Friday, 27 February 2009

We Might as Well Just Build Underground Cities for Women!

Abeer Mishkhas

VIEWING the changes that occur in Saudi Arabia, one realizes the almost simultaneous stepping forward and backward. One day, positive changes happen and the second day those steps are retracted, leaving those who were optimistic the first day in puzzled confusion. What is happening here exactly? One day we hear many positive assurances that women are receiving more rights in society through laws and new fields of work. The second day, we learn of restrictions on women’s movements and on their presence in prayer areas and workplaces and even in restaurants. From allowing women to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to raids by the local “morality police” in restaurants and cafes, suspicions are inevitably cast on mixed gatherings and we are told of the necessity for policing people’s leisure time. We have to stop here and ask ourselves — when will we stop dancing forward and then jumping backward?

With no obvious answer to the question, we are left to deal with the complexities as they occur. This week two incidents that cry “discrimination” were reported in the local papers and here they are. According to a newspaper article, mothers are not allowed to complain of any medical malpractice which has affected their children. Only fathers have the right to do so — or that is what the legal advisor at the National Guard Hospital tells us. Mothers are not allowed to complain as if they were not involved in their children’s lives — in most cases more than the children’s fathers. How is this logical and how can it be legal? Would anyone believe that mothers have no such right?

Story number two: In the House of Artists in Jeddah, artists exhibit their paintings and hold exhibitions. There has now been a call to remove women artists and their works from the House of Artists to other premises. There is a reason for this and it is not difficult to find it — there were complaints that women artists were standing beside their work and explaining it to visitors. That, we are told as we are told, is against our traditions.

The matter was brought up by the head of the Fine Art Department in the Jeddah Culture and Art Society. The esteemed “head” told a local paper that the founding members of the society were requesting that only male members should be allowed to participate in activities in the House of Artists. He added: “We have to note that we are in a Muslim country where segregation of the sexes is the norm. Also 70 percent of the activities and functions of the house are dedicated to male artists and only 30 percent to women. The original purpose for opening the house was to serve male artists.”

Even in the world of art, men want women to step aside! What does this say about us and the so-called intellectuals in our country? I am simply lost for words. So male artists are not happy with having women around. What is to be done? The answer is to do it the Saudi way and kick the women out. They are uncomfortable that a woman artist stands before her work and explains it to people who came to see it and are happy to meet the artist. This, however, is considered offensive. By whom, we need not say. Some of the women artists interviewed were, needless to say, furious at the insinuations and innuendoes of indecency.

In the Kingdom, there are places which allow men and women to work together — and these have been successful. Some of the places are in hospitals and in television and radio. In the latest move by the government, women are to hold jobs in the Foreign Ministry and also as diplomats. Are these women who have been appointed to their respective jobs by the government, and who have official blessing, violating the traditions of our country?

One expects artists to be an example of collaboration, especially since their work should free their minds of prejudice, but I have forgotten that our society does not believe in cooperation; it usually wants women to be put into specified areas where they are not in direct contact with other people. Can’t we just for one minute treat each other with respect and good will?

Yes, we are a conservative society and yes, some of us like to maintain family privacy and in some circles, people opt for the women only/men only policy. But there are also other areas in our society that allow the mingling of sexes, so what do we do? Obviously some of us do not understand that and that is why some people constantly complain of the presence of women. Maybe the solution is to create cities for women only or, as one friend suggested, “Build underground cities for women.”

With such people as the head of the Fine Art Department, who asked for women to be excluded, I think we might find ourselves one day contemplating the idea of moving women outside the cities and maybe allowing families visiting time

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