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.