While some say that American Muslim women are empowered because they are American, here on the other side of the globe in Saudi Arabia, their sisters struggle with an issue that’s at the heart of their community—living with the rights already given to women in the Koran and by the teachings of Mohammed.
That’s why women here felt Islamic justice was finally coming home, when on April 13, Arwa Al-Hejaili became the first woman lawyer granted a license to train for court appearances. Would the guardianship rule—the unwritten law that requires Saudi women to seek permission from husbands, fathers, or brothers to travel, open a bank account, and apply for jobs—go next?
Well, OK, not yet. Maybe never totally—though it’s been a remarkable year for Saudi women, despite Arwa’s battle.
Arwa, now 25, graduated from a Saudi law school in 2010, one of the first women to do so. Then she consulted from home for three years. In the meantime, she and her classmates deluged media with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube campaigns, arguing their right to practice. In October of last year, King Abdullah promised that women lawyers would be allowed to advocate in court the following month.
That never happened. Finally, Arwa’s friend from law school, Hanouf Al-Hazzaa, pleaded with King Abdullah in a newspaper article. According to CNN (I couldn’t find any Saudi papers that quoted the women), Hanouf said, “I wrote about how depressing the situation was, saying here we were, many of us working for federal courts outside the Kingdom, because we had no future inside it.”
Two days later, Arwa’s application was accepted—and after a two-year apprenticeship, she hopes to represent women in family court. “Many women really need to talk to female lawyers, and I want to help those women to get their rights,” she says.
No kidding. And codifying those rights could be the next step.
As it is now, the problems of support and inheritance facing divorced or abused or abandoned women remain under the jurisdiction of Sharia—or under fatwas. But in February King Abdullah also appointed 30 women to the 150-member Shura Council, the body that advises on new laws. Putting a personal status law on the books, as activists call for, could go a long way towards helping women find jobs and care for their families.
Yet the biggest change I actually witnessed has nothing to do with Islamic law—but with Saudization, the employment initiative, part of which requires companies to hire at least one Saudi for every 10 foreign workers. As of this writing, it’s estimated that 700,000 previously unemployed Saudis are now at work.
A year ago, lingerie and cosmetics shops were already required to hire only Saudi women, creating 40,000 jobs—but it seemed that compliance had passed over my neighborhood. When I first arrived in Riyadh last September, I saw not a single woman working at my local mall. Not a one. By November, dozens of women had appeared, waving at me to join them in the specially curtained off family-only supermarket lines.
The barricades are further lifting now. Other chain markets in the city, and about 20 curtain-less shops in my mall, have hired women, including H&M, where they work right alongside the men. And at King Saud University where I teach, Saudi women have replaced last year’s IT teachers from India.
That’s the good news—except for the “guest workers.”
KSU also hired a team of Somali and Ethiopian cleaning ladies, but under the new enforcement of Saudization, these “expat housewives” were let go, shoved back into legal and financial limbo. One woman told me she has lived in Saudi for 30 years, and she still has a dependent’s visa, preventing her from working.
Thankfully—arguably, given the jail-like conditions under which they live—none of the Filipina cleaning ladies lost their jobs. The Kingdom remains heavily dependent on its 10 million legal and illegal overwhelmingly Muslim South Asian workers, who work for $500 a month or less and wire the bulk of that home.
You have to wonder. Some Saudi women actually own cars, but because Wahhabi Islam and Najdi tribal culture dictate that they need a guardian to protect their chastity (and prohibit their promiscuity), when their men aren’t available, they need to hire drivers. Hence the high demand for Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan workers, which, while defeating the original premise, puts a real financial strain on poorer families.
The truth is that many women bristle at the rules, but can do nothing about them. Like Jojo, short for Al Jawaher (Jewel), who after the anti-American demonstrations triggered by the video “The Innocence of Muslims,” told me, “Don’t worry about getting killed. Here we are not political. We are too controlled.”
We were sitting behind tinted windows in the back seat of her SUV, and to protect her face from her driver’s gaze, only Jojo’s eyes were visible through the slits of her niqab. Then she innocently remarked that now after having her three kids, “My husband is letting me go back to school.”
And what ultimately is the cost of this dependence? My friend Muneera is originally from Syria and 4 years ago moved with her husband to the Kingdom. “Saudis think their Islam is the purest and I respect their point of view,” she says. “But the practice of it shouldn’t be set in concrete. My Saudi women friends want to rebel but they mostly feel terribly confused.”
