Princess Ameera Al- Taweel and her advocacy of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Princess Ameera Al- Taweel, the only wife of the progressive Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has recently traveled throughout the United Kingdom and the United States to speak with media groups (e.g. Times, the Guardian, NPR, CNN, etc.) about the image of women in Saudi Arabia, calling for change. This past year, Saudi Arabia has been highlighted in terms of their women, from women finally getting the right to vote, to protesting their driving ban, to the recent outlaw of men from working in lingerie shops. However, leadership roles in advocating gender relations and female rights has been quiet, so it was a surprise to read about Princess Ameera in Forbes about her work in promoting a better image of her country.

At only 29 years old, Princess Ameera outside of the Kingdom does not personify the image that media has posted about the country’s women, who are usually described as unsocial, unable to speak their mind, un-interactive with the opposite sex, takes a backseat in social interactions, and are forced to wear the very black, very symbolic abbayah in public. Not only does Princess Ameera walk the talk and dress the part, but she comes from the very family, the Saud family, that has molded the nation to what it is today- hyper conservative and unable to give women the same rights and places in society as men.

Of course her actions (participating in international forums such as the Clinton Global Initiative, speaking about allowing women to drive in NBC, etc.) has had its backlash, and from her family. The princess’s brother-in-law, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz stated:

…Our family honor is a red line and if you don’t respect this honor, then we do…I now tell you that if you do not come back to your senses and stop your deviation, then our response will be very severe and harsh next time without prior warning.

Anushay Hossain’s response illustrates my own sentiments:

Using a man’s wife to publicly threaten and blackmail him? Sounds like plot from a classic (sexist) movie. I mean, are men in 2012 seriously still this insecure that they have to pin their prestige on women and use them as pawns in what is obviously a much larger issue of power?

It is understandable that there will be reactions, and unfavorable ones at that. However, what is disturbing is that the reactions can include further demeaning sentiments, such as here, where women is linked to a family’s honor- a concept often used for some of the worst types of violence committed upon women in the Middle East (i.e. honor killings). Furthermore, the brother-in-law does not even speak directly with Princess Ameera but instead, gears his anger towards her husband who allowing his wife to behave such a way, as if she is the property of her husband.

Princess Ameera is a refreshing figure to see taking a public stance from the Middle East. Her intelligence in her approach and mannerism in the mainstream breaks stereotypes about women in the region. The support that she receives from her husband and the fact that he is using her to promote modern ideas about women’s role in society should generate applause (it is working).  It also proves that while this fight for Saudi Arabia’s women is going to be a long and difficult one, it is not hopeless.

(Which) women’s employment in Saudi Arabia as a result of banning men from working in lingerie stores (?)

There has been a lot of discussion lately on how opportunities for female employment are beginning to increase, especially with the recent ban on male employment in lingerie stores in Saudi Arabia. However, it must be notes that the applicants for most of the job vacancies are from South Asian and Southeast Asian migrant laborers, not Saudi Arabian women who only compose  7% of the work force in the Kingdom (government figures). According to the Labor Ministry, over 28,000 women have already applied for the jobs in lingerie stores, but most are South Asian migrant women. In this respect,the opportunities to work in stores rather than as domestic workers is certainly a positive step for the thousands of female labor migrants in the country. In Saudi Arabia, migrant laborers already make up a majority of their work force, and this is not just associated with the cleaners, construction workers, etc. Most of the country’s doctors, engineers, and other technical professionals are also foreigners, often recruited heavily from some of the top agencies abroad.

While more Saudi women are getting educated in the country, the scope for their actual participation in the labor market remains  abysmal. Female employment is not going up for Saudi women, and they are not going to suddenly apply for thousands of shop assistant jobs.

Picking on details- the new proposal that could make women cover their eyes in Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia are already made, by law, to wear the abbayah/abaya in Saudi Arabia (long black cloak). The law does not however, technically say that women have to cover their hair. Interpretations of the law, of cultural notions, and media may make it seem as if you do need to cover your hair, however.

