At times, life here feels so normal that it's slightly disappointing. You can order delivery from Pizza Hut, find Betty Crocker cake mixes and Hershey's chocolate chips, and buy Gap jeans. And then at other times, life is so completely bizarre that it feels surreal. The recent topic in the news about breastfeeding one's male co-workers definitely falls into the surreal category.
It takes a bit of background to understand why this issue came up. Saudi Arabia, as you know, interprets Islam very strictly in the sense of segregating the sexes. A woman can not interact with a man unless she is related to him. The exception to this, however, is if she has breastfed a male as an infant. This makes him a “breast-milk son” and the “son” is allowed to be with the “mother,” even when she is uncovered, throughout his life. Technically, Islamic Law calls for five fulfilling breast-milk meals before the child is two years old to clinch the privilege of considering him a relative.
Recently, a prominent Sheikh and adviser to the royal family, Sheikh Obeikan, issued a fatwa (a religious opinion concerning Islamic Law) that women who work with men should give them their breast-milk to establish maternal relations, thereby eliminating the chance of sexual relations. This idea was first advocated three years ago by a scholar at Al Azhar University in Egypt, who was then fired for his statement. He later retracted it and was rehired last year.
The debates going on now concern how to give the men the milk. Should they drink pumped breast-milk from a cup? Or should they suckle directly from the breast, as Sheikh Al Huwaini insists? You can't help but wonder about the logic of preventing sexual relations by having a man suck on a woman's nipples! I think Eman Al Nafjan, the author of Saudiwoman's Weblog, summed up the debate quite nicely:
“The whole issue just shows how clueless men are. All this back and forth between sheikhs and not one bothers to ask a woman if it is logical, let alone possible to breastfeed a grown man five fulfilling breastmilk meals. As I’m writing this, I’m cringing at just the thought of it. I’m a huge advocate of breastfeeding and I’ve exclusively breastfed my three kids for at least six months each. Plus I’ve also done the 'breastmilk sibling' thing for two nephews and a niece. Breastfeeding a baby is hard work and it takes a toll to be able to produce enough for a one year old, I can’t even imagine how much a thirty year old would need. … Moreover the thought of a huge hairy face at a woman’s breast does not evoke motherly or even brotherly feelings. It could go from the grotesque to the erotic but definitely not maternal!”
She also commented that for a society so concerned that women cover every inch of their bodies in shapeless black cloaks and keep everyone as much as possible in single-sex environments, the culture is remarkably obsessed with women. Quite true.
Though women are prohibited from doing many activities, from voting to driving to traveling alone, the government has been gradually increasing women's rights, always careful to keep with the people's Islamic traditions. In Saudi Arabia, it's the people, not the government, that hold so closely to their religion. The government has to walk the fine line of modernization and maintaining tradition. Something the government will not do is implement a drastic change that will cause widespread controversy, thereby subjecting themselves to the criticism of being un-Islamic.
The Arab News website recently featured a compilation of KSA's progress in women's rights. In 2008, Mecca's governor revised a labor law that prevented men and women from interacting in a work environment. Also in 2008, the Labor Ministry allowed women to make the choice to start or stop working, without having to defer to a male guardian. (That being said, most women would never go against the head of the family.) The Labor Ministry also reversed the ban on women staying in hotels alone. In February of 2009, King Abdullah appointed a woman to the position of deputy minister of education – that's the highest public office held by a woman in the KSA so far. In December of 2009, the first woman was appointed to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jeddah, and since then, four more women have joined the CCI in the Kingdom.
Many topics, while not yet laws, are being debated – such as allowing women to travel abroad or to other Gulf countries alone and allowing women to participate in elections. Other topics are more controversial, such as women driving and women's sports centers, but they still come up in debates. It looks like women driving will not happen any time soon; however, since Saudi Arabia is trying to decrease its dependence on foreign labor, allowing women to drive themselves only makes sense. Most of the girls I have talked to do not desire to drive in Riyadh, but they would like the opportunity to drive if they lived abroad. Also, many girls told me they have been taught how to drive in the desert by their fathers. Perhaps the public is more accepting of the idea than they realize. Even if women had the right to drive, I'm sure very few women would take advantage of it, at least in the beginning. But all they need is a beginning.
Women's sports centers seems like a fairly innocuous subject – but here, it's not. Centers for women do exist, but they are very expensive, not for youth, and not widely accepted by either sex. In this society struggling with obesity, diabetes, fast food mania, and a sedentary lifestyle in unbearable desert heat, what could possibly challenge a push toward exercise for girls? Sadly, many things. Some feel that sports centers only encourage girls to leave home unnecessarily – to enter a place where they will dress inappropriately in work-out clothes, listen to music, and waste their time. One mother in the article was quoted as saying, “It is a waste of time and religiously unacceptable for a girl to leave home for anything apart from education or work. A woman’s place is the home. It is more important for her to look after her kids and husband. Don’t tell me obesity is increasing — working at home gives her all the energy she needs.”
This is very sad. Women are now encouraged to study – so why should care of the body be any less important? However, I'm sure there are many in favor of sports centers, just as there are many opposed. Even for myself, living in a compound with access to a gym and a swimming pool, I find Saudi Arabia a difficult country to exercise in. The heat, the abaya, the traffic, and the random sidewalks are all deterrents to going out for a walk or a bike ride. Boys can play soccer, but I have not seen anywhere where women can play sports. And since Saudi Arabia interprets music as too worldly, art forms such as dance are out. (I was puzzled by this. A student explained to me that she doesn't listen to music because she wants to hear the music in heaven. If she listens to music now, she says she won't be able to hear it at the end. However, the vast majority of students love music – Arabic music, western music, you name it. It's kind of odd shopping in a mall where the only burst of music comes from the occasional ring-tones of cell phones!) From talking with my students, I get the general feeling that they would love having access to a gym at the university (after all, the boys' campus has one). At the same time, though, they are mostly content with their current role in society – they have told me on more than one occasion that “women are diamonds” in Saudi Arabia.
If you would like further information, I encourage you to read any of the following articles. I found them extremely interesting.
What's front page news in Saudi Arabia?
Women's rights gain focus in the Kingdom
Saudi clerics advocate adult breast-feeding
Will the Kingdom ever have sports centers for women?
Women will not drive cars in Saudi Arabia