Last week, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia passed landmark legislation that finally recognized domestic abuse as a punishable crime in the traditionally conservative country.
Historically considered a private affair to be dealt with behind closed doors, the reform has been lauded for propelling the women’s rights movement forward, as well as setting a precedent for nations who have yet to adopt any kind of legal framework recognizing domestic violence.
The move in Saudi Arabia is keeping in line with King Abdullah’s reformist government and comes on the heels of the Kingdom’s first domestic violence advertising campaign that ran throughout the country in April.
However, successful implementation of this legislation is still questionable at best in what is still a highly religious and predominantly patriarchal society.
This is a country where women were only granted the right to ride bicycles five months ago (and only with strict male supervision). One has to wonder how effective the new legislation will be when women cannot even drive themselves to a police station to report an incident.
So the question lingers: Do many Saudi women want these reforms as badly as the outside world does?
While it is clear that Abdullah is eager to see women advance in the Kingdom, the slow steps to progress merit careful deliberation on the divisive attitudes toward change in the country.
As a female journalist, reading about the experience of women living in countries where First Amendment freedoms don’t exist is important in understanding the context of both my own career and my individual experience as a woman.
Three years ago, The New York Times interviewed Rowdha Yousef, a Saudi woman who pioneered a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Yousef is a divorced mother of three who believed that female reform was influenced by Westerners who did not fully comprehend the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.
“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.
This is a strange concept for Americans to grasp. In our country, female Millennials are consistently trying to emphasize to their peers that “they don’t need no man,” followed by a swift finger snap. Reading Yousef’s words may incite a swift head scratch and brow furrow.
Indeed, outside perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women classify it as oppressive and confining. However, it seems that several aspects of the culture are misunderstood by the outside world. Many deem the hijabs and niqabs worn by Saudi women as archaic and enslaving; often it is not and is seen by Saudi women themselves as “liberating.”
“People always focus on the trivial issues like the niqab or what people wear,” said Saudi journalist Sabria Jawhar in an interview with NewsTilt. “They lose sight of the bigger issues like jobs and education. That’s the issue of women’s rights, not the meaningless things like passing legislation in France or Quebec to ban the burqa.”
Is it possible that when critics say they want freedom for women, they really want to see the hijabs tossed aside and for Saudi women to look more like the rest of the free world?
While the move to bring equal rights to all in Saudi Arabia is being keenly watched by the outside world, after reading criticisms by Saudi women it seems we should not be so quick to subject the entire Kingdom to norms we believe are best for them.
However, the tendency to cite cultural relativism as the reason for excusing oneself from the discussion over equal rights for women in the Kingdom is also no excuse for inaction.
I cannot claim to know the plight of the everyday Saudi woman. What I can do is implore others to thoroughly examine different facets of the culture before taking sides in a decidedly complex and volatile issue.
To dismiss an entire nation’s beliefs and practices in favor of what we deem more beneficial for them is incredibly dangerous, and any well-meaning actions should be examined carefully as the impact these reforms will have on the country could potentially impact its culture as a whole.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @lolonghi