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07 Feb 2006

To Valkyrie - Very Important to read
Hi Valkyrie. I had goose bumps when I read that you we considering moving to Dubai. Please read the article below. And don't think that your man is different, I work with 15 Arab men and believe me, they are ALL the same when it comes to women. It is your right to do what ever you choose, but I just want you to know what you get yourself into before you choose.
Good luck.

"Women in Saudi Arabia (any Arab country)
A while ago a 17-year-old Canadian girl wrote to me saying she was going to marry a Saudi and was hugely excited about the prospect. I sat dead still staring at my mailbox in horror.

A while ago a 17-year-old Canadian girl wrote to me saying she was going to marry a Saudi and was hugely excited about the prospect. What she wanted to know was whether there were any differences in culture and "ways of thinking", and whether she'll have to wear a niqab (face veil). She also wanted to know if I knew any foreign women married to Saudis, and how they fared.

For the first 10 minutes or so I sat dead still staring at my mailbox in horror. Realistically, there are hundreds of foreign women – South Africans, Americans, Europeans, South East Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, etc, happily married to Saudi men. Yet, over a cup of Rooibos tea at the South African Consulate in Jeddah I was told that the only real problem they have with South Africans in Saudi is the scores of women whose relationships had broken down in the Desert Kingdom, but couldn't return home because their husbands wouldn't let them.

What worried me most about her short and buoyant email was the innocent, juvenile tone, abbreviated words, 'baby gal' email address and French Canadian name that made me realise that this girl didn't have a clue what she was in for. That she didn't know that there was a chasm between cultures, and that most Saudi women do wear face veils in public, made me wonder who on earth briefed her on her future. Just see how this this 17-year old expat ended her marriage to a Saudi.

With any luck, she'll be married into a wonderful Saudi family, where she'll be accorded all the rights and respect which are hers under Islam and which clearly states that women and men are equal. Considering this, it's important to understand that while the man is technically the head of the household, Islam encourages matriarchy in the home. A woman can go to college and even work for a few years, but her life isn't considered validated until she is married and raising children.

In the worst case scenario, a mix of what many Saudis themselves regard as oppressive cultural and archaic tribal traditions, and the Kingdom's Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Qu'ran, will define how she lives, what rights she has, and limit the extent to which she can move about. According to the Wahhabis – adherents call themselves Muwahhidun (Unitarians), the restrictions and constraints enforced upon women in Saudi Arabia are not discriminatory, but instead are meant to honour and protect them. And many Saudi women agree and are quite content not to follow in Western women's footsteps.

The facts of life for a woman in Saudi

Other than the obvious laws affecting all women, whether nationals or foreigners, such as that they're not allowed to drive, vote and have to cover up in black, this is women's rights in Saudi as they stand now. I could write a story on each of them. Bear in mind that in some parts of the Kingdom, i.e. in the central Al Najd region with Riyadh as headquarters, they are more rigorously enforced than say on the West Coast and in Jeddah.

She'll most certainly be expected to start a family straight away, as is custom

She'll be required to eat in special family sections of restaurants – far away from the bachelor section

She risks arrest by the Mutawwa'in (religious police) for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative. If the family has no driver, she'll have to ride in a small, separate, walled-off compartment on public buses (I've never seen them in buses, though)

She will not be allowed to leave the country (or even travel within its borders) without the written permission and or in company of her mahram (guardian, which would be her husband or a close male relative like a brother or uncle). My husband has that "hold" over me too...

She'll not be allowed to go out in public without being accompanied by a mahram and one fatwa (religious edict) specifies that a woman cannot be in a public place with another woman; she must be accompanied by a male mahram.

She may not be admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of a male relative, or go to the hospital to deliver her baby without her husband being present; however this is apparently not generally enforced.

The Government continues to issue national identity cards to females, despite a national campaign by some religious conservatives against it. An ID card for a woman – with a photo – has become a legal requirement and will be the only card recognised by banks and government sectors in the future. She can apply for one on her own if she has a passport (which she can only get with the consent of a male guardian), but failing that has to have the consent of her mail guardian. Many men and women object to the woman's face their ID, however. Read more on this here.

By law, daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.

In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Under the Hanbali interpretation of Shari'a law, judges may discount the testimony of persons who are not practicing Muslims or who do not adhere to the correct Islamic doctrine.

