Cover Your Head or Lose Your Head
If you are a Saudi woman, you’d better take some advice from the title of this article whether you like it or not. Although you probably won’t face actual decapitation if seen without your hijab, you would become the center of public condemnation. As might be expected in one of the world’s most fundamentalist nations, women still have little opportunity to express themselves. Saudi Arabia proselytizes strict tenets of Islam and Sharia Law, and although the country possesses a surprisingly high human development index and GDP per capita from the oil sector’s success, its progress in terms of gender equality is nothing short of abysmal. Recently, controversy erupted when an unnamed female anchor, the first in the nation’s media, began giving reports on the Al-Ekhbariyah news channel. Now, she has made a grave mistake by appearing on air without a headscarf. What may seem to be a minor aesthetic choice to us is actually a violation of an important principle that governs the lives of Saudi women, and as a result, the anchor received an uproar of censure from society.
Saudi social media erupted upon the broadcast of the woman’s news report, and the video was soon posted to Youtube. Clicking on the link will quickly prove the controversial nature of the video, as the like and dislike bars are almost equal in length and comments have been disabled. In response to the critical backlash that followed the broadcast, Spokesman Saleh Al-Mughailif claimed that the woman “was not in a studio inside Saudi Arabia” (the news bulletin occurred in London) and that the channel did “not tolerate any transgression of our values and the country’s systems.” Foreign netizens were quick to point out the overreaction of the Saudi public through Twitter.
The restrictions on Saudi women’s lives extend beyond wardrobe choices. The absolute monarchy does not allow women to drive, and also prevented them from voting in the most recent elections. For these reasons, the nation comes 127th out of 136 nations in the Global Gender Gap Index, a finding which isn’t that surprising. The approval of female cashiers and sales clerks was considered noticeable progress for Saudi women’s rights. But just last year, King Abdullah appointed 30 female advisers onto the Shura council and stated that women may vote as soon as next year. That, at least, is real progress. “Just the visuals of seeing women sitting in the Shura, with their faces uncovered, making equal decisions with men, that alone will make women in authority more acceptable to society,” said programming head Rawda al-Jazani.
Religion and tradition should guide people, not obstruct them. Without separation of church and state, it becomes extremely easy for an undemocratic government to inhibit its citizens’ right to liberty. If Saudi women voluntarily choose to cover their heads to promote modesty, that’s completely fine. But if a Saudi woman wants to show the world her new perm, dreadlocks, or neon-colored hair, there really shouldn’t be anything wrong with that either.