Published — Saturday 15 December 2012
Last update 15 December 2012 9:00 am
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.
By the 1970s, those practices virtually ceased to exist. Saudi Arabia is a huge landmass comprising several large regions with each having its geographical natural characteristics and is separated by vast areas of desert and other natural barriers. In the past, the movement of people between the regions was extremely difficult and consequently occurred rarely as the country had dirt roads and lacked paved highways connecting the regions and the main method of transportation was motor vehicles.
The Saudi government launched massive development programs, which included building a network of highways, telecommunication system and airports connecting various regions of the Kingdom. In the past, most Saudis were exclusively living in their regional enclaves and as a result the inhabitants of small towns and villages knew one another. They had established strong social ties in such a way that visitors and strangers were easily recognized.
That social milieu deterred any male member of those communities from committing any immoral act or showing inappropriate behavior toward women, because the news of such a behavior would spread across the community and would entail a social punishment bringing personal disgrace and ultimately dishonor upon the family.
Massive development programs launched by the Saudi government created jobs for Saudis and non-Saudis, who are considered by the local people as strangers. These strangers didn’t have family or social ties with the locals; accordingly they neither followed nor were expected by the residents to abide by the longstanding local traditions and customs with respect to personal behavior toward women.
In fact, the strangers might feel comfortable and undeterred by the local traditions and as a result may show inappropriate behavior toward local women. Hence, Saudis realized the situation and encouraged their women to cover themselves with abayas and their faces with a type of veil before leaving the house to protect themselves.
As the strangers are not familiar with the local tradition and have a different social condition back home they don’t find it offensive to talk to women or mingle with them. But here it is considered offensive and irritating for men to see a stranger talking to their women or staring at them.
A few weeks ago, a man and his family were walking out of one of the malls in the capital when one of the youths from a group standing near the gate mocked at the family. The man’s wife and daughter walked to the car while he returned to talk to the youth about his behavior. During an exchange of argument one of the youths jumped at him and kicked him in his stomach. The man fell to the ground and the rest of the youngsters started beating and kicking him that resulted in his injuries.
No one would like to face such a situation, which could have been avoided had the women covered themselves with abayas and their faces with veils. Therefore, I am in favor of my women relatives wearing abayas and veils because that is how they can keep themselves safe from improper comments and indecent look.