Friday, June 08, 2007

Rage Behind the Veil: An Inside American Perspective on Saudi Gender Segregation

Megan Stack was the Los Angeles Times' Cairo Bureau Chief until May 2007. During her tenure as a Middle East correspondent, she spent a good deal of time reporting from Saudi Arabia. In Wednesday's paper, she published an incisive essay on her experience working as a woman inside the Saudi state, with its all-encompassing system of gender segregation. Her tale is both harrowing and uplifting, for it highlights the harsh conditions for women in the Saudi Kingdom, while simultaneously showcasing the personal authority, assertiveness, and expectations of equal treatment of an American female professional.

Stack begins her essay recounting her first trip to a Starbucks in Riyadh. Expecting to get a cup of coffee and sitting down to relax in an American overseas franchise, she was surprised when the manager told her she could not sit in the main coffee shop with the male patrons:

Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair.

"Excuse me," hissed the voice in my ear. "You can't sit here." The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.

"Excuse me?" I blinked a few times.

"Emmm," he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. "You cannot stay here."

"What? Uh … why?"

Then he said it: "Men only." He didn't tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That was the "family" section. As a woman, that's where I belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers. Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today's Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces.

At that moment, there was only one thing to do. I stood up. From the depths of armchairs, men in their white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs stared impassively over their mugs. I felt blood rushing to my face. I dropped my eyes, and immediately wished I hadn't. Snatching up the skirts of my robe to keep from stumbling, I walked out of the store and into the clatter of the shopping mall.
Stack's retelling of her initial indignity is just the start of a detailed primer on the plight of women in one of the most observant Islamic states of the Middle East. Stack's introspective sections recounting the requirement of wearing of the all-encompassing "abaya" (the head to toe black robes that must be donned for women to be seen in the public square) are particularly disturbing (click here for a photo of Saudi women wearing their abayas):

As I roamed in and out of Saudi Arabia, the abaya, or Islamic robe, eventually became the symbol of those shifting rules [for the equal treatment of men and women in various Islamic societies].

I always delayed until the last minute. When I felt the plane dip low over Riyadh, I'd reach furtively into my computer bag to fish out the black robe and scarf crumpled inside. I'd slip my arms into the sleeves without standing up. If I caught the eyes of any male passengers as my fingers fumbled with the snaps, I'd glare. Was I imagining the smug looks on their faces?

The sleeves, the length of it, always felt foreign, at first. But it never took long to work its alchemy, to plant the insecurity. After a day or two, the notion of appearing without the robe felt shocking. Stripped of the layers of curve-smothering cloth, my ordinary clothes suddenly felt revealing, even garish. To me, the abaya implied that a woman's body is a distraction and an interruption, a thing that must be hidden from view lest it haul the society into vice and disarray. The simple act of wearing the robe implanted that self-consciousness by osmosis.

In the depths of the robe, my posture suffered. I'd draw myself in and bumble along like those adolescent girls who seem to think they can roll their breasts back into their bodies if they curve their spines far enough. That was why, it hit me one day, I always seemed to come back from Saudi Arabia with a backache.

The kingdom made me slouch.
Read the whole thing. Islamic politics is not one of my specialties, although in my political science classes, during my coverage of Third World development, I cover gender discrimination against women. In my comparative politics course in particular, I assign an end-of-semester writing project based on the presentation of "Osama," a film by Afghan-born director Siddiq Barmak depicting the harsh treatment of women in Afghanistan before the toppling of the Taliban in 2001.

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