On women and men

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WITH the decision to allow women to drive, Saudi women have started to enjoy freedom of mobility, gaining more rights and presence in the public sphere. Generally speaking, part of Vision 2030’s aims is to invest in women, recognizing their potential and individuality. Indeed, women are increasingly joining major decision-makers in both the private and governmental sectors. However, the way our society is used to viewing women and, in turn, the way women perceive themselves can be detrimental to this vision. This is why such changes in laws need to be accompanied by reform in education and in our culture’s mentality so that women are able to fully use the opportunities they are given, benefitting both themselves and their country.

One such issue to be targeted is the double standards that are used when judging and dealing with women. For example, some people still perceive unmarried women as “spinsters”, shaming them explicitly or implicitly rather than encouraging them to pursue their life choices. On the other hand, unmarried men remain “bachelors” and do not endure the same social and psychological stigmatization, or at least, not to the same degree. Moreover, women are often judged by standards that have nothing to do with the essence of who they are as human beings, such as using their clothing as a criterion for judging whether a woman is “good” or “bad” when women are so much more than their appearances. Indeed, men would never be judged by such a criterion but would instead be judged by their manners, ideas, and actions: as holistic people. But women too are holistic people, so why should they be treated differently, judged solely by their exterior rather than their interior?

Indeed, people shouldn’t even be judging others in the first place. Only through accepting differences without stigmatizing others can society grow and flourish. Furthermore, there are more important issues to attend to and which resources can be channeled towards rather than devoting time and effort to critiquing women’s looks.

Still, one good sign is that many women today, especially of the younger generation, are better-educated and more aware of their rights, diminishing the negative impact that labels can have on them and carving a space for themselves. Yet, it is not enough to educate women about their rights and help them assert themselves; men too should be educated about that or change will not be as effective as it potentially can be. For instance, a woman can learn to drive, but her freedom of mobility can be hindered if her male relative still thinks he has the right to “let” her or “not let” her drive or sees himself as oh-so-good for “letting” her. Having this attitude holds back women’s empowerment, which in turn also affects men. That is because basing their masculinity on their ability to control women makes men insecure and unsympathetic, in turn damaging their relationship with women of their family and destabilizing their sense of self and confidence that should be centered within rather than identified by their control over others.

Hence, it becomes paramount to view the other sex not primarily or solely through their gender, as if women and men are fundamentally different, but to see each other as essentially a human being... and the same. To avoid the extremes of misogyny and misandry, which exist along a spectrum ranging from the explicit to the subtle, women need to be first viewed, then treated, as equal to men, and this can start with the home, in the relationship between husband and wife that will be a model for their future children. The concept of equal partnership in marriage may be hard to implement for most but not impossible. The key is awareness; however, many of the younger generations do believe in this vision but still do not recognize that their actions do not always fully embody it.

Allah, too, gives us in the Holy Qur’an a beautiful depiction of marriage to be followed, (And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy...) Surat Ar-Rum 21, yet how many couples actually manifest this? Worse, while Allah advises us about divorce with these words, (And do not forget graciousness between you) Surat Al-Baqarah 237, that is rarely the case for divorced couples here who usually resort to vengeance or have maladaptive relationships, especially when children are involved.

With that said, many of the problems women face today originated because of society’s attitude toward their issues. Paramount to transforming society for the better is changing these ideas, and these take a long time to change, but can change, eventually, if they are targeted through education, media productions, workshops, etc. Once a paradigm shift takes hold, women can fully become empowered and diverse pathways will be equally plausible for them: “spinsterhood” becomes a thing of the past, both career-driven women and house-wives are seen as strong and capable women with the former not seen as irresponsible nor the latter as unaccomplished, and it would be equally okay to drive as not to drive. That is, all as long as these are paths that women choose for themselves and are not pressured into nor criticized for.

However, until we reach that, both men and women should strive to see things differently, down to the smallest details, so that making the other a cup of tea does not mean subjugating one to the other but truly becomes a gesture of love and care... of a bond between humans.

Khadija Hisham Alem,

Jeddah

The author can be reached at: Khadija.alem@gmail.com


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