Going Braless in Saudi Arabia

A few weeks ago I spent seven hours in a Saudi Arabia airport.

Minus the international layover lounge, nearly every single woman wore abayas, and the ones who didn’t wore niqabs. They had a separate security line for women in a private room, staffed entirely by female officers. The bathroom signs signaled gender not with cartoon bodies, but with icons of head coverings.

I was wearing skintight leggings and a loose shirt with no bra and feeling very uncomfortable. I put a scarf loosely around my head to try to make up for it, but I don’t think I was fooling anybody.

While I was waiting for my flight, I struck up a conversation with a Saudi businessman. He told me about how the West had a lot of misconceptions about Islam. Islam is really a religion of peace and fairness, he said. All the Muslims in Saudi Arabia thought that radical Islam was a bad thing. Saudi Arabia was really a wonderful country and that I should visit.

“Maybe I will come back!” I said.

“Of course you need to bring a male guardian,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere alone. Women cannot drive here, it’s illegal.”

He didn’t say it apologetically, and I was a little surprised. I guess I’d expected him to be at least a little apologetic about it, since he was trying to get me to see how progressive they were.

I wasn’t really sure how to respond. “the West doesn’t really support that,” I said.

“The West sees it as oppression!” he said. “That a woman is a man’s slave and she is under his thumb. This is not true! In Islam, the man is to love the woman and esteem her higher than anything. Really, the woman is the fortunate one. She gets everything provided for her and the safety of a man, commanded by Allah, to take care of her. The man has to go out and make the money and support the household. It is hard for the man. The woman lives like a queen because the man must fight and be a hero for her. ”

Do women really want a hero? I was doubtful. But I didn’t really want to loudly debate women’s rights while I was wearing tight leggings, so I just nodded.

Later, thinking about it, it made more sense than I liked.

Of course I support women’s rights. I really like driving and the only thing that in this world that could drive me to commit murder would probably requiring permission from a male guardian to do things.

But it seemed to me that this Saudi culture treated the idea of responsibility more as a burden. If you were expected to earn money, that was hard. That was not inherently desirable. Men had to be strong because of the weight on their backs. Being a hero was glory at a very high cost, and they emphasized the cost.

The idea of responsibility as a burden is something that exists in our society too. We view a state of excess wealth and a life of leisure as desirable. We want to have jobs where we wake up at noon and stroll pantsless into our art studio to paint whatever genitals we feel like that day. We view welfare positively, where you get monetary assistance to help you if you fail at life. We talk romantically about being a carefree child again. Being a responsible adult who has to take care of yourself is hard, and a lot of us don’t really want to do it.

Obviously having the ability to choose is important, and that is where Saudi Arabia is lacking. If a man would prefer to stay at home and have his wife earn all the money, he would be laughed out of the country and/or stoned to death or something. If a woman wants to work, she… kind of could, with permission, in really specific jobs, serving other women. Saudi Arabia picks the two categories, smashes in the genders, and eyeballs it and goes ‘yeah that looks about right’.

That businessman beamed so much when he talked about the queenliness of women that a part of me ended up sympathizing. Yeah, responsibility does suck. Yeah, having someone else there who is going to pay for food on your table forever would be kinda nice. I can see why they think women have it good.

But then I went on Wikipedia and read that Saudi Arabia segregates its genders. There are separate male and female entrances to nearly all homes and businesses. A woman requires consent from her guardian in order to hold a job – and she is only allowed to work in a job where she serves exclusively other women. Women gained the right to vote last year. Men receive a text message if a woman under his custody leaves the country. Polygamy is legal and marriages are frequently arranged. And all of this is largely supported by both men and women. My sympathy shrunk a little bit after that.

But the question remained – do Saudi women really want a hero?

The next day, in an overpacked van headed to Afrikaburn, this song came on the radio:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There’s someone reaching back for me
Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat
It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet

I hadn’t felt weird about the song before that conversation with the Saudi businessman, but I felt a little weird now.

7 thoughts on “Going Braless in Saudi Arabia”

  1. Again, you cut through the crap and state things as they are. I’m really impressed with your analysis. Thank you for representing a feminine point of view.


  2. A true patriarchy like Saudi Arabia sees women as children. They truely love and want to take of them but fear their ability to make bad choices

  3. If given the choice many women may choose to live without any responsibility. Many men may chose to bear all the responsibility. They are not wrong in doing so. It’s their right.

    But in this situation it is the lack of a choice; the inability to dissent. That is what makes it wrong.

    Perhaps an interesting thought experiment is thinking of examples in the western world where people are shunned for dissent; and why we accept these as okay.

  4. With the job thing, it’s not as simple as ‘women’s work is highly restricted’. It’s that men are ALWAYS legally obliged to provide, such that when a woman gets a job, her male guardian must pay for her transport costs, work clothes, taxes, and any other expenses. She, on the other hand, is never obliged to spend her earnings on anybody, and is not culturally encouraged too either. It is thus necessary for her to get permission to enter into work – much like your child having to ask you to buy the bucket and sponge before they go car-washing round the neighbourhood, who also uses your capital but keeps all the profits to themselves. It’s not necessarily oppressive, any more than a parent is ‘oppressing’ their kids when they refuse to buy them a mower to go mowing other people’s lawns with. It’s just a very different dynamic to the one we have in the West.

  5. > But that businessman beamed so much when he talked about women being queens that a part of me ended up sympathizing. Yeah, responsibility does suck. Yeah, having someone else there who is going to pay for food on your table forever would be kinda nice. I can see why they think women have it good.

    Except it’s motivated cognition. Find me a Muslim man who would, in principle, change places and I’ll reconsider my position.

    Responsibility is burdensome, certainly, but I know I wouldn’t exchange it for their overbearing form of “caring”.

    I think that, in the end, the thing is that there probably is a gendered preference for taking responsibilities vs being cared for, but it’s far from universal and at any rate, women in the Western World can find people who will take care of all the responsibilities. The “higher-level” distinction is that they get to decide whether they want to or not.

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