the role of gossip

When wearing a scarf in the US it is not uncommon for well-meaning people to tell you that “you don’t have to wear that here, you know.” It is usually the start of a longer conversation that goes something along the lines of  ” I do it because I want to, no one is making/forcing me to wear it, the reason I wear it is… etc etc”. And of course defining what is normal, the role of peer pressure and confirming to pop culture (sometimes akin to having no choice, especially when women are younger) is part of the discussion.

KSA is interesting in that many choices are taken away by gossip. A common theme that I have found amongst people living the Saudi lifestyle (either Saudis or expats married to Saudis) is the role of gossip in defining their choices.

People talk and talk and talk about others. It almost sounds like high school in a small town where “did you see what she was wearing? did you see how fitted her abaya was? did you see her hair showing at the mall? did you see who she was with? did you see the men looking at her?” followed by the eternal “no nice/decent girl/woman would do that!” Eventually the whispers reach the mamas/papas/husbands/wives and “corrective action” is often applied.

Interestingly, for the majority of the women I have talked to thus far (young and old), this has been given as the number 1 reason to cover their faces! Not religion, not culture but anonymity- if no one knows who they are, they can do what they like without people gossiping about them. A sad reason to do something if you do not actually believe in the act.

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of gold and glitter- 2

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

by J.R.R. Tolkien

The most common complaints that one hears from expats are the following:

  • Nothing to do but shopping
  • Nothing to do but socializing
  • Inability to drive
  • Censorship of materials
  • Being forced to wear abayas
  • Shops closing at prayer times

These are intriguing because they are complaints about the lack of choice rather than the actual issue itself. In many many many other countries of the world, expats and/or suburban wives do the same by choice:

  • Shopping
  • Socializing
  • Having chauffeur driven cars (in many emerging economies, expats will rarely drive- actually, middle class and up everyone has drivers)
  • The official position on restricting media and the actuality are very different here. EVERYTHING is available, and quite openly- from music, DVDs, software to books. In fact it is rather odd but the english bookstores around here don’t do any censoring. In some stores you will see faces of women blacked on magazine covers and in other stores there are romance novels that include explicit sex. It is a strange and confused world 🙂
  • This one is quite interesting as it has two major aspects that need to be examined. We can all agree that forcing any particular clothing is just as wrong as forbidding any type of clothing (raises issues about places like France but that is for another post) so let’s leave that aside. One the one side covering up is actually safer for women around here. In many other countries expats dress to fit in anyway but they are not forced to do so (at least not legally, socially it would be VERY unsafe to step out on the streets). We can like it or dislike it but it definitely helps on the safety side. The second aspect is of respecting the culture and not deliberately being offensive. The problem is, many expats are willing (actually consider it their right) to do as they please without respecting the culture that is hosting them. The arrogance/attitude that a different culture must be “less” than theirs is at the crux of this matter. There always a few who want to make a statement and prove their point. This is where the problems emerge. It would be better to help the locals make their own statements rather than trying to prove something. This might sound like being accepting and compromising however the bigger picture has to be looked at. How does one actually bring about change in a system? The most effective way is organically, and bottom up (albeit not the not expedient). External intrusions are just that, intrusions. They do not stick unless coming from within. The alternative is breaking the system- this one can be done from outside the system, however it tends to be messy and more importantly, the consequences are suffered by the people inside the system. It is easy to create trouble and then just walk away, however it’s very irresponsible. Social change is necessary and should be done- but seriously, not as a frivolous hobby to keep boredom at bay. For those who want to help women and their rights, help the Saudi women and activists who are fighting the battle at the front-lines.
  • This is once again an example of creating hard and fast rules that would be better served by having flexible guidelines. While being inconvenient when in a hurry, it is actually rather nice this “lifestyle choice” (of praying!) is not something that one has to hide or do surreptitiously.

I once attended a lecture at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. There was a remarkable reverend who stated (paraphrased very loosely) that what we need is respect, not tolerance. With tolerance we still think the other is wrong and we are the better ones for “putting up” with them. Respect is different because it is an acknowledgement that the other can also be right. You are not any better because you accept the differences of the other.