Now to the news that there is a proposal to force women in Saudi Arabia to cover their eyes as well, or as some media reports have taken the liking to term it as, covering their “sexy eyes”.

A few notes:

1) It is reported that Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [CPVPV] (also known as the religious police or Mutawa) have made this call. The religious police has over the past decade lost a significant portion of power to control or prosecute what they may deem as immoral behavior in Saudi Arabia. While general stereotypes and historical events may make people from the outside think that they are a powerful force, this has not been the case, especially in cities like Khobar and Dammam where the most the religious police has done recently is to go up to a woman and ask her to cover her hair. She can refuse and simply walk away, as personally observed.

2) The announcement came a few days following the incident of a Saudi man being sent to the hospital after fighting with a Mutawa, and being stabbed by the Mutawa, after he ordered his wife to cover her eyes. Interestingly, the attention has gone to asking women to cover their eyes, not to the Mutawa for using such violence upon civilians. No where in the religious police code should deem such a violence and furthermore, allow members to be involved in a “process of punishment” that gets out of hand. This may be just another way to exert their already losing power over civil obedience in the Kingdom

3) The news comes weeks after the announcement that Saudi women will be allowed to cast votes in the Kingdom, and rumors of finally allowing women to drive one day. These are significant events which may truly turn they very way that families function in Saudi Arabia- a process much needed for a society, as well as for their place in international diplomacy and affairs. However, with the next line in the throne being Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, it may be a bit more difficult than hoped (he is allied more closely with the conservative sector of the country).

4) If the eyes of the women are tempting, stop looking at her. A very simple solution for all the men who are also supposed to lower their gaze. If the Mutawa is in existence to ensure that people are complying with Islamic “rules” and obedience, it may do well to reconsider their methods and see that religious rules are not specific to just one gender.  

Eid prayer morning.

It is really hard to take photos during the morning Eid since it is simply rude and not in the culture where you maintain anonymity with your clothing. The prayer we went to was in the Royal Commission in Jubail, just by the Persian Gulf in a beautiful location where everyone was either dressed in black (women) or white (men), and the kids being the exception with their brightly colored clothing and heels. It was quite adorable to see the little boys dressed in the traditional Saudi outfit as they fidgeted with their headdress and long train of white cloth.

if only I was a princess. or a captain.

Saudi Arabia airlines has the best selections for the category of “title” in their booking website. I have never seen these but I wondered what would happen if I chose my title as princess or a captain or even sheikh. Apparently there are other airlines that does this too, and requires you to choose a title. 5 more days until Dhaka.

getting a hair cut during Eid weekend in KSA requires not following order, paying 2x the price, and gawking at women as they take off their veils.

I finally had a chance to get a haircut today at my favorite salon in Jubail, after being rejected last night at 11 pm because they had too many customers. They did not take appointments so I had about 20 minute wait after my mother paid for the cut (before even getting a cut). I went in the afternoon and even then, it was packed, mostly with women getting their nails done, hair styled, and eyebrows colored (instead of waxing/ threading which was recently outlawed in the salon. No idea why). Women of all ages sat around in the red tones waiting area with plush cushions and bright red sofas with their children.

But you don’t actually wait for your number to be called. There were only three women actually cutting and styling the hair today and there were literally crowds around them waiting in line, no matter if they came after me or whenever. So I had to follow this disorganized mishap and just wait. It did not help us that the receptionist spoke no English, refused to respond to my broken Arabic, and played with her iPhone the entire time and picked on her nails. The woman I waited for, a Filipino who usually did my hair and may I add, amazing was busily cutting away. Except she was literally taking about 5 minutes on each hair; her hands moved fast and I was pretty sure she was ignoring the mothers or she was actually multitasking and risking with women’s long, amazing hair.

For one girl, she literally grabbed the top chunk, sliced it off in three strokes, and left the rest to be, creating bizarre layers while the mother looked on, looking pleased. It took just a few minutes and I was a little more than freaked out and wanted to run away.

