Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Arabnews (July 3, 2006)
My last article “What is It Like to Be a Saudi Woman” evoked many responses, positive and negative.
Some thought I was generalizing, and claimed that Lila’s story was either exaggerated or unique.
Most women, they asserted, are happy and content with their role and position in society. But since most respondents are men, I wasn’t too surprised.
Women, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly in agreement. Some related their own tragic stories. I had to do some investigation to confirm the basic facts. To protect their true identities, I won’t use their real names.
Suha is the daughter of a prominent merchant — very beautiful, sweet, and smart. Her mother used harsh methods to bring up her daughters as obedient and respectful girls.
When a young man from a prominent merchant family came along, Suha welcomed him without asking too many questions. She was barely seventeen and had just finished high school. Her unhappy experience at home made her think that it won’t get any worse. It sure did.
The husband was cruel, self-centered, womanizer and distasteful. While she continued her college education, he was busy building up his family business empire. She didn’t mind his absence; what she dreaded was his presence.
So harsh were his methods, she longed for her mother’s cruel ways.
But one child after another made her hesitant to opt for divorce. She was so attached to her five children that she couldn’t bear to leave them behind.
Finally, she decided to end her misery. After a year without her kids, she was granted divorce, but custody of the children went to her husband. Another year passed without getting the court-set access to her children. Her ex-husband decided to punish her by denying her what she needed most.
She described how she used to hide in her car every morning outside their school to watch them go in and out. And how it tore her to pieces not to be able to hug and kiss them.
Finally, with the help of her father’s connections, she managed to get back custody of her kids. In the meanwhile, she finished her university, found a good job and established herself as a women’s rights activist.
Hanaa is another intelligent, sophisticated beauty queen. She was forced into a marriage she hotly refused.
Her suitor of choice was accepted at first, then refused because the rest of the family thought he was of a lesser class. Her father was adamant that she accept her cousin.
The boy was so stupid that he couldn’t understand that she wasn’t kidding when she told him to look elsewhere.
After the marriage, she tried to make it work, but couldn’t. Her husband had no character, no education, no sensitivity, no romance, not even a mind of his own.
His family controlled him completely. He couldn’t stick to any promise he made, like letting her finish her college.
Fourteen years and four children later, her psychiatrist gave her two options: Either to get divorce or be treated indefinitely for depression and related illnesses. When she finally divorced, her sister, married to a man of similar personality, “congratulated” her. She might follow suit, soon.
Roeda was in love with an airline captain. Her father refused him because flying would take him away from his wife so often. To escape the immense pressure they put on her, she took the first suitor they chose for her on two conditions: She would be allowed to finish her college studies and invite her divorced mother to the wedding party. She got both wishes, but for a romantic girl of eighteen, the man was too vulgar, insensitive and cruel.
After a year of increasingly unhappy life, she decided enough was enough. Against enormous resistance, she got what she asked for — divorce. Her punishment was movement restriction for eight years. This means she could hardly see a friend, attend a party or go out. All suitors were refused for one reason or another. Now 28 years old, she finally got married to a married man with wife and children.
He is kind and considerate, but too shallow and primitive for her taste. Why accept him? She was escaping her torturing at home and a cruel father. What choices did she have?
To those who felt I was generalizing and exaggerating, please look around you. We have enough cases to regard the situation as quite normal. Without protected and enforced rules and regulations, we cannot claim that all our women have their rights.
Leaving it to the conscience of society and the kindness of male guardians is not fair. Justice can only be upheld with law and authority.