Those of you who know me will know that I am happy to tell anyone who will listen that I was on the BBC earlier last month. During my brief stardom, I spoke about women’s rights – a topic which was very popular last month due to the 100-year anniversary of some women receiving the vote in the UK. Instead of speaking about women’s rights in the UK, I spoke (while saying ‘like’ about 5 times on national television to my mother’s disappointment) about the importance of promoting women’s rights across the globe.
However, I just want to start with a disclaimer: these are my opinions, I am not trying to discredit any religion or way of life, I am merely looking at the human rights which are violated.
Last year, Saudi Arabia proposed hosting an Olympic Games without women. Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud, a consultant to the Saudi Olympic Committee said that: “Our society can be very conservative… it has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports”. To me, the Olympic Games is a grand show of the world’s cooperation and diversity among countries. For a Prince of a country to propose we isolate nearly 50 percent of the world’s population from a global, communal event, to me, is a clear act of oppression. Furthermore, when Saudi Arabia did, in fact, send female athletes to the Olympics for the first time at London 2012, clerics denounced the two women competitors as “prostitutes”. While I understand that traditional values of women are a huge part of Islam, I think that there is a serious problem with the construction of society if the women who are strong enough to train and play in these games are immediately denounced and insulted for no other reason than their gender.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that this problem is as easily corrected as we would hope. Although there have been some small steps towards gender equality in places such as Saudi Arabia, I would argue that these are ultimately futile due to the legislation that they are paired with. What is not stated by the media and publicists is that whilst women can drive, they are only allowed to do so with the permission of their male guardian. This male guardian would pay for their lessons, provide the car, maintain possession of these licence and ultimately would have to accompany these women everywhere – and as a result, the publicised ‘freedom of movement’ is undermined.
The main reason why I am so pessimistic about this issue is due to the fact that I genuinely believe that the society in Saudi Arabia is built upon traditional stigmas that, arguably, should not be applicable in modern day society where human rights are respected and upheld. While I can support the wearing of a burka, I cannot support the instatement of a law to force this upon women. I understand this is highly controversial, but just let me explain: the main purpose of the burka is to protect the purity of women, right? The implementation of the order to wear such a piece of clothing is based on the fact that this will protect women and save them for their husbands. Personally, I would argue that the belief that covering up myself will prevent rape is, in fact, sexualising women and do not view the showing of arms or shoulders to be a sexual or provocative. To me, this does not apply to Islam alone, but to multiple religions. However, let’s just ignore what I think for a moment. If Saudi Arabia were to strive for equality, why would women not be given the choice to wear this religious clothing? I agree, and applaud many women who willing wear a burka as a symbol of their religion and to respect their God, however, wouldn’t you agree that for women to truly be ‘equal’, they should have the choice to not do so? Some people would argue that women needn’t have the choice, as all women in Saudi already willingly do so, and to that I say this: if Saudi Arabia were to give women a choice in the clothing that they can wear and the amount of skin they could show, and still, in 50 years, all women were wearing burkas, then I will gladly pipe down. Moreover, if Saudi were to truly strive for equality, while still following Islamic law, (this may sound ridiculous but bear with me) shouldn’t men be forced to wear a burka as well? The society in this country is, to summarise, male dominated. In fact, I would argue that the first and most monumental step towards equality in Saudi would be to end polyamorous marriages. I believe that the tradition of men taking many wives essentially indicates to women that they are viewed as possessions, and I contest this greatly.
Ultimately, I am not trying to undermine the Islamic religion at all – I am just trying to shed some light on the fact that I don’t think it is valid for people to say that Saudi is well on its way to equality. I just don’t think that it is possible for the society, which is so male dominated, to adapt to the changing perceptions of women. To be frank, it boils down to this: women should have a choice, and until they are given one, a choice free of ‘male guardians’ and arbitrary restrictions, I sincerely believe that as a global society, we are not going to reach equality any time soon.