Gabriela Keseberg Dávalos recently visited Saudi Arabia on a UN fellowship. What she encountered there surprised her and completely changed her views on the lives of women in the kingdom. This is a personal account of her experiences
For the first time this summer, women from Saudi Arabia will be allowed to take part in the Olympic Games. The fact that this subject is even being debated in the twenty-first century is a sign of just how closed the Gulf kingdom has been. Indeed, before I went there recently on a fellowship from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, I had never heard anything good about the place. Nothing, niente, nada.
Oppressed women, gruesome beheadings, human rights violations: you name it. The fact that one of our fellows was denied a visa and we had to say good-bye to him in Amman did not improve my opinion. To top it all off, the women in our group had to spend the first evening "locked" up in a hotel, as we didn't have black head-to-toe abayas to cover up with. Needless to say, after that great start, we weren't exactly looking forward to our visit.
But then things turned around 180 degrees; not just because we, the women of the group, finally got abayas and could leave our "gilded cage", but also because we were lucky enough to visit the Dar al-Hekma College for women. Dar al-Hekma means "the House of Wisdom", and that is just what we encountered. We met impressive young women and their female professors, who explained the college's ideology and introduced us to some extraordinary young ladies.
Teaching women to be confident
At the college, they teach women to be confident about their knowledge, cultural background and roots. When the students designed affordable houses for a project, they not only took into account the fact that the houses needed a maid's room, something normal in Saudi Arabia, but also that the kitchen must be constructed so that women can move around freely without being seen from other rooms.
Our next stop was a working lunch with Arab News. One of the first questions we were asked was about our perception of Saudi women. That answer was simple enough. Throughout our entire trip, which also took us to Morocco and Jordan, the women in our group connected very easily to the local women, but especially so in Saudi Arabia. There are certain values, concerns, challenges and experiences that are universal among women. It does not matter what culture we come from, there are more similarities than differences between us.
We were impressed by all the women we met, but the Saudi ones impressed us the most. They were nothing like the stereotypes we had expected. Far from being oppressed, silent and shy, they were confident, intelligent and outspoken. They were brave enough to take on challenges and fight for their dreams.
Saudi women driving change
Change in this Gulf country is well underway, and Saudi women are a driving force. It is not a quick and violent revolution, but rather a smart, tactical one. "Always evaluate the impact and timing of changes", we were counselled. At the college, they are breeding a new kind of woman, one who is comfortable meeting heads of state and discussing issues on the same level. How much we in the West can learn from this approach, especially when it comes to women's education.
Later, during a visit to the King Abuldaziz Center for World Culture, yet another bright, young lady said: "This is a golden age for Saudi women. Whatever we do, we will always be 'the first Saudi woman who did this or that'". She said that there are more opportunities to succeed in Saudi Arabia than in the West, even though life might not necessarily be easier. We congratulated them for being so active. In contrast, the men in the meeting said very little. "We have been shoved aside for so long, now it's our turn to speak up", the young woman said.
It might be easy to think that I was brainwashed and remain ignorant about the problems that persist. But Saudi women themselves pointed out that they still need permission from a male guardian to take up a job or travel, that they are not allowed to drive or openly take part in sports. Their challenges are many and complex.
Still, my perception of this country has changed entirely, having seen it from the ground. Saudi women are inspiring, and Western women can learn from them: learn that change is possible, even in the most closed and patriarchal societies. Who knows, some of these brave women may even inspire in the sporting arena in London this summer.
Gabriela Keseberg Dávalos
© Qantara.de 2012
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Gabriela Keseberg Dávalos is a Bolivian/German journalist, co-founder and board member of the International Young Women Partnership in Brussels and UNAOC Fellow 2012.