‘Tempting’ Eyes of Saudi women – A Culture of Discrimination?

Thanks to a highly respected source posting on social media site Twitter, a shocking story of discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia has surfaced. There is a possibility they may require to cover their eyes in future, and this seems worthy of  comment.

Apparently Saudi women with ‘attractive’ eyes may in future be required to cover them up; the reason to prevent them ‘tempting’ men! It will require an edict passing by the country’s ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ but it seems possible.

Discrimnation against women in Saudi Arabia just for having attractive eyes on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Windows to the soul Stock library image

“women are at fault for having ‘tempting’ eyes”

The story published in the International Business Times, and Daily Mail, the latter admittedly isn’t always the most reliable media source. However the story appears in several other publications and appears correct.

The reason for introducing this new edict; apparently one of the committee members was ‘attracted’ by the eyes of a woman he passed. The woman’s husband accompanied her,  and took offence. A fight ensued in which the husband was stabbed twice in a hand.

Reading between the lines it seems that an arrogant committee member who offended another man refused to apologise causing a heated argument. The result; instead of blaming him, the committee came to the conclusion that women are at fault for having ‘tempting’ eyes!

I believe that the customs, and culture of a nation are to be respected; causing offence in another country due to ignorance or plain arrogance is quite unacceptable. The intentional wearing of provocative clothing  likely to cause offence in a region where this is frowned upon is disrespectful at best.

Traditional dress or oppression in Saudi Arabia on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Traditional dress or oppression? Stock library image

Even if some of the customs and traditions are difficult to accept or understand. It is often the way of life and national identity of a nation that has been passed down for many generations. Sometimes these traditions and the spectacles which accompany them often described as ‘sports’ such as bullfighting are reprehensible to us. Cruelty to animals needs addressing, however the heritage of a nation also needs  considering carefully. The way we bring about change must be respectful and understanding of the traditions. Attempting to force change will not always be effective and responsible travellers that boycott’ such events by non-attendance may eventually bring about the change required.

“protect the women’s virtue and modesty”

Edicts such as this one enforcing women cover their eyes however has little to do with tradition. It is not a part of the heritage of the country, it has not been passed down for generations, it is yet to be passed. It has been necessary for women to wear the long black robe an abaya, cover their heads and even faces for sometime this much maybe true. The reasons given for such draconian forms of dress are supposedly to protect the women’s virtue and modesty.

This new edict seems a knee-jerk reaction to one incident which involved a member of the ‘virtue’ committee. If attracted by the eyes of women, men finding them too tempting, maybe they should cover their eyes; would this not seem fairer? Of course we are aware this option will not even be discussed let alone taken, it is far better to further subjugate women than do anything to upset the ruling male class of the country.

There is a long list of other instances of how Saudi Arabia has treated its women in recent years, some of which allegedly cost lives.

This is not about culture, many of us embrace a societies idiosyncrasies the fact they are unusual attracts visitors every year. Discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia is a form of tyranny, freedom of speech and will is a right most of us take for granted, but is not available to them.

Discrimination in Saudi Arabian women discussed on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Even this maybe too much soon! Stock library image

“The mutilation is carried out on young girls”

We appreciate being able to dress as we please, act and speak with free will. These basic ‘rights’ are being withheld from at least fifty percent of this nation’s population. Women are prohibited from driving and travelling without being granted permission from a male family member.

A horrendous procedure known as female genital mutilation is practiced here, in common with a number of Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. The mutilation is carried out on young girls to protect the honour of the female before marriage. It is irreversible, carried out without anesthetic, mortality rates are high and survivors may be traumatised for life. I have not provided a link to suitable sites as it is likely many will find the images too distressing.

It is difficult to rationalise the reasons behind any of these restrictions or practices without considering them prejudice. Change can take time, but sometimes that change is simply too slow and edicts which force women to cover head to toe cannot be considered a step in the right direction.

If this form of oppression was happening in a European country with an ethnic minority being prejudiced against in a similar way there would be a global outcry.