A Saudi man may have up to four wives providing he treats them equally, provides identical homes and equal conjugal visits. He can marry citizens of any country, including Christians or Jews, while a Saudi woman is not allowed to marry a non-Arab (except with a special dispensation from the King.) Religious leaflets left in hospital waiting rooms, at wakes and on campuses tell women to "be content with a quarter of a man instead of plummeting into the jungles of decadence." That said, a woman may stipulate in her marriage contract that her husband can or cannot take a second, third and/or fourth wife.

Husbands pay dowries to their wives on marriage, which is for the wife to keep and not for use in the support of the family. That money is kept by the wife upon divorce and may provide some financial security in the absence of maintenance.

To gain a divorce (Saudi has a whopping 50% divorce rate), women, unlike men, must prove harm or fault by the spouse, face the risk of losing custody of children, and be able to convince an all-male judiciary. Men may divorce without giving cause, by simply saying "Talaq Talaq Talaq" (I divorce you) three times.

On divorce, women may retain custody of any children only until they reach the age of seven (for boys) and nine (for girls). Children over these ages are awarded to the divorced husband or, if deceased, to his family. A court can sever a mother's custody if it determines that the mother is incapable of safeguarding the child or of bringing the child up in accordance with the appropriate religious standards. The mother can lose custody by re-marrying a non-Muslim, or by residing in a home with non-relatives.

The divorced wife can expect maintenance from her husband for three months only, after which she must rely on her family or charity.

Upon divorce, the non-Saudi woman typically loses her guardian, i.e. her ex-husband, and if she doesn't have another guardian, her right to remain in the Kingdom. Women entering Saudi Arabia wanting to visit their children may do so only with the written permission of the father of the children. Numerous divorced foreign women continue to be prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children. For more information, read Marriage to Saudis that the US Government once wrote to inform American women about what to expect, but has since removed from their consular website. I sent it to the Canadian girl nevertheless.

Dual nationality is not recognised under Saudi law. Children of Saudi fathers automatically acquire Saudi citizenship at birth, regardless of where the child was born, and Saudi women cannot transmit citizenship.

If she is abused (hospital workers are required to report any suspicious injuries to authorities), the Government will consider the case to be a family matter and won't generally intervene unless charges of abuse were brought to its attention. It is almost impossible for foreign women to obtain redress in the courts due to the courts' strict evidentiary rules and the woman's own fears of reprisals. While we're on the topic of abuse, read Religious Rulings Regarding Wife-Beating.

Saudi women have access to free but segregated education through the university level (58% of university students are female), but are excluded from studying such subjects as engineering, science, journalism, and architecture – which many do overseas with or without a guardian.

They are allowed to work in certain fields (they make up only 5% of the workforce), mostly education and health care, though Saudi women are finding work in a variety of fields, albeit in gender segregated environments. More about this in a later column.
Don't mess with a Saudi woman

What you've read above may sound quite outlandish. Yet don't think for a minute that all Saudi women are cowering on the stairways of their villas or in dark corners of Bedouin tents, completely at the mercy of their immediate menfolk. On the contrary, they (let's say the educated and affluent, which is more than half the female population) are smart, cultured and capable. They are PhDs, have second degrees and exercise huge influence in the family, or extended family; they organise the households, marriages and other rites of passage and they understand the social and tribal webs and networks. Because of the basis of inheritance in Islamic law, they own considerable fortunes in their own right and indeed a good part of the wealth of the country.

And they get really upset when all they ever read about themselves in foreign press is that they face discrimination in all walks of life, have to cover themselves in black from head to toe and aren't allowed to drive. A point in case was the airing of an interview with Saudi woman Rana Al Baz, who was beaten to within an inch of her life by her deranged husband. The interview, edited for scandalous appeal, was made for an Oprah show and unleashed a torrent of objections from Saudi women. Not so much because a "Saudi secret was aired to the world" but because the insert typecast Saudi Arabia as a backward, cruel and tyrannical country where wife beating is the norm. "Oprah is like a sieve that tells the needle that it has a hole in it," said Al-Riyadh columnist, Hayat Al Abd Al Aziz. (Love that!). An Internet petition has been drawn up to object to Oprah's insensitive portrayal of Saudi and has received over 11 000 signatures.

Saudi journalist Lubna Hussein writes: "According to your stereotypical estimation, Ms. Winfrey, we may not have a face, but we do have a voice!" And it's great to hear it at last. As an inside outsider, the point for me is not so much that Saudi Arabia was misrepresented on the TV show, but that for once a Saudi woman spoke out, and was heard across the world. The rest is sure to follow.

Answer 316 views

01 Jan 0001

Hmm, interesting. I'm just glad there weren't any cartoons enclosed. I wouldn't want to have my embassies burned down.
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