Thankfully, she handled my situation beautifully. She took a bit longer with my hair and just did what she wanted to with it. This is why I love her; the women just KNOWS hair, and does whatever she wants and know sit will look good, whether it takes 5 minutes or an hour. She tugged and pulled, and didn’t care if I winched but just grabbed by head here and there like it was a tree. While mute most of the time, she started talking to me and my mom and said that her arms were weak and she had been working nonstop, without any breaks. She was in such a hurry and complained about how busy they were with swarming clients as they did not take appointments and no one followed  rules. They were open until 3 am last night, and today expected to work all night until 8 am, the day before Eid. Women flocked the place to get everything done before the break so that they could look their best. After ten minutes (I was really, really thankful for the extra five minutes), and apologizing that she could not blow dry my hair because of the line behind me and charging us double of what we usually paid her, we left the area where arms and scissors flew everywhere along with hair and nervous energy.

Anyways, I got my hair cut and I know now to not wait until the last minute because nothing gets in the way between Saudi women and primping themselves for the holidays. They can literally get what they want no matter what time it is and how much it will cost them. And I got to see what they are like beneath all the busy abbayahs and niqabs. Gorgeous, as usual.

fireworks, niqabs, and Jubail, Saudi Arabia

I bought fireworks today (!!!!) which was absolutely exciting since they are a) legal, b) abundant because of Eid, c) everyone is doing it, and d) who doesn’t like legal fireworks from your patio that are abundant in supply for Eid? We bought a few types, the kind below the ones I am most excited about, as they just spark up when you light them with a lighter. 30 sticks for 25 riyals (less than $10), though we could have bought it for less. She sold all kinds of fireworks to “mini bombs” that are like fire crackers, and other things that kids were snatching away. She was selling them in a stall outside a store where my mother has summoned a Bangladeshi guy to help her figure out which ones to buy and how to haggle.

There were also a lot of stores selling niqabs, shown below. They are used to literally hide your face and hair and to only show the eyes.

Jubail’s industrial sector lit up as usual all night, Eid or no Eid.

Shopping in Al-Khobar for Eid where things don’t close until 3 am.

Last night I went shopping with my family to Al Khobar, a nearby city where stores opened around 9 pm and went on forever into the night/ next day. The streets were packed, and the roads jammed with people finally getting out of the house after breaking their fast and crowding the markets. There are so much lighting and decorations everywhere to celebrate Ramadan, from lamp posts, to the hotels and private buildings. The Saudi version of Christmas lighting.

There are “Ramadan discounts” everywhere and people taking advantage of it like no other. I went into a jewelry shop and could not find a counter space at all as flocks of people lined every free inch, mostly men, to buy gold. The counters for the clothing were a bit insane too, and I think it also drove the men running it insane who either spoke no English or just did not want to speak because they were afraid we would demand something.

The woman guarding the ladie’s fitting rooms were also a bit out of nerves. It is definitely not like the United States. I am trying on clothes and literally another woman and her daughter are standing outside my door staring at me, in a distance like as if they are about to come inside. It was… awkward. I was not sure if they were like, lining up to get in or just wanted to stare at me (both possible). One of the woman guarding it came and told me to hurry up in broken English to which my mother and sister snapped at and the woman just backed away because I am pretty sure she did not understand a single word and did not have a comeback. Having so many languages spoken at once just adds to the utter chaos of the stores.

I loved the vibe of the city though. I have celebrated a Muslim holiday I can remember just once in a Muslim country, which was Eid years and years ago in Bangladesh. Being in Saudi Arabia felt foreign to me even though it should not, I suppose. The entire month is a celebration, but only at night- during the day, everything is closed since people are fasting. It is dead silent. And around 3 am, an hour before sunrise when you have to start fasting again, restaurants and fast food places are packed with tired families and single men eating away. It reminded me of Las Vegas where the nights go on forever and the next morning you see dead silence as people sleep through their hangover. The hangover here is from overeating and carrying too many shopping bags, I suppose.

