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
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.