I’ve never lived in an Arab country and I’ve never worn the veil, except to see how it would look. I’ve read a few different articles by women about their experiences, and everyone has her own opinion about it. Here’s a recent L. A. Times article by Megan K. Stack about wearing the veil, and the treatment of women, in Saudi Arabia. Excerpts:
“Excuse me,” hissed the voice in my ear. “You can’t sit here.” The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.
“Excuse me?” I blinked a few times.
“Emmm,” he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. “You cannot stay here.”
“What? Uh … why?”
Then he said it: “Men only.”
He didn’t tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That was the “family” section. As a woman, that’s where I belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers. Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today’s Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces.
The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.
One afternoon, a candidate invited me to meet his daughter. She spoke fluent English and was not much younger than me. I cannot remember whether she was wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, inside her home, but I have a memory of pink. I asked her about the elections.
“Very good,” she said.
So you really think so, I said gently, even though you can’t vote?
“Of course,” she said. “Why do I need to vote?”
Her father chimed in. He urged her, speaking English for my benefit, to speak candidly. But she insisted: What good was voting? She looked at me as if she felt sorry for me, a woman cast adrift on the rough seas of the world, no male protector in sight.
“Maybe you don’t want to vote,” I said. “But wouldn’t you like to make that choice yourself?”
“I don’t need to,” she said calmly, blinking slowly and deliberately. “If I have a father or a husband, why do I need to vote? Why should I need to work? They will take care of everything.”
WHEN Saudi officials chat with an American reporter, they go to great lengths to depict a moderate, misunderstood kingdom. They complain about stereotypes in the Western press: Women banned from driving? Well, they don’t want to drive anyway. They all have drivers, and why would a lady want to mess with parking?
The religious police who stalk the streets and shopping centers, forcing “Islamic values” onto the populace? Oh, Saudi officials say, they really aren’t important, or strict, or powerful. You hear stories to the contrary? Mere exaggerations, perpetuated by people who don’t understand Saudi Arabia.
The door clattered open, and I looked up hopefully. But no, it was a security guard. And he was stomping straight at me, yelling in Arabic. I knew enough vocabulary to glean his message: He didn’t want me standing there. I took off my shades, fixed my blue eyes on him blankly and finally turned away as if puzzled. I think of this as playing possum.
He disappeared again, only to reemerge with another security guard. This man was of indistinct South Asian origin and had an English vocabulary. He looked like a pit bull — short, stocky and teeth flashing as he barked: “Go! Go! You can’t stand here! The men can SEE! The men can SEE!”
I looked down at him and sighed. I was tired. “Where do you want me to go? I have to wait for my friend. He’s inside.” But he was still snarling and flashing those teeth, arms akimbo. He wasn’t interested in discussions.
“Not here. NOT HERE! The men can SEE you!” He flailed one arm toward the bank.