Phoenix–> Washington D.C. –> Kuwait –> Bahrain –> Jubail, Saudi Arabia: 7 am (Mountain Time) to 7 pm GMT +3

The route I traveled- September 1-2, 2010

Phoenix to D.C.: September 1st, United Airlines

Only a little more than a third of my flight was full, which was good news for me as the extra seat of space allowed for a great in-and-out sleep for 4 hours. One of our flight attendants was forgivingly hilarious, making  jokes about everything from the “blas” we had to turn off, about knowing that we get bored of watching emergency landing videos but it’s on, to talking about leaving the Arizona heat, finally. I mention this because I am going to miss the friendly attitude commonly and stereotypically associated with Americans.

Washington D.C. : 3 hour layover

My craving for sushi (who knows when I will have some again) led me to drag myself from terminal C to terminal A and endure a 20 minute wait for shrimp tempura roll, salmon roll, and unagi roll all to myself. I also spent most of it talking on the phone with friends who are convinced that I am disappearing from the face of the earth. I had to run back to my gate just before boarding to see my flight to Bahrain with United Airlines of a crowd I have never seen in any of my flights to the Middle East before: mostly men in the American army, some dressed in their jumpsuits, others in regular clothes, some calling their loved ones and joking about the next several months. I was wondering where all the women went…it was quite a scene and I couldn’t take my eyes away from it all.

Washington D.C. to Bahrain, with a stop in Kuwait: 14 hours.

I was not looking forward to the next 14 hours with United Airlines because in general, I do  not like airlines of the American brand. I have way too many personal anecdotes to share (no food, uncomfortable chairs, making us pay for checked baggages, no pillows, no entertainment, paying for everything and headphones, etc. as a result of recent economic terms). I am definitely a airlines-from-the-Gulf snob.

However, this time I was surprised to see that I had a pillow, a blanket, even my own television (wow, United?) and food! Honestly, what a surprise. The guy at the check-in even let me pass with a half a pound overweight luggage (last time my luggage was overweight by half a pound, the woman at American Airlines wanted to charge me $95).

Most interesting was my neighbor, Mr. X, I will name him. He is about a foot taller than me, muscular with tattoos in his arms, shaved head, tight black t-shirt, and one light carry-on, and gold rings with the seal of institutions I wanted to uncover but knew I would look creepy. After two shots of vodka though he started talking to me and I found out that I was right- most of the people in this place were from the army and related military personnel. Mr. X told me that they were all getting off at Kuwait and taking flights into Iraq. He just came off of a thirty-day vacation and going to Iraq again for seven months. I kept blatantly asking questions, which he happily answered except when I asked his opinions about the current foreign policy, which he basically after many words said that he could not say and had no opinions (right…) and he has to follow whoever is the commander. He laughingly asked me if this was the first time I has such a crowd around me and I said yes, and he told me, don’t worry, you are in the safest hands, the plane is full of guns and snipers and weapons in the cargo. Great. United Airlines apparently has a contract with the federal government to transport military members. Maybe that’s why the service was so good the 11 hours to Kuwait.

Mr. X spent the rest of the time covered in his black hoodie, refusing to use the blanket, and watching no television, passing in and out. I meanwhile used all my pillows and blankets, watched Letters of Juliet (not that great), missed a meal because I was fast asleep seven hours later, and read the latest Time magazine about Kanye West and his year in the industry.

Continue reading “Phoenix–> Washington D.C. –> Kuwait –> Bahrain –> Jubail, Saudi Arabia: 7 am (Mountain Time) to 7 pm GMT +3”

Over a week in Saud Arabia…Marina Mall, Shoes, Pizza Hut.

Visiting Saudi Arabia always makes me want to look for trouble because of the pure controversial nature of the country, and the contradiction that I have to face everyday. But every time I come here I realize how much it has changed, aka became liberalized. Going through immigration for me in KSA is much easier than other places, because they have everything in record and they see that I have been here seven times in three years and my dad works here. The guy at the boot just looked at me, my passport, made a comment about the amount of pages I have to make me laugh (I just got bunch of pages added to my passport because I ran out of visa pages due primarily to KSA’s entry and exit visas) and let me go without ever looking at my immigration card I had to fill out, and gave me a nice smile. Yes, you can get a smile from the opposite gender a single woman in this country.

