This week, Saudi Arabia’s CPVPV (Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) overturned a ban on cycling for women, with some significant qualifications: 1) bicycles cannot be used for transport, 2) the female biker must be accompanied by a male guardian, and 3) she must be wearing a hijab. In other words, as one headline claimed: “Saudi women are now allowed to cycle—but only around in circles.”
Some Saudi Arabian women are running circles around their society’s rules. All across the Arab world, women, frustrated by centuries of patriarchal oppression, are quietly and subtly subverting restrictions in their everyday lives.
Some women are undermining the patriarchy with lace and lingerie. In her new book, Sex in the Citadel, Shereen el Feki chronicles sexuality in Arab society, including the experience of married Arab women who cannot “express their sexual desire and their sexual needs” to their husbands. “It would be a shame for me to show my husband that I want to have sex,” says one woman. According to Feki, lingerie creates a way around the stigma. She writes, “sales are thriving across the Middle East…for many women, lingerie is a tool of empowerment” because it allows women to signal their sexual desires without insulting their culture.
Some teenage girls, desperate for the thrill of co-ed contact, try to game the system. Teenage dating is one of Arab society’s greatest taboos, but a game called “numbering” allows teen boys and girls a taste of possibility, as they exchange cell phone numbers by holding notes up to the windows of their moving cars. For many girls, that glimpse of a guy through the car window may be their only male interaction before marriage.
Other girls, frustrated by society’s intense gender isolation, resort to cross-dressing to get out and about. “A lot of girls do it,” an 18-year-old girl named Sara al-Tukhaifi says. Sara steals and wears her brother’s throbes in order to drive, sit at an all-male counter at a restaurant, or participate in any one of the forbidden activities many would consider human rights.
In another subtle rebellion, every year, 200,000 Iranian women alter their appearances with cosmetic surgery. In fact, Iran has the highest rate of surgery in the world. Women fix their noses, lift their foreheads, and reshape their eyes in an effort to take control of the only exposed areas on their bodies. One woman says, “They won’t let us display our beauty. It’s human nature to want to seek out attention with a beautiful figure, hair, skin … but the hijab doesn’t let you do that. So we have to satisfy that instinct by displaying our ‘art’ on our faces.”
Then there are the bold efforts by women like Manal Al-Sharif and Rajaa Alsanea, who risk their lives to protest the repression and claim a place in the public sphere. Sharif records videos of herself driving illegally, and posts them on YouTube for all to see. Alsanea wrote “Girls of Riyadh,” a controversial book that deals openly with themes of sex, lesbianism and young women’s desire for freedom in Saudi Arabia. Although the book is banned in many conservative countries, Alsanea promotes it around the globe, raising awareness about gender injustice while stressing the importance of maintaining hope. She says, “I am not ashamed of saying we have things we need to work on…but I think females may soon have a very bright future in Saudi Arabia.”
Photo credit: Tinou Bao