Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Religion and Women

by Sadie Mills on May 6, 2013

Saudi Arabia is subject to a serious negative press in the West.  It’s the birthplace of Islam and (let us not ignore that whopping great elephant in the room) there’s a general perception here that all things Muslim = bad.  Stoical, serious, conservative, pious.  I’d just like to drop this in here.

I have never touched down in The Kingdom.  As a Western woman without any interest there, I understand it’s a tricky thing to do.

I first flew over Saudi in 2000, en route to Sri Lanka.  I saw the lights from the oil fields flickering in the night.  The sun gradually rose, as per that U2 song.  The scene described in Virtually Perfect is from memory.  The tangerine dunes of The Sahara rolling off into a cobalt sky – it was one of the most breathtaking scenes I have ever witnessed.

Sahara is Arabic for desert, by the way.  Let’s just go with that.  Sahara Desert means ‘desert-desert’.  It’s a misnomer.

As our plane followed the course of the Persian Gulf and the Straight of Hormuz, it struck me that the Middle East must be an incredibly hard place to live.  From 30,000 feet, it looked a barren, mountainous wasteland.  I didn’t imagine ever touching down, except to refuel.  Just goes to show how wrong you can be.  I’ve since spent the best part of three months in the Gulf of Aqaba.  For all the stark, desolate landscape, as a diver I can tell you, it’s a whole different world under the sea.

I took my Open Water Diver course in Taba, Egypt, later venturing down to Dahab, site of the infamous Blue Hole.  I later traversed down to the tourist trappings of Sharm El Sheikh, as well as a couple of trips across country to Alexandria and Cairo.  When the Egyptian Revolution broke out, I was holed up in a Bedouin camp in Nuweiba, but I’ll save that story for another day.

From The Sinai in Egypt you can see Saudi very clearly.  It’s a stone’s throw across a thin strip of ultramarine.  I whiled away many a moment staring across the waves wondering what life was like for a woman, my age, my height, staring back from the other side.

Religion is a huge deal in the Middle East, even in Egypt, even back in the comparatively liberal days of Mubarak.  It’s stated on the identity card all Egyptian nationals are forced to carry.  You have three choices: Muslim, Christian or Jew, these three Abrahamic religions being the only recognised according to Islam.  If a citizen declares him/herself as belonging to any other religion, agnostic or atheist, they will not be able to obtain an identity card allowing them to travel from A to B, essentially denying them all rights of citizenship.  Islam is the official religion of the entire region, so you’re kind of on a back foot if you’re one of the other two.

Saudi is more clear-cut, at least.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostacy, and is punishable by death.  Whilst there is no specific compulsion to be Muslim in law, Saudi Arabia prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities.  Items and articles belonging to religions other than Islam are prohibited, including (but not limited to): bibles, crucifixes, carvings, statues – basically all items with religious symbolism.

This would, on the face of it, appear to be in direct contravention to several passages in the Qu’ran.

“Whoever oppresses any Dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen of the Islamic state), I shall be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgement.”

Saudi Arabia practices a particularly conservative stricture of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, or Salafism.  As with Christianity, followers of Islam cover a broad spectrum, from the liberal lefties to the puritanical.  Wahhabism leans heavily towards the latter.  See this video.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  Poor little lady, all covered up, all you can see are her eyes.  Please refer to Exhibit B.

Whilst travelling in the Middle East, you’ll soon find out – the biggest critics of those petitioning for women’s rights are, in fact, other women.  We all judge what we see according to the environment we’ve grown up in, and in the West, it is pretty laissez faire.  But as a Western woman, have you ever been wolf-whistled by builders?  Had a lecherous stare across a garage forecourt and thought “Stop looking at me!”.  There have been days, when I’ve had a nasty zit on my chin, when I would have loved to have been able to don the niqab, but that brings a whole host of other stares, for different reasons.

The niqab is the face covering popular in parts of the Middle East, revealing only the eyes.  It isn’t a compulsion in Islam at all.  It’s a cultural garment according to region.

I have an Egyptian ex boyfriend.  One of his sisters insisted on wearing it – he didn’t like it at all.  His favourite joke was rolling up outside the appartment where she lived, hooting the horn and leaning out of the car, gazing up at the 42 black-covered faces peering back, and shouting  “OK.  Which one of you is my sister?” 🙂

You can travel the world, but if your view doesn’t expand, you’ll never really see anything.  No, I don’t think Saudi has it all right.  The fact that women can’t drive is a sick joke. But, on the other hand, if you write off a whole country because they don’t conform to our Western ideals, you’re never going to travel very far.  There are shades of grey in all of us.  There are no demons or angels walking the earth.  Just look at the following Lindsay Lohan has on Twitter, FFS.

As for me, some of the most ‘Christian’ acts of kindness I’ve seen were from Muslims, and occurred when I was travelling in the Middle East.  From fellow travellers patronising a poor, dumb blonde Brit as I travelled between Cairo and Alexandria, to an old Beduoin driver insisting on running off to buy me a Coke because I looked “pale”, to a random stranger handing me his phone in Sharm El Sheikh airport, telling me to phone home during the revolution (it didn’t work, because the government had blocked the network, but I digress).  Egyptians are some of the kindest, most generous hosts on earth, with a wicked sense of humour.  My Egyptian ex loved Borat and Father Ted, just for the record.

Researching Saudi is very hard to do.  You can’t get there on Google Earth – it’s blocked.  Here are a couple of videos I went from.  The kid’s story at the start of the first one brings it all home – the suspicion, the paranoia, in the West.  I liked what his father, The Prince, said.

“We’re all human.  We all share the same aspirations, we all have the same pains, we all have the same problems, and I think if we don’t all co-operate, we’re all going to sink.”

And the sandstorm…





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