I have made an investment. It's a sign that says "Family Section" on it, so that wherever I go, I can create my own instant area that permits men and women to co-mingle in public. This is all theoretical, of course. I'm going to try it out tonight. I'm not sure if there's a limit to the power radius of my sign, but it's worth a shot. And here's why.
Saudi is a completely segregated society. And I do mean completely. There's a section in the food court of every mall for the "singles"--read men--and for the "families". There's a different entrance into banks for women, and travel agencies have a specific time when they are open to women. Fast food restaurants have two different lines, divided by a wall, for the men and women. Reception areas are divided and closed off, and when we transfer money, it's like a parting of the manly Red Sea when we walk in the door. You'd almost think we had a plague of the worst sort of girl cooties imaginable.
And here's the thing. It's economically damaging to the country. When the women--who have a LOT of time (and money) on their hands--are hindered from spending money, it restricts the spending of a lot of expendable income. When a woman isn't permitted to move freely either, it is personally AND economically hindering. And it just don't make no sense. As quoted from the Arab News:
"For example, businesswomen registering public businesses (businesses that serve both men and women) have been required to appoint a male manager. The lack of relevant business licenses for many popular business activities, such as day-care centers and beauty salons, further complicates the registration process for Saudi businesswomen. In addition, restrictions on women’s mobility due to the absence of public transportation and the ban on driving, as well as restrictions on international travel, may cause delays, extra costs and/or limited options for training abroad.
Recruiting international women specialists to provide training courses within the Kingdom also poses a challenge to business management, due to restrictions on obtaining business visas for foreign women."
I had a few segregation-tastic setbacks today. The first came when we discovered a bowling alley. We (myself and another woman) were SO happy!! Bowling! How fun/normal! How exciting to find something new to do here that doesn't involve a mall!! So we went in to inquire about prices etc. etc. We decided that we had time for a quick game, and were ready to play. We were taking out our wallets when the little worker told us to wait a minute while he called his manager to make sure it was okay. Turns out it wasn't okay for two women to go bowling for a half-hour in an otherwise completely deserted establishment. It's only okay if we come in between 10am-3pm, and we have to call a day ahead. Huh. So they lost 26 riyals.
Then we went to console ourselves, and were debating between Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins. We peeked into the donut store and saw a ton of men, and nary a single woman. So we figured we weren't allowed in there, and went to the now-abandoned ice cream store. There was a sum total of one table, and Chris quickly claimed it for us, as we were determined to sit there until booted out. Turns out the Indian man working there was super nice, and let us stay. We were rather put out by the runaround at this point, but the story's not finished.
We hailed a cab to go back home, and all three of us piled into the cab: two in the back, one in the front. The cab driver refused to go until all three of us were in the back seat, because if the Mutawa (religious police) caught us, the taxi driver would be in big trouble for having a woman who is not is wife in the front seat. So we all smooshed together in the back and just shook our head.
This whole adventure was inspired by another friend who wanted to go to the dentist. It involved 6 people to get her to the dentist: the driver, the person who had to give the driver permission to take us, two people who had to give the driver directions, two of us for moral support/propriety and the patient. And such is daily life. Just like our route to the dentist, we just seem to go round and round and round in circles to get any small thing accomplished. What would usually be a one person deal to make and go to an appointment suddenly required a whole contingent of people. And that's ludicrous. In addition, it's wasteful.
The women are smothering, especially in the younger generation. They need to be able to go out for what they need. They need to be able to enter public places of business in order to, you know, conduct business. They need to be able to get into a car when they need to and go where they need without the interference and intervention of a horde of other people. There's nothing improper about getting your teeth checked, or going to a medical appointment, or going to the grocery store, or meeting a friend for coffee. By placing so many restrictions on daily life, every small thing becomes an event, and therefore gets blown completely out of proportion. And that loss of perspective, I believe, leads to some of the dangerous attitudes we see not just here but all over the world.
Let's take a mental step back and remove ourselves from the perceived need for control over every minuscule facet of daily life. Women are very capable when they are given the opportunity for responsibility. Look at how they have found ways to flourish despite the restrictions placed on them! Let them go, Saudi, and watch them thrive! I think you would be surprised by the benefits--monetary, social, developmental--that you would reap. You'd finally allow your women to grow up and reach maturity, which is something they are sorely lacking in now. Lighten up, and watch your country bloom, just like the desert after a storm.