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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.

The Three Oughts

TV Repair

Jerry worked at a tech help center. He got a call from an irate Bob, who had bought a television and was upset that the television wasn’t showing colors.

Jerry went over to look at the television and found that it was a very old television. He said, “this is a black and white television. It’s not built to show color.”

“That isn’t right,” Bob said. “I think this television ought to show color.”

“That’s nonsense,” said Jerry. “This television is in perfect working order, and probably a worthwhile antique too. I can show you how it’s built on the inside. There is no possible way for this to display color.”

But Bob was very upset. “I want to see color and I think the television ought to show it to me.”

“Isn’t that more about yourself than the television?” Jerry said. “If you say the television ought to be different, you’re really saying that you want something the television isn’t giving you. The television is operating perfectly well according to the laws of physics and causality, I don’t know what more you want out of it. You can rebuild it if you want, or buy a new television.”

“But you want me to accept the fact this television ought to be black and white, not color! If I do that, just accept, then I would do nothing, I wouldn’t rebuild it or buy a new television. I have to believe that this television is wrong if I’m going to do anything about it.”

Jerry sighed as he started to pack up his things. “We are capable of taking action without feeling like we must correct some offense with the world. Buying a new television doesn’t have to be any different.”

Alice and Carl

Alice loved Carl. Carl was wonderful, but not perfect. He got upset whenever he was interrupted in conversation. Sometimes he would insult people for the sake of laughs. Sometimes he would leave the toilet seat up.

Alice, while she got along with Carl well otherwise, was very upset by the things he did. She believed he ought not do them, and that he was behaving unethically, and she told him so.
Alice married Carl, and after many decades, she began to understand – not just in a rote psychological way, but in a deep, empathetic way – why he behaved like this. Carl had a poor upbringing which had convinced him, at a young age, that he was worthless. Fear of abandonment underwrote everything he said. He wanted love, but didn’t know how to receive it.

Eventually, when Carl insulted Alice, Alice saw not just the insult, but also the network of motivations that pushed the insult to the surface.

And after this, she did not tell Carl that he was being unethical. She did not tell him that he ought not to insult her. Carl was doing exactly what he was built to be doing. The way she felt had nothing to do with it. Telling him he ‘ought not insult her’ was more about herself than him, really. She just wanted something he wasn’t giving her – affirmation and love. Carl was operating perfectly well according to the laws of physics and causality. What more could she expect from someone?

She told this to her friend Ethel over dinner, and Ethel was skeptical.

“You’re accepting the fact that your husband is an asshole – even that he ought to be an asshole, and not a good kind man!” Ethel said. “If you do that, just accept, then you won’t do anything about it, like going to therapy or leaving him. You have to believe that he’s a dick if you’re going to do anything about him.”

Alice sighed as she stirred her coffee. “We are capable of taking action without feeling like we must correct some offense with the world.  Dealing with Carl doesn’t have to be any different.”

Alice ended up divorcing Carl once she felt he caused her more unhappiness than happiness, and she wasn’t angry with him at all.

The Genie

Dan wasn’t who he wanted to be, and he hated it.

He wasn’t handsome enough or witty enough. He was too insecure. He said the wrong thing too much. He wasn’t attractive to women. He drank too much and couldn’t stop. He ran away from his problems instead of facing them. He was lazy and unmotivated. He wasn’t sure how anyone could love him if they got to know who he was, deep down.

Sure, he was functional. He had a social group and made jokes people laughed at and was respected at his job. But at the core, he was dissatisfied with himself, and it manifested in a constant, low-key anxiety that he was doing the wrong thing.

Dan was not who he thought he ought to be. There was a vision in his mind of the “correct Dan,” and he was not it. The discrepancy ate at him.

One day Dan found a genie.

“You can have one wish,” said the genie.

Dan, not being too bright, immediately wished for a million dollars.

The genie shook his head. “No, I don’t give you what you think you want, I give you what you really want.”

The genie reached forward and touched Dan’s head, and in a single glorious second, Dan was granted total self-awareness of every facet of his own mind. When a thought arose, he felt where it had come from, could trace it all the way back to its origin. It was terrifying and painful and beautiful and peaceful all at once.

And Dan understood exactly why he sometimes said the wrong thing, why he thought he wasn’t witty enough, why he was unmotivated, why he drank, why he ran away. It was like he was looking at the inner workings of a television that were firing away in exactly the way they had been programmed to, or like he was looking at someone he had loved for dozens of years.

He watched his own discontent with his life with interest. It didn’t leave – the desires he had were still there – but his anxiety over not being ‘ideal Dan’ dissolved away before the face of Real Dan.

“Huh,” said Dan.

“Do you have the fear,” rumbled the genie, “that if you accept that you ought to be the way you are now, that you will do nothing? That you will cease trying to improve yourself or rid yourself of fault?”

Dan hadn’t really thought of the question because his mind was so flooded with the answer. “No,” he said. “I am capable of taking action without feeling like I must correct some offense in the world. Improving myself doesn’t have to be any different.”

“So if not obligation, why do you seek to improve yourself?”

“Well… what else is there to do?” Dan said.