Elsa Franco Al Ghaslan
I remember when I started getting used to seeing women covered from head to toe. At first, it seemed rather strange. But as I, too, had willingly accepted to wear an “abaya” and a veil, it did not take me too long to accept such tradition, which claims to protect a woman from the eyes of males. I didn’t really perceive this kind of danger but … “When you go to Rome you are supposed to do like the Romans,” as the old saying says. When I asked more information, I was told that the only women whose faces a man can look at are his mother, sister, aunt and grandmother. That is all! As to the woman, she is traditionally allowed to only see her father, brother, uncle and grandfather without covering her head and face.
When a couple is engaged to be married, they will be permitted to meet each other, chaperoned and watched over by an older, trusted member of the girl’s family. This is what happens in “modern” Saudi families. In stricter, more traditional homes, engaged young people are not supposed to meet until the actual wedding day. In other words, they are perfect strangers until the time comes to consummate the marriage. Nevertheless, it seems that most of these marriages end up being happy. I personally know several such couples and, as difficult as it might sound, they are living a good life.
On the other hand, I can’t help wondering if this strictness is the true spirit of Islam. I have read the Qur'an more than once and discussed this topic with open-minded Saudis. The understanding I have about Islam is that it gives freedom of thought in wordly affairs but without deviating from its basic teachings. In other words, it is important to pray and follow religious directives, but people are also allowed to exercise personal freedom and responsibility in order to lead normal lives. Another interesting observation I have made is that, up to recent times, a woman was believed to be incapable of taking care of herself, no matter what her personal circumstances were. Now things are slowly changing although some women are still convinced that the right path is a blind obedience and submission to their father, first, and then to their husband. Some traditional beliefs are so deeply rooted that they may be never altered. But, after all, who knows what is actually “best”?
Some traditional women are still afraid that, if they disobey or displease their husband in any way, he can divorce them in a second. It is enough for him to say to her, “I divorce you,” in the presence of two witnesses and the marriage is over. A woman however, cannot divorce a man. She may request a divorce, but if her husband refuses, there is little she can do about it. Strictly speaking, a woman has the right to appeal to an Islamic judge if her husband does not agree to a divorce, but this is seldom done in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, it has been done. So maybe, after all, the wheels have really started moving.
(To be continued)