Looking for solace, other foreign women here feel more than confusion. “I think Islam has been twisted far away from its roots,” says a teacher at KSU I’ll call Aisha, a Muslim from London. “I was really looking forward to coming here, but feel so disappointed.”
“Because women are so restricted?”
She nods. “If any government truly followed Islamic law, it would be the most just country on earth. Everything is in the Koran. You can’t make money off investments. There’s the charity for poor people and the respect for women.”
“Yes, I know Mohammad encouraged Khadija.” The prophet’s first wife, and a successful businesswoman in her own right.
“She hired and picked him!”
I ask if she knows of a single country that justly follows Sharia.
Aisha shakes her head. “No. As a Muslim, I don’t feel at home anywhere.”
And how does living with Sharia here, misinterpreted or not, feel for my students? How do these young women—64 percent of the population is under 30—reconcile their faith with finding a place for themselves?
When Noor, not her real name, first appeared in class in her leather jacket, high-top sneakers, and blue contact lenses, I had no idea she came from a hardline Islamic background. Then she tells me, that at 19, she’s a year older than the other girls.
“I dropped out last year,” Noor says, “because my father doesn’t believe girls should be educated. I had to fight to come back.”
Shocked, I ask what she wants to study. English lit—a form of dissidence I have no problem encouraging. When I write down a list of titles for her, for books not available in Saudi Arabia, Noor says, “Don’t worry. My sister is a computer genius. She can download anything from the net.”
Her sister, 20, has dropped out of high school, and apparently is locked up at home, under her family’s watchful eye.
The next week, and in the next months, as I share more of my life with Noor, our friendship soon becomes . . . well, too close for comfort. As a result of the severe gender segregation here, the girls find other ways to express intimacy, like draping themselves over one another in class and kissing in the hallways and lavatories.
So I wasn’t surprised when in December Noor emailed me a letter, claiming, along with her pain at me looking at other girls, “I’m in love with your soul not your gender.” I managed to email back that, as happy as I was to inspire her, our relationship was that of a teacher and student, no more.
With a new set of classes next semester, I see little of Noor, except for an occasional passing in a hallway, her face averted.
June. Final exams done, students have been dismissed for the year. There are only us teachers on campus. A knock on the staff room door. Noor! “Hey, you wanna get breakfast?” she says, smiling.
In the food court downstairs, we settle at a table with coffee and rolls. “My father would kill me if he knew I was here,” she says. “I had to ask my brother to drive me.”
Her brother, an Islamic Studies major at Imam University, has dropped her off on his way to school, still in session. “But is it safe to ask him to bring you here?”
Noor shrugs. I ask if she’s allowed to leave the house at all. “Never,” she says. “Not unless I’m with my mother.”
For some reason, it occurs to me to ask if her family has a maid.
“No. My sister and I do everything. It’s fun!” Noor then tells me that her sister has just refused a marriage proposal from the family of a 38-year-old man. “At least we can do that. Say, no.”
Something else appears to be troubling her. “But what about believing in God?” she says. “Don’t you need that?”
Religion is on a list of 46 topics forbidden at KSU, but classes are over, I figure. “I was taught to believe life is here and now,” I say.
She seems to take that in OK, then says, “Hey, guess what? My uncle ran away.”
She has said nothing before about anyone outside of her immediate family, but now tells me that her uncle, a lawyer, had apparently become too vocal in his criticism of authorities. When his Twitter account was blocked, he fled with his family to the U.S. “He can never come back,” Noor says. “My mother just cried and cried.”
I can’t imagine how awful this is, for everyone in her family, and promise to try to contact him, when I’m home in July.
“Yeah, I know you’re leaving,” she says.
I then suggest applying to the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, for study in the U.S. “With your uncle there, would your father object?”
Noor looks doubtful. “How can I get an apartment by myself?”
I tell her she already runs a household.
“But isn’t it hard for Muslims in America?” she asks.
My breath feels knocked out of me. Here she is, 19 years old and risking repercussions to visit me, so how can I ever tell her that things are changing in the Kingdom—or in America?
She looks at her phone one last time.
“I don’t know who I can call to go home,” she says.
The last I heard from Noor, she emailed to thank me for suggesting the scholarship. “Even my family has noticed I’m happier now.”
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