By Tariq A. Al Maeena
A Saudi woman braved established norms late last month when she stepped out to a cafe one morning and posted a picture of herself on the sidewalk outside a restaurant, dressed in street clothes — without the requisite full-body covering abaya. Feeling the need to liberate herself, she let go the need to cover her hair with the scarf or hijab.
The woman had tweeted her intentions for liberation a day before and when the picture appeared on her twitter account it went viral among Saudis who are reported to have the highest concentration of Twitter users in the world. Now the picture was taken in the capital city of Riyadh and it did not sit well with conservative Saudi Twitter followers.
Immediately attacks were mounted on her Twitter account that did not stop when she pulled out the so-called offending picture. Those objecting to her actions pursued their attacks and she eventually closed her Twitter account. Among the remarks by some were that she should “be killed and fed to the dogs”. Another Saudi demanded that she be “executed publicly and in broad daylight” to set an example for others who may be encouraged by her act. Yet another called for her “swift beheading”. There were many such attacks on her character, which soon became a subject of debate among social media groups. A woman tweeted: “She must have known she’d be arrested & she still did something to bring attention to an important issue.”
In her defence, there were also many who applauded her decision for acting the way she did, explaining that she was not dressed offensively but rather modestly by universal standards. One Saudi male said that she was not in any way out to offend anyone but was simply “exercising her right to dress as she pleased”. Another male added that he applauded her decision although criticised her for “going on social media and advertising the fact that led the picture to come to the attention of extremists”.
This attention led those offended by her actions to increase the crescendo of their displeasure. So much so, that it reached the attention of the Saudi authorities who tracked her down and arrested her. A police spokesman was quoted as saying that they had acted “in line with their duty to monitor violations of general morals”. They had “monitored a tweet by a woman who took off her hijab and had her picture taken in front of a popular coffee shop in the capital Riyadh ... An investigation was launched and the woman was identified and arrested. She is being held in a women’s prison and will be referred to the relevant authorities for further investigations after she broke the rules of the country”.
Saudi women I spoke to reacted differently to her seizure. One asked whether the woman in question was doing this to attract attention to herself on social media and increase her popularity and wondered what she really achieved in the end. Another said that she wished she could do the same, but was afraid because of the reaction of her relatives. A professor of social studies at a university said that the strains of a modern world were too much to bear for some living in a fairly conservative society. “You see them letting their hair down when they leave this country. To many, that is a joyous liberation to dress and come and go as they please without censure. Yet, they are the same girls who are expected to fully cover up when they return. Some cannot come to terms with such social norms that they find increasingly unacceptable and will resolve to take matters in their hands. Perhaps she approaching social media and making her intentions [clear] .... was seen as an encouragement by [the] authorities to defy existing traditions. If that was the case, it was an unwise decision.”
What is interesting is that a few days later, in the same city, the visiting female German defence minister refused to wear the abaya and the headscarf during her trip, saying women should have the same right to choose their clothing as men. Ursula von der Leyen, who was dressed in a pant-suit, was warmly greeted by her Saudi counterpart, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Von der Leyen is reported to have said: “No woman in my delegation has to wear the abaya. The right to choose your own clothing is a right shared by men and women alike. It annoys me when women are pushed into wearing the abaya.”
This view was obviously not shared by some Saudis who chose to make their displeasure known on social media. Perhaps they included many who had been outraged by the earlier incident by the Saudi female. One expressed his sentiments by tweeting that “the German defence minister not wearing the hijab in Saudi Arabia was deliberate. This is an insult to Saudi Arabia.” Another said that “she should have been handed an abaya the moment she landed and told it was mandatory.” Yet another said: “If they don’t like it, they can go elsewhere. We don’t want their modern thinking.”
It is such kinds of reactions that lead many to pause and ponder. Where indeed does a palatable middle ground lie in the desert Kingdom?