in the Muslim world, to make her pitch.
But the response on Tuesday was not what she and her aides expected. When Ms. Hughes expressed the hope here that Saudi women would be able to drive and "fully participate in society" much as they do in her country, many challenged her.

So who were the audience? A random sample of Saudi womanhood, from all regions and classes, Sunni and Shia, working or unemployed? Well, not exactly.

The group of women, picked by the university, represented the privileged elite of this Red Sea coastal city, known as one of the more liberal areas in the country. And while they were certainly friendly toward Ms. Hughes, half a dozen who spoke up took issue with what she said.

Two points here. One, no group of Saudis, whatever their situation, would ever admit that something was wrong with Saudi Arabia, to a member of the widely-detested Bush regime. They could be up to their waists in boiling oil, and they'd just say that they were, on average, quite warm. Two, in a country where the female employment rate is less that 1%, anyone with a job is a member of a privileged minority, and any female student hopes to become part of that 1%, just like people elsewhere hope to win the lottery.

"We're not in any way barred from talking to the other sex," said Dr. Nada Jambi, a public health professor. "It's not an absolute wall."

I asked Mrs A about that. She snorted. Even in the universities, there is a physical wall between men's and women's campuses. Men lecture to women via closed circuit TV. But, as Mrs A said, she's privileged to have the job she does. And there's always the example of this poor female academic to keep everyone else in line. So, she concluded, "She would say that, wouldn't she?"

Several women said later that Americans failed to understand that their traditional society was embraced by men and women alike.

....as demonstrated by our numerous opinion polls, elections, letters in the free press, investigative programs on our free TV...

"There is more male chauvinism in my profession in Europe and America than in my country," said Dr. Siddiqa Kamal, an obstetrician and gynecologist who runs her own hospital.

...and believe me, women who run their own hospitals in Saudi Arabia are as rare as hen's teeth. Not that they can go in for "visible management", of course. They must always operate from a back room, can't be seen by the general public.

"I don't want to drive a car," she said. "I worked hard for my medical degree. Why do I need a driver's license?"

Why indeed? When you've got your own personal driver, 24 X 7, at the other end of a cellphone, or waiting for hours in the sunshine while you're inside the shop, a driving license is a bit unnecessary (and I will confess that back home the A family do have a driver, although shared between all for trips to work, school, and shops). However we are the privileged minority. As for the majority of women, not only left at home, usually with children, not able to use a taxi because of the risks, but also often physically locked in by husband, then a driving license might be something you dream about. However our hospital owning lady is talking about only herself, not anyone else. She reminds me of Marie Antoinette.

I'm trying to avoid being judgemental about some of the people reported upon, like

....Nour al-Sabbagh, a 21-year-old student in special education. ....
Like some of her friends, Ms. Sabbagh said Westerners failed to appreciate the advantages of wearing the traditional black head-to-foot covering known as an abaya.

After all, Nour would really like to do something in special education when she graduates, so in a society where conformity and networking are vital for getting a job, she's not going to be in the slightest bit critical. But even so, she must have gritted her teeth when she said:

"I love my abaya," she explained. "It's convenient and it can be very fashionable."

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