Supporters of this oppressive discrimination will point out there are women that support these restrictions and that is true. They will also try to convince us we do not understand their culture and there is also truth in this, but it does not need any great insight to comprehend this is a form of oppression.

My twitter source posed the question “Why do Saudi women put up with this?” Maybe the question should be how do they oppose it in a regime where women are publicly flogged for refusing to wear headdress, being raped or attempting to learn to drive.

It is shocking to hear that this Saudi Arabia is not really moving forward despite women being promised a vote in the 2015 elections. On this evidence, the proposed new edict, Saudi women are not moving closer to equality but are suffering further discrimination and are the victims of oppression.

It is unlikely we will see any real changes in the foreseeable future, there is not the global will of western governments to bring it about. Lobbying our own governments might be one way to force change but they are more concerned with oil reserves and consumption and will not wish to upset the suppliers.

Until circumstances change we can only do what we are able, sharing information about the injustice and social or environmental problems that exist, and choosing not to travel. It is entirely up to the reader how they react to these topics.

This proposed edict change eventually came to nothing, but the mere fact it was seriously discussed is shameful. Further more, Saudi Arabia still in 2016 continues to flog women who are raped, refuses basic rights to drive or travel.

Further reading:

Arab Women Caught Between Extremes

Saudi Women’s Rights

Saudiwoman’s Weblog

Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

Related help organisations:

Freedom House

Human Rights First Society

UN Women

Postscript: It is also distressing to discover when searching for royalty free images of Arabic women most sites seem to offer only images of  ‘sexy’ or ‘beautiful’ women.


Comments 41

  1. Talon

    It is a tough question to deal with for sure. I find the treatment of women in these countries absolutely abhorrent. However, that’s also applying my cultural view on them. So I wrestle with that as well. Change has to come from within, but that will likely cost many women their lives. And, as you point out, the political backlash would be too great for our leaders to say too much in a way that would encourage a greater movement toward a more humane treatment of women.

    1. Post

      I totally agree Talon it is a very difficult issue and one that requires change to start from within. To be honest there have been already some attempts made, the Arab Spring revolutions promised a degree of change but as yet as we see in Cairo there have not really been any decisive changes. It is also likely that the brave women that attempt to initiate change from within will suffer and many will indeed probably make the ultimate sacrifice.

  2. Bret @ Green Global Travel

    Excellent work, Iain! It’s a very fine line between cultural sensitivity and protecting basic human rights. After all, at one time slavery was legal, but we now fully understand what an inhumane practice it was. Women the world over have been discriminated against for years, and in the end I think all boils down to the fact that many men are insecure and afraid of the power the fairer sex holds over them.

    1. Post

      Good points well made Bret and a good analogy too. You might be right about men being insecure about the power women hold over them, this especially seems to be the case when they are worried about the affect of ‘tempting’ eyes!

  3. James Cook

    A very good post on such a sensitive subject. I had heard about them proposing to allow women to vote in 2015 and thought they were making progress but I think they will have a long way to go before they reach gender equality.

    1. Post

      Thank you James I am glad you appreciated it, it means a lot to me. It really does seem to be a long way off before any sort of equality is achieved.

  4. Lisa

    Iain, you did a great job on this post!

    This is horrifying and sickening. This is absolutely misogynistic.

    The first time I ever saw a fully veiled woman (eyes showing) was in the LHR airport. She was walking about 15-20 ft behind her husband and young son. The sight has haunted me ever since. I looked into her eyes and honestly it was like her eyes were empty. It was like she had no fire or life if that makes sense.

    This absolutely breaks my heart. 🙁

    1. Post

      It is an extremely distressing situation Lisa, I have also witnessed women walking several steps behind men in more than one destination, I can still picture each one clearly. It is degrading and understandable that the women will seem as if all respect for themselves and ‘fight’ has been driven from them. There are many wrongs in the World that need correcting until we bring about change without any ulteria motives our World will