During the class discussion following our viewing of Persepolis, I was reminded of an article I’d read years earlier. It was about a woman seeking to divorce her husband when he tried to remove her veil and look at her face. It had been some years since I’d read it and I wasn’t completely sure about all of the details, but I looked it up and reread it. Here are the facts: After being married for 30 years, a man in Saudi Arabia tried to take his first look at his wife’s face. One day while she was sleeping, he attempted to lift her veil to satisfy his curiosity. However, she woke up while he tried this and was extremely upset. Despite her husband’s apologies, the woman still demanded a divorce stating that she felt betrayed because, “After all these years, he tries to commit such a big mistake.”
After reading the title and seeing that it took place in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t surprised. But as I read on, I realized that I had some misconceptions about the way women are treated in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia in particular. I assumed that the practice of being always covered from head to toe was something all women in Saudi Arabia were expected to do, no matter where they were. Before watching Persepolis, I knew a little about Iran because I have a couple of friends from there. They’ve probably contributed to my view of Iran as being a bit different than other countries in the Muslim world. So when I saw in the movie that the women removed their head scarves at home or when there were no men around, I was a bit surprised but just wrote it off as something that was maybe fine in Iran but certainly not in other Islamic countries. I’d never really thought about it, but I sort of just assumed that women were required to be covered all the time, whether or not they were out in public. However, as I read the story about the woman seeking to divorce her husband, I saw that this constant covering is only the case in some villages, and that Saudi women aren’t required to be covered in their own homes.
I was a bit annoyed with myself for making these assumptions, but to make matters even more confusing, I was kind of annoyed for feeling like I owed it to Saudi Arabia to give it the benefit of the doubt. This is the same country where women are not allowed to vote, are forbidden to drive, and must have a male guardian that controls pretty much every aspect of their lives. Even when there was talk about political reforms allowing women to vote, I felt it was strangely played up to be more than it was. A big deal was made about how King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia promised that women would be able to vote and run in local elections, but it was hardly ever mentioned that this wouldn’t go into place until 2015. Some critics also argue that this was simply a symbolic gesture because women aren’t allowed to drive, which will make campaigning and reaching constituents difficult.
I know that things about the Middle East can come out a bit skewed when filtered through the Western media. I try to take the news with a grain of salt especially when it involves politics. But, it’s hard to try to be unbiased about the country that ranks 131 out of 135 in the Global Gender Gap Index rankings. Trying to keep an open mind about a country that allowed 15 girls to be burned alive, because rescuers were told by police to not save the girls who weren’t covered by headscarves and abayas, is not an easy task. I’m not sure I can do it, but I guess I have to try.