By Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
19 June, 2014
Many Saudis once believed that we live in a utopia where any social problem is merely an “anomaly”. However, we have evolved as a society and are finally addressing our social problems and are attempting to solve them. Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are a major issue that has been addressed locally and globally.
Although some Saudis acknowledge the existence of the problem, they still want to maintain the facade of perfection in front of the world by refraining from talking about our social issues. Surprisingly, some of these Saudis are even women who attempt to trivialize the issue and blame other Saudi women for tarnishing the image of Saudis when they talk to Western journalists about women’s rights! It seems that this is a case of “blaming the victim” and in case people have not noticed, the world already knows about our problems just like we know about theirs through media and social networks. Thus, hiding our social problems would only be a sign of weakness and will not change reality.
People usually form their own preconceptions and stereotypes based on their own judgments, which are generalized over a whole group of people, rather than their true understanding of them. Isolating ourselves from the rest of the world and denying our problems could further enforce stereotypes other people have about us. Like everyone else, we as Saudis have our share of both positive and negative stereotypes depending on the background of the people who hold them. For example, many Muslims who have not been to Saudi Arabia assume that Saudis live in a perfect society where all people are "righteous” because they live in the land of the two Holy Mosques, while many Westerners immediately picture women covered in black dominated by oppressive men in a society that rigidly applies norms and tradition. Both images could not be further from the truth not because they do not exist, but because they apply to some people, but not to everyone. If an individual is too complicated to be described by only one adjective, how can we attempt to generalize about an entire society? This leads to oversimplification, which results in disappointments and frustrations on both sides. Accordingly, talking about our problems publicly and objectively would help us clarify misconceptions while allowing us to address our problems. It could also increase other people’s understanding of the diversity of our society and demonstrate that we are developing as a society.
As a matter of fact, when Saudi women talk about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia they correct the biggest misconception, which is that Saudi women are weak and incapable of demanding their rights. However, if the objection to women talking about women’s rights locally and internationally is because it does not match our “Saudi tradition”, then we should change that part of our tradition. This is the same way of thinking that keeps some Saudi couples from seeking marital counselling when they need it because according to them “righteous” women, who were raised “well”, should be patient and should not “air their dirty laundry in public”.
People who are worried about tarnishing the image of Saudis are especially concerned about the reputation of Saudi men. However, they should not worry about that because many Saudi men are doing a great job making themselves look bad on their own whether inside Saudi Arabia or abroad. Some Saudi men do not hesitate for one second to voice their sexist and derogatory opinions regarding women on a national or international level, yet no one accuses them of tarnishing the image of Saudis! Moreover, some of them demonstrate oppression through their actions, which range from disregard for a woman’s judgment to physical abuse often with the justification that women were the ones “who asked for it”.
Even if some Saudi women unintentionally are doing more harm than good, as some people claim, by talking to Western journalists, men who are responsible for this oppression are completely taken out of the equation, especially when some of these women have suffered personally from oppressive husbands or even fathers. On the other hand, there are successful Saudi women who had amazing fathers who raised them to be strong and independent women and then were fortunate enough to have supportive husbands as well who treat them as equal individuals. The actions of such men speak louder than any words and through them the image of Saudis will change.
It is naïve to assume that we can sugar-coat reality in this age and time, especially to the rest of the world. Acknowledging our problems indicates strength rather than weakness and is the first step toward development and improvement. Given that generalizations are not made and that problems are discussed objectively while explaining the progress in Saudi women’s rights, talking to the world could be our chance to change the image of Saudis and break the stereotypes and misconceptions others have regarding our society.
Nawar Fakhry Ezzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org