"Femmes d’Arabie". Peinture de Hend al-Mansour.
A young Saudi blogger from Riyadh told us why she opposes women anywhere in the world wearing the full Islamic veil – and why she supports a French bill aiming to ban it from public places.
Eman Al Nafjan, 32, is a postgraduate linguistics student in Riyadh, and author of the blog Saudi Woman. She spoke to us under her real name.
I’m a well-respected woman and I must add that, like many of my compatriots, I’ve lived a good life. Maybe I see things differently to most Saudi women because I read a lot in English, so I have access to information from the outside world. However I’m far from being the only one here who speaks out against the condition of Saudi women and the guardianship system. Many other bloggers, journalists and columnists are also openly critical.
I don’t like the idea of giving up my rights; I want to be responsible for my actions. That just isn’t possible here: women are seen as children who don’t count. I need a male guardian for virtually everything. I can’t travel abroad without my husband's permission, I can't drive, I can’t vote (not that Saudi men vote much either, though…).
I would like to be able not to wear the niqab [full veil] any more. I realise many Saudi women feel comfortable with it, mostly because they’ve been wearing it since they were in 4th grade. They sometimes even keep it on when they don’t have to, for example in a women-only hospital waiting room.
You feel completely invisible when you wear a full veil. You’re anonymous, other people leave you alone, they don’t even notice you. The full veil lets you get away with behaving badly in public, because no-one knows who you are. I’ve noticed veiled women behave in a particularly rude manner: they’ll cut to the front of a queue, they won’t clean up after using a public toilet. These are little things, but I find them quite revealing.
"I immediately saw the link between the veil and the chastity belt"
Above all, the full veil is an instrument of male domination. Saudi men are no different from others: if you give them unlimited power, they will abuse it. This summer I went on a trip to Venice, where I visited a museum that had a medieval chastity belt on display. I immediately saw the link between the belt and the veil: both are supposedly intended to “protect” women, as if we weren’t capable of being responsible for ourselves.
It’s worth bearing in mind that nowhere in the Koran is it said that women should hide their faces in public. Only the most conservative religious leaders demand that women be fully veiled. In many practising Muslim countries, such as Syria or Egypt, for example, women simply wear a headscarf.
"I agree with the French ‘burqa ban’"
I completely agree with the French bill that aims to ban the full veil in public places [the bill is currently being debated by the French parliament and is likely to be adopted in September]. In the same way that people aren’t allowed to walk around naked in the street, a government has every right to forbid its citizens from covering their faces in public. When you meet someone, you’re entitled to see who you’re talking to. To me, it’s a security issue. I know that Anglo-Saxon countries believe a total ban would undermine the personal freedom of citizens, but frankly it doesn’t bother me.
Overall, however, the situation of Saudi women is improving. This is in part because King Abdallah is a progressive leader, and some of the measures he’s taken are a step in the right direction. For example, women no longer need a middleman to set up a business. But, most of all, I think the role of the Internet and foreign satellite channels has been invaluable in changing mentalities. Before they were available, people only had access to Saudi television channels that demonised the West – or anything that wasn’t Saudi, for that matter. The Internet and satellite TV have made it possible for Saudis to discover the outside world for themselves. But one thing is sure: change can only come from within. It should never be imposed by foreign powers.
"The right to drive is a priority for Saudi women"
I believe obtaining the right to drive should be the top priority for Saudi women. We should have access to cars and public transportation when travelling on our own. Today, we’re forced to take a taxi, or pay a driver. This is much too expensive for less wealthy women. It can cost up to half the monthly salary of a school teacher.
I can say I’m optimistic because there are more feminist men today than there are women feminists. I have my own theory as to why this is: men are tired of being responsible for others. Power also means responsibility. If it were just their wife, maybe… But it can also be their mother, their sisters, even their cousins… it kind of piles up on them."