Monday, 2 December 2013

Respect or Obligation

Here's a post whose bare bones have been hanging around my draft box for a while...Time to clean it up and chuck it out to the WWW.

The latest protest by Saudi women to be allowed to drive has caused the usual arguments why they shouldn't to resurface, as well as creating some new reasons that are woefully pathetic (for example the "Women sitting on their pelvises causes mentally defective children" nonsense).  A group of fellow expats were discussing the Saudi women driving issue in the context of respect for women after comments in local papers and social media sites declared, yet again, that one of the major reasons for Saudi continuing to disallow women from driving is the idea that women would be at risk of harassment and attack by men.  Presumably Saudi men.  More especially young Saudi men.

Why other expat men aren't considered such a problem might have something to do with the Saudi attitude toward persons of lowly classes.  They simply don't exist.  If such men were a problem, the solution for them would be relatively easy.  Either stop importing them (terrible concept but the sponsorship system does create an 'ownership' mentality), detain, lash and/or behead them (another terrible concept but it does happen).

Of course, Saudi hierarchy could just let married expat men, regardless of their level of work, bring their wives and families to live with them in this country.  That way the men would be happier and not just because their primal urges can be more easily dealt with at home.  That, to me, seems a more sensible approach than demanding segregation, then filling the place with single blokes whose urges are not being met for years on end (except in ways the Bearded Ones cringe when they think about it - at least they are supposed to cringe), to clean for, repair for, run errands for, drive for, and generally be around, women.

However, I get a sense that the concern is more about the behavior of Saudi men, and given the recent video footage of young men harassing and badgering women at a local mall in Dahran, the potential for Saudi men to pester women while driving is quite real. Which begs the question 'How much respect do Saudi men have for women?'  The answer, from a western, point of view, is all around us covered in black from head to toe, separated from society in Family Sections, often behind screens, and Women Only events and screams 'Not Much!'

Is it 'respect' that says women have to be kept separated from unrelated men at all times.  Is it 'respect' that keeps women covered and out of sight because men could not possibly control themselves if they saw a real live, unrelated human female. The conservatives in the country would say 'yes, of course that is respect'.  I have to argue the point as I don't feel respected when a strange man shouts at me to 'cover my hair' because he's bred to be incapable of civilized interaction nor when a younger man follows me despite the abaya, presumably because he wants to know whats underneath. (Trust me, the poor buggar would be horrified!)

Which begs another question - what does respect mean to the Saudi male?

As it's not possible for me to talk freely with Saudi men discussing the in's and out's of their particular brand of male psyche, I can only guess at the answers to that question.  I was reminded, however, of a job I had in New Zealand promoting health and wellness to the folks in our small town with a largely Maori population.  We were asked by a local school to deliver a program aimed at Maori youth on the subject of 'Respect'.  The school administration were having issues with waywardness, fighting and damage to school property among other things.  They decided the students needed to learn the meaning of 'Respect' and, to their credit, had written policies and started implementing strategies in the hope that the kids would 'get it'.  Our involvement was one of their strategies.

The organizers and facilitators, soon came to the conclusion that, though the word 'Respect' was bandied about in this predominantly Maori school led by an all star caste of Pakeha, (Maori word for white people), the kids didn't 'get it' at all.  They had very little idea what the word 'Respect' meant.  Sure they could spiel off rules like, 'Respect is not yelling at the teacher' or 'Respect is being kind', 'Respect is not kicking the door or punching little Johnny'.  But when you got right down to it, the kids thought the rote learned rules were piffle.  There was no emotional connection.  There was no depth of understanding.

However, when we started talking their own maori language, using words and concepts like manaakitanga (caring), whanaungatanga (relationship) and mana (self esteem), to name but a few, then they started to click.  They began to comprehend the scope of that word 'Respect'.   They also decided that the Pakeha meaning of the word, that list they had been expected to learn by rote, seemed to lack soul, depth or meaning.  (Not bad for a bunch of Maori kids from the back blocks nowhere near the countries top brainiac percentile).

This little walk down memory lane reminded me that, perhaps my understanding of the term 'respect' is at odds with Saudi meaning of the word.  Maybe I should be looking at 'respect' from the point of view of Saudi culture, Saudi traditions and language, Saudi history and, of course, the Islamic religion.  That's a fair enough supposition.  The problem, however, is when Saudi's themselves seem to be in disagreement with the rules, written and unwritten, that they, and we expats, are expected to live by.  This is obvious when Saudi's leave the country and toss many of their oh so important moral codes out the airport door.  And when you get to know a Saudi or two, even they admit that some of the rules are 'strange'.   It's easy to come to the conclusion that what is expected in public is not actually what is completely believed quite so forcefully in private.

It doesn't take long to realize that the worth of a woman in Saudi Arabia is judged by her public image, her ability to keep her abaya closed, her hair covered, her prayers performed on time and her home hospitable, not to mention her potential to bear children.  Her public persona brings her family, but more importantly her significant male - father, brother, son or husband, under scrutiny.   I've been told that the basic tenet of the male/female relationship in Saudi Arabian culture is,  'I, the Saudi man, am obligated to provide for you.  In return you, the Saudi woman, are obligated to honor me'.  Where, within that contract, does respect lie?

It could be argued that agreeing to live by that code is respect.  But is that respect for the woman?  The relationship?  Or simply respect for the code because that's the way it's always been.

Quite frankly, when I look at the contract, the woman is immediately made dependent and comes off second best.  From where I stand, the rational that a Saudi man is respecting his woman by micro-managing her behaviour so the family name is not brought into disrepute through wayward strands of hair or flashes of the ankle, isn't respect for women at all.  No, that is showing respect for (or fear of) conservative interpretations of religious edicts. That is towing the company line and not wanting to rock the boat.  It is not appreciation for a living, breathing, feeling, human being capable of great thought and deep emotion.  From where I stand, it is obligation towards a set of rote learned rules.

As a foreign woman subjected to Saudi respect (and yes, 'subjected' is the word), I am oft times left feeling under-valued.  Trivialized.  Is that because I don't understand the Saudi interpretation and manifestation of respect? Certainly I may not have a grasp on the truly quirky aspects of the term from an Arabic point of view, but when a Saudi friend confides to me, 'My potential is lying in the gutter in this country.  Every year my essence is ebbing away', I figure my understanding is not too far wrong and I wonder how leaving a woman feeling soulless and empty, even though she is meeting her obligations, is truly respecting her?

The Dahran incident made it obvious to numerous commentators that it's high time Saudi Arabian's started reassessing what it means for them to respect women.  What messages are today's young people learning on the subject, how are they being taught, who is teaching it and how are those lessons assisting them to live and thrive in the 21st century because, like it or not, that's where the world is at!

I'm also very aware that this issue of respect, or lack of, is not limited to Saudi Arabia.  It's all very well for me to say, 'teach respect in Saudi', yet when I look back at my homeland I see we could do with a few more lessons on the subject ourselves.  And as for the rest of the world...I gave up reading newspapers a long time ago because they make you believe that human kindness has gone to hell!

As a guest in Saudi Arabia, I have agreed to abide by all the rules of this country, and I do my best though I'm the first to admit perfection is not my forte`. As far as the woman driving issue is concerned, all I can do is watch, wait and occasionally bleat on my blog.  Saudi women who wish to drive, being more au fait with the subtleties of the Arabian psyche, are the ones who know whether Saudi behavior toward women is truly based on a respectful attitude with its associated meaningful, emotional connection, or whether its simply a sense of obligation.  But I'd hazard a guess that, until that larger issue of defining and teaching respect has been tackled, women driving here might have to stay in the back seat.

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