This piece from Arab News pairs nicely with my previous post on the meaning of the word “my”.

Here, in discussing social change in Saudi Arabia, the writer seems to be using the word in its strict, possessive sense. He writes that in the 1970s, before the oil money and foreigners started pouring into the Kingdom, women had a much easier situation when it came to covering themselves in abayas or wearing veils. Few did it. This the writer argues, was because everyone understood the social rules and, because few people lived or worked outside their communities, everyone knew everyone else that they encountered in their daily lives.

With development came change. Foreigners (or Saudis from other parts of the country) were now present in areas where they had not been before. They didn’t know the local rules, but brought their own with them from wherever it was they came. As a result, what seemed ordinary to them might well be seen as offensive by those living in the areas the newcomers visited. To avoid problems, women needed to become invisible.

I suspect there’s some truth in this. Instead of making women invisible, though, the right path would have been to educate the men, foreigners or Saudis, about how they were expected to behave. Here, truly, the victim was punished.

Social change and wearing the veil
Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan

Social change is inevitable in any society. However, the change can be either progressive or regressive in nature depending on the outcome that the society considers as being beneficial or harmful. I had a discussion with a friend about whether I am in favor of my women relatives covering themselves in abayas and veils or otherwise.

I told my friend that had I been asked this question before the oil boom that occurred in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, I would have said I had no specific stance on this issue and I would have considered it as an entirely personal choice. But now I favor that my women relatives cover themselves in abayas and veils in Saudi Arabia and it is up to them to decide whether to wear those or not when outside the Kingdom.

My friend considered my position on this issue as fluctuating and inconsistent. Although it is natural that personal stances on various issues change over a period of time due to new experiences, I had to explain my “inconsistency” on this issue. Most Saudi women, currently, are expected socially and legally to wear abayas, while they are socially encouraged to put on some sort of a veil to cover their faces totally or partially. However, this wasn’t the case in the past.

Many of us still remember the time when women in almost all regions of the Kingdom neither wore abayas nor covered their faces with veils. Most women were seen walking in the streets and buying and selling in the markets without abayas or veils. Even women could invite in the house male guests regardless of their relationship with the guests and usually extended the traditional hospitality by serving coffee with dates and meals in the absence of male members of the household until their return home. These customs were practiced in town and villages as well as the desert areas and were considered noble practices.

Men, on the other hand, treated women with utmost respect. They exchanged greetings and conversed with them in the public whether they were women relatives or wives and daughters of neighbors and friends.

December:15:2012 - 11:16 | Comments & Trackbacks (6) | Permalink
6 Responses to ““Blame It on Development””
  1. 1
    Jerry M Said:
    December:15:2012 - 17:34 

    I find opinion pieces like this tiresome. It’s all anecdotes and little hard data. Still there is no doubt that the influx of foreigners in Saudi Arabia has cause massived social change. It is a pity that the male response is to shackle women.

  2. 2
    Dakota Said:
    December:16:2012 - 06:44 

    I have heard stories about local music, that in the villages people used to sing and dance, but because of Riyadh, they can’t do it anymore. Will this also be laid at the door of those eeeevil foreigners, to keep them from being so offended by everything?

  3. 3
    Jerry M Said:
    December:16:2012 - 12:34 

    The Saudi way they did development is part of the problem. It was a mistake to import so much labor (unless you were willing to grant citizenship as many Western countries have done). If the work of development had been done by Saudis it would not have been so easy for so many Saudis to look at the changes as being foreign. All wealthier countries have had to adapt to the changes that modernization brought. Most countries have learned how to integrate those changes with their culture. Saudi Arabia in particular and the Arab world in general needs to learn that lesson and stop trying to act as if they are still living in tents without electricity.

  4. 4
    John Burgess Said:
    December:16:2012 - 17:39 

    @Jerry M: The problem was that in the 1930s-1960s, Saudi Arabia was really a low-skills area. The skills needed to build a mud or coral block house are not those needed or even useful in building a multi-story building, a highway, an oil derrick. Nor are herding skills transferable. Trying to play catch-up with development really did require using foreign workers.

    Whether the manner in which foreign workers were used or treated was the correct one is another matter.

    I do recommend Cities of Salt by Abdulrahman Munif. These books, though fiction, tell the story of the early days of development well.

  5. 5
    Jerry M Said:
    December:17:2012 - 01:04 


    That argument doesn’t wash if you consider the experience of the US is WWII. In the 1940′s we had women building airplane parts (an aunt of mine among them), women who had little previous training. I know the education level of the Saudis was low (my aunt as an example was fully literate) but they could have taught their people and had society grow along with it.

    The Saudis could have replaced much of the foreign labor long ago. Now it is almost like a drug addiction.

  6. 6
    John Burgess Said:
    December:17:2012 - 09:04 

    @Jerry M: My mother, fully literate, worked welding torpedoes during WWII, so I’m aware of the fact. Saudi society, though, had neither educated men or women. Further, social constraints limited what women could do. The Shi’a of the Eastern Province were willing to take on menial jobs and work their ways up within ARAMCO. They did both. Some who started as gardeners ended up as senior executives within ARAMCO. But here, you run into socio-religious factors… the thinking was “If the Shi’a can do it, we’ll let them and not dirty our own hands.” There was a distinct preference to be a manager rather than a grunt.

    Sure, it could have been different, but only if Saudi Arabia had been some other country and society.

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