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Saudi Arabia: From the Eyes of an Insider

“Segregation” is the only way to describe the situation for women in Saudi Arabia.

August 25, 2015

“Segregation” is the only way to describe the situation for women in Saudi Arabia.

Nothing prepared me for Saudi Arabia. I was born in Egypt, but my family left for London when I was seven years old. After almost eight years in the United Kingdom, we moved to Saudi Arabia in 1982.

Both my parents, Egyptians who had earned PhDs in medicine in London, had found jobs in Jeddah, teaching medical students and technicians clinical microbiology.

The campuses were segregated. My mother taught the women on the female campus and my father taught the men on the male campus.

When an instructor of the same gender wasn’t available, the classes were taught via closed-circuit television, and the students would have to ask questions using telephone sets.

My mother, who had been the breadwinner of the family for our last year in the United Kingdom, when we lived in Glasgow, now found that she could not legally drive. We became dependent on my father to take us everywhere.

As we waited for our new car to be delivered, we relied on gypsy cabs and public buses.

On the buses, we would buy our ticket from the driver, and then my mother and I would make our way to the back two rows (four if we were lucky) designated for women.

The back of the bus. What does that remind you of? Segregation is the only way to describe it.

It felt as though we’d moved to another planet whose inhabitants fervently wished women did not exist. I lived in this surreal atmosphere for six years.

In this world, women, no matter how young or how old, are required to have a male guardian – a father, a brother, or even a son – and can do nothing without this guardian’s permission.

Infantilized beyond belief, they cannot travel, open a bank account, apply for a job, or even get medical treatment without a man’s stamp of approval.

I watched all this with a mounting sense of horror and confusion.

Useless concessions

Yes, this is Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to ten lashes and, again, needed a royal pardon.

So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that tiny paternalistic pats on the back — such as the king’s promise to give women the vote in 2015 — are greeted with acclaim from international observers.

The Saudi reformer’s answer to the revolutions popping up across the region was to numb his people with still more government handouts – especially for the religious zealots from whom the Saudi royal family inhales legitimacy.

When I encountered this country at age fifteen, I was traumatized into feminism – there’s no other way to describe it – because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin.

The kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to the triple advantage of having oil; being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina, and controlling the flow of petrodollars that keep the weapons manufacturers of its Western allies happily funded.

Then (the 1980s and ‘90s) as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them.

I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on earth made girls’ urine impure? I wondered.

The hatred of women.

This clerical obsession with women’s organs continues today. My favorite recent howler: driving will damage your ovaries.

“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts, as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” the Saudi cleric Saleh Lohaidan told the news website Sabq in 2013.

“That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

A conservative interpretation

Saudi Arabia follows an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam known alternatively as Wahhabism or Salafism, the former associated more directly with the kingdom, and the latter, austere form of Islam with those who live outside Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom’s petrodollars and concerted proselytizing efforts have taken Wahhabism/Salafism global, and with it the interpretations of Islam that make women’s lives in Saudi Arabia little short of prison sentences.

Yet the hatred of women is not unique to Salafism. It is not merely a Saudi phenomenon, a hateful curiosity of a rich, isolated desert.

The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region – now more than ever. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi groups who belong to the Sunni sect of Islam and the Shiite militias in Iraq.

The obsession with controlling women and our bodies often stems from the suspicion that, without restraints, women are just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability.

We often hear how the Middle East’s failing economies have left many men unable to marry, and some even use this fact to explain rising levels of sexual harassment on the streets.

Yet, we never hear how a later marriage age affects women. Do women have sex drives or not? Apparently, the Arab jury is still out on the basics of human biology.

Editor’s note: Excerpted from Headscarves and Hymens : Why The Middle East Needs A Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Mona Eltahawy. All rights reserved.


Women, no matter how young or old, are required to have a male guardian.

To be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin.

Saudi Arabia follows an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism.

The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region – now more than ever.

The obsession with controlling women stems from the suspicion that women are sexually insatiable beings.