Well, it just goes to show you how closed Saudi Arabian society is. Of the three Women Travel volumes I own, which I mentioned yesterday, Saudi Arabia appears in two of them. Upon closer scrutiny, I have discovered it is the same writer/traveler in both editions. Five years separate the two editions, and I had hoped for newer information, but it is more or less the same. Although I have dipped into my books at random over the years, I have never laid them side by side and compared. Not all the same countries appear in the books and not all the same essays, though there is some overlap, as in the case of Saudi Arabia. Even with the repetitions I still think the books are wonderful resources as there is still lots new to discover with each edition, but I guess I'll have to keep searching for a more contemporary view women in Saudi society.
It's likely due to the fact that Saudi Arabia does not allow tourism which makes it hard to write about experiences of traveling within the Kingdom by Westerners (the fourth and most recent eidtion of the Women Travel series does not contain a section on Saudi Arabia). According to the introduction about the country in More Women Travel (1995 edition) only Muslims who are making a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca or Medina or family members of Saudi citizens are allowed to travel into the country. Western technology is courted and accepted but not Westerners themselves. There is a large number of foreign workers, however, who work in the oil industry. Most of the foreign women are wives of foreign workers, or if they are alone they are teachers, doctors, nannies or nurses. It sounds as though life for women is very restrictive and single women have to put up with harassment from Saudi men for "not conforming to the role expected of women" or from foreign bachelors.
"Saudi women are expected to lead traditional, secluded lives, their roles strictly confined to that of wife and mother. On the rare occasions when they go out, they are heavily veiled and accompanied by their husbands, fathers or brothers. Their participation in the open labor force is one of the lowest in the world, though, with the widespread introduction of female education in the 1960s, changes have started to take place."
Alice Arndt went to Saudi Arabia in 1975 on a teaching contract and a decade later returned with her husband to live. The Wahabite tradition of Islam is practiced in Saudi Arabia and it dominates all aspects of society there. When Arndt returned in the mid-80s she was sure that a more liberal attitude would arrive along with Western technology and that with so much travel outside the country with so many Saudis educated in the West that the East-West gap would narrow. Women still couldn't drive or ride bikes, shops must close during prayer times and it wasn't uncommon for the matawa (religious police) to reprimand those not adhering to the strict rules.
As a matter of fact when Arndt returned for the second time to Saudi Arabia it seemed if anything more conservative than before. As guardian of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina there is the idea that Saudi society must be even more stringent in following closely the principles of Islam.
"Most of the Saudi women I met were disapproving of their sisters in the West. They see Western women as unprotected, living in dangerous cities, and unable to rely on the men of their family to escort them on the streets. A strong sense of sisterhood has always been a part of Arab culture, and constant familial support buoys Saudi women throughout their lives. In contrast, Western women's lifestyles seem full of risk--of loneliness, promiscuity, and abandonment by their children in their old age."
Of course, the author notes, not all women agree with the restrictions placed on them. There are those who do not wear the veil and disagree with the level of censorship imposed by the government as well as what's viewed as religious coercion. It's interesting to read this Western perspective in light of Rajaa Alsanea's novel, Girls of Riyadh, which is (mostly but not entirely) what prompted me to dig out my copies of Women Travel. It seems as though some things have not changed at all, since the Saudi society portrayed in Alsanea's book is also very segregated and is still very much guided by religious thought. It seems, though, as there might be more opportunities for women to study and work within the confines of the strict Saudi culture. As materially most Saudis are provided for, perhaps people can "contemplate, among other things, the role of women in this modern manifestation of their ancient culture." And certainly Alsanea's book has pushed and broken boundaries.
I realize this is a little off the beaten path for me in terms of my usual sort of read (middlebrow fiction between the wars and lots of crime fiction and mysteries), but variety is good and I find the Middle East really fascinating at the moment.
For more books to explore these are the titles suggested in the travel notes:
Freya Stark, The Southern Gates of Arabia -- "Classic tale of explorations of the wild desert mountains, palaces and cities of the Hadhramaut and South Arabia by one of Britain's most famous women travel writers."
Lydia Laube, Behind the Veil -- "Amusing account of an Australian woman's experiences working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia."
Arab Women's Solidarity Association, Women of the Arab World -- "With an introduction by Nawal el Saadawi, this collection of essays brings together feminist writings from the entire Arab world."
Hilary Mantel, Eight Months in Ghazzah Street -- "Gripping, often funny novel centering on a woman who joins her engineer husband in Jeddah, only to find herself embroiled in a mystery based on her investigations of the empty flat upstairs. Full of insights into the restrictions of being an expat wife."
I'm going to add another book to the list that came by way of Stefanie, who wrote about it here. In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, which looks like an interesting and perhaps more recent memoir. More books for my wishlist.