This Spring Break, 14 Georgetown students traveled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a unique public relations/educational trip sponsored by the Saudi government. In respect of the local tradition, Georgetown's female participants donned conservative coverings, known as abayas, which the local Saudi women are required to wear by law. Reflecting on his experience in the Kingdom, Michael Dawson shares his thoughts on women's rights, religious freedom and gender equality. This article has been adapted from Michael Dawson's original piece posted on the MSFS in Saudi 2012 blog.
For women headed to Saudi Arabia, a cultural shift that goes beyond simply traveling to a foreign country takes place on board the airplane about an hour before landing. As the plane approaches Saudi airspace, an announcement is made over the intercom to alert all the ladies who aren’t already wearing an abaya to retrieve them from their carry-on luggage and line up at the lavatories to put them on. The young woman who had been sitting next to me for the previous 11 hours walked away wearing designer jeans and a T-shirt, but came back wrapped in black from head to toe, her purple Converse shoes peeking out from under the hem of her abaya. For the duration of their stay in Saudi Arabia, women are obligated to wear the abaya in all public spaces where men are present.
Whether based on religious precepts (Islamic, Christian or otherwise) or simply rooted in patriarchal tradition, ultra-conservative notions of gender roles essentially boil down to a single defining element: control. In the United States, this occurs largely at the family level: the Pentecostal girl down the street who wears ankle-length skirts to school every day and is forbidden to cut her hair; the housewife whose husband discourages or even forbids her from seeking employment outside the home; the teenager who isn’t allowed to date. But for this kind of control to be imposed on fully one-half the population as a matter of official national policy is frankly shocking from a modern Western perspective.
Let’s not overlook our own shortcomings. Less than a century ago, women in America shared many of the same restrictions that hold back Saudi women today. Although they weren’t forcibly ensconced in black fabric, they lacked the ability to fully participate in society. Like modern day Saudi Arabia, available career options were limited to a small subset of acceptable choices, primarily in fields such as education and nursing. (Speaking of education, it’s worth pointing out that Georgetown did not become fully coeducational until 1968). Today, women in America continue to fight for equal pay, equal representation in boardrooms and Congress, even control over their own bodies. Despite the decades of effort put forth by our mothers and grandmothers, pressures both subtle and overt are still exerted on women to conform to certain traditional stereotypes.
In discussing the issue of women in Saudi Arabia with other classmates on the trip, some of us made varying allowances for cultural relativism. However, we were all in agreement that change must come from within Saudi society. Based on some encouraging observations we’ve seen during the course of our time here, that change may finally be on the horizon. Currently, 58 percent of college students in Saudi Arabia are female and 36 percent of all females enroll in college (compared to less than 25 percent of males). I sincerely hope these figures foretell an inevitable tipping point where an abundance of educated Saudi women will simply be unwilling to continue in the same manner.
Ultimately, gender equality comes down to freedom of choice. I have no problem with a woman choosing to wear the abaya, choosing not to drive, or choosing not to work in a particular field (or at all). But to have all those choices fundamentally denied to her is a violation of her human rights, rights that transcend any argument of religious freedom or cultural relativism. While societal pressures, religious dogma, the influence of family, and the legacy of one’s upbringing continue to factor heavily into lifestyle choices in the West, any legal impediments to making these choices must be removed before a society truly can be considered modern. Unfortunately for the image of a modern, wealthy country that Saudi Arabia has attempted to project during this trip, no degree of opulence can ever outweigh the basic freedom to choose how to live one’s life.
Michael Dawson is a first year student in the M.S. in Foreign Service (MSFS) program at Georgetown University. He was one of 14 MSFS students to travel to Saudi Arabia from March 2-11 as part of a public relations/educational trip sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To read more about their trip, visit the MSFS in Saudi 2012 blog.