On a humid Wednesday afternoon, English Professor Jorinde van den Berg glides into a jam-packed Germantown Campus meeting room wearing a traditional Hijab that covers all but her eyes. Greeting everybody with the proper Islamic greeting, “Salaam,” she unveils her face and smiles as one person echoes the greetings with, “Assalamu alaikum,” which means, “peace to you.”
Van den Berg chose to spend the past three months in Saudi Arabia where she was personally invited to a training center in the city of Riyadh, a place that has not invited women in 25 years. The presented facts from her studies this past summer in Saudi Arabia are alarming: 57 percent of college graduates are women and only 15 percent have jobs. Why can’t women drive? Women are just beginning to get jobs at lingerie shops, when before they would have to be helped by men employees. Why is progression so slow? Van den Berg says women are educated but lack organization that is vital in the collaborative voice of Saudi Arabian’s women’s rights.
It is challenging to make progress when women “are like infants,” and need permission from men constantly for even the most mundane tasks. If not married, permission is gotten from the dad, and without the dad, the woman would have to gain permission from her son. The segregation is not without respect. While visiting, van den Berg was in a hallway when an Arabic man turned to face the wall out of reverence, which is not uncommon. Still, the stringent laws that oppress Arabic women do not compliment the fact that 60 percent of the population is under 30-years-old and looking towards desegregation.
“Saudi Arabia is not a model Islamic state. They have taken what has been written in the Hadith out of context, distorting the interpretation for their own oppressive means,” said Elijah Aiyegbusi, a student at Germantown and the only Muslim in attendance. A handout that was passed around the overcrowded room agrees with Aiyegbusi’s words. It reveals that the Qu’ran does not support the Saudi Arabia’s laws, even though the men that strictly enforce this conservatism are referred to as “Mutawa,” or religious police.
Van den Berg tells of an instance where she was very nervous while simply passing by a Mutawa, who strictly enforce the laws that restrict woman. “They will harass you even if a little bit of your hair is showing,” she explains. It wasn’t always like this. Women were more independent before 1979, after the assignation of King Faisal.
But still there are improvements in the life of a Saudi Arabian woman that can be acknowledged. King Abdullah granted women the right to a voting council. Gyms that are just for women are where most women spend the majority of their day. Women-only universities and cities are enjoyed by the women involved in them, but controversial due to the segregation aspect.
Farhan, a student at Germantown, asked Van der Berg whether it is really true he can affect the point-of-view of Saudi Arabians just by going there and working among them. She says that by simply being there, it will be of much help.
In van den Berg’s opinion, being informed is the first step in helping change the oppression. “Just being able to dispel stereotypes and have a full understanding of what is going on is key.” If that is indeed true, van den Berg’s presentation is an ideal example of what is needed for the gradual transformation towards equality in the Middle East.