Jubail looks as beautiful as I left it in June. Average temperature of 75 degrees, beautiful beaches, summer shwarma stands still open, and soccer games being played late at night, still. It is nice to watch international cabel, like BBC World, Al Jazeera, cricket channels, MTV Arabia, and all the Lebanese music channels and Italian fashion shows. Clearly I do not get out much.

Yesterday me and my family went to Dammam, first to Marina Mall, and then to the city to look at some gold stores. The mall like other Saudi Malls had an indoor amusement park, restaurants, prayer rooms, and lots of couples pretending to be siblings so as not to get caught. At Marina Mall, I found nothing interesting except avoiding men who freely smoked inside, trying not to get mad at rude salesclerks after refusing to buy their knock off Gucci heels, and avoiding religious police. The shoes are quite amazing, I will say, and there were so many that Lady Gaga would have much appreciated (five inch wedges made out of white lace all over, and a hot pink four incher with rhinestones on the heels and gold spikes). And Saudi women DO actually buy them. I almost bought suede grey booties covered in metal belts and random zippers but then walked in them and realized they would only enjoy the interior of my closet if purchased.

At the gold stores, I had to step out of the store with my sister because the smell of incense was a bit much. Outside, people do look since there we are, two girls, by ourselves, without headscarves, minding out own business. These two boys, probably 13 years old walked by and I guess I was not in the mood and yelled at them to stop staring. Response: “You shut up”. My sister: “Asshole”. Them: “Arabic gibberish”. I don’t think they knew any other English. They may have attempted to use the F word. I am not sure. But we sure did stop getting snickers after that. Seriously, if more women just simply yelled at these men in the middle of the street there would not be such a problem with street harassment. I learned this in Morocco where I was taught that all you need is to embarrass these men in front of people, because that is exactly what they do not expect.

We also went to eat dinner at Pizza Hut last night, which in Saudi Arabia is a big deal. Like most American chain fast food places outside of America, they are fancy, huge, usually two stories high, and have real menus and cleanly dressed waiters. This one had glass doors separating the “single section” and “family section”, and had a play station room for kids. We had a booth with our own divisions so it was like our own little room. And the food included these amazing pasta and halal pepperoni and yellow cheese because they have not caught up to the U.S. in using artificial flavor and products. Needless to say it was delicious. Reminded me to when I was in Delhi two summers ago and me and another intern went to Pizza Hut because we were tired of vegetarian food and ordered the meat lovers pizza that had every kind of spiced chicken and mutton possible. Ah, love.

Abaya Does Not Equal Islam

Click here for the CNN article on “Islamic Fashion”

Why this bothered me: An abaya does not mean Islamic. Just because there are varied forms of abayas in this fashion show, it does not mean that this is Islamic fashion. Abaya is not even worn by the majority of Muslim women in the world. Rather, it is a piece of society in the Middle East, in particular the Gulf region that may have religious ties, but has largely become a cultural aspect of society.

I will agree with this:

“Modesty is not the opposite of fashion, and fashion is not about showing more of my body,” said Amina al-Jassim

I have been forced to wear the abbayah, and I don’t like it. I do not like it more because it is forced upon me to wear it when I visit Saudi Arabia, not because of the plain, straight forward style. Rather, it is sometimes nice to not have to dress up and coordinate clothes since no one is going to see it anyway. It is a kind of freedom I will never expect in the West since wearing an abbayah out in the streets of Boston where I am is going to get more attention than anything else. Anyways, I don’t know if I will buy into the more “fashionable” abbayahs since it never meant anything to me but something I have to wear in my short visits to the Gulf. Perhaps it is of course a different story for those who grew up wearing the abbayah and therefore, part of their upbringing. I agree with the author in that as more and more go abroad and leave their smaller communtiies, they bring back ideasof individuality that are going to have to be dealt with in the home country. A way to do so is incorporation without total rejection. Not at first anyway.

“It’s not so much a conflict, but an amalgamation of east and west that works quite nicely here.”