Girls for girls
What is freedom? This morning, I got dressed, put on makeup, met my best friend for coffee and we walked to college together. Tomorrow will probably be much the same, and maybe I’ll go swimming or out for dinner with friends I don’t get to see as much as I would like. I am free to do all of these things, and I take that freedom for granted. I was born with certain freedoms that other women were not.
It’s 2016 and for too many females, being a girl still ain’t easy. A day in my life versus the daily routine of a young woman in Saudi Arabia are two different worlds. The Saudi me didn’t go for coffee with her favourite gal this morning, because religious state law prohibits her from leaving the house without a designated male guardian. Even if they had been ‘escorted’ to a café, the Saudi friends would be seated in a segregated area just for females. She didn’t get dressed in jeans or fill in her eyebrows, because the King’s advisory council (exclusively male) decided that women should wear “modest clothes” and never “show off their beauty” by wearing makeup. She won’t go swimming in the gym tomorrow or any other day because this is a pastime reserved just for the boys – a senior German journalist staying at an expensive hotel in Riyadh last year was flatly refused access to the leisure facilities on the basis that “there are men in swimsuits in there!!!”. Heaven forbid.
Saudi me isn’t saving for a summer holiday because women are legally prohibited from opening a bank account without the approval of their male guardian. While it is not strictly illegal for women to drive, it’s a safe bet that Saudi me isn’t practicing for her full licence because the deeply religious beliefs of the state forbid it. A male journalist from the government sponsored newspaper commented on a recent campaign to promote female driving that “Women should accept simple things. This is a wise thing women could do. Being stubborn won’t support their cause.”
But the most distressing difference of all between the Irish me and Saudi me is to do with our college experience. In fact for one of us, it might not be an experience at all.
Education in Saudi Arabia is male orientated, to the point that the ruling Sharia law teaches young girls that women are second class citizens. Saudi me isn’t guaranteed a place at university, because only a select few colleges accept women. Even these are female only establishments which can only be attended with the ‘permission’ of a male guardian. Obstacles are thrown in the path of every woman trying to gain a better education. Females are only allowed into libraries at specific visiting times. Male consent must be obtained before travelling, even for educational reasons. Women cannot attend lectures given by male tutors – they must watch through a monitor from outside. And all this because they were born a girl.
Today is International Women’s day. The world has become an amazing place for many women living in democratic society in the last 100 years. The suffragette movement gave us a social and political voice. Females in the public service are no longer forced to give up their jobs just because they get married, a situation that was the reality for women in Ireland just sixty years ago. Domestic violence is now being legislated for, with the Istanbul Convention bringing new legal protections for combating abuse in 2011. The education gap between boys and girls is narrowing each year, and twice as many women now hold political office as they did in 1995. Even in Saudi Arabia, things are beginning to change; just last month women were allowed to vote in municipal elections and run for local office. But there is still such a long way to go. Women are still receiving a ridiculous 14% less income than their male counterparts on average. Gender pricing means that women are paying thousands more than men for the same products – that’s higher prices on toys, hygiene products and adult clothing, all because they are marketed for girls.
Women are frequently shamed for breast-feeding in public and judged for having an active sex life.
In Lesotho, women are forbidden from owning their own land.
In Jordan, Islamic girls must marry Muslim men.
In Yemen, the criminal justice system considers women ‘only half a witness’.
There is a small village in Rajasthan, India, where a bell is rung each time a baby boy is born. No bell chimed for any girl for hundreds of years, until one brave young mother fought tooth and nail for her daughter to hear that bell. Now it rings for every child.
The road to absolute equality of the sexes is long and it won’t be easy. But on International Women’s Day, think of all the great females that have gone before us and remember how far they have brought us down this road. Equality is all about respect, and respect must begin amongst women ourselves. The women of democratic societies must use their voices to fight for the freedom of those living under oppressive regimes.
Support each other, empower each other and be proud of each other. Believe in each other first, and someday men and women will enjoy true equality in all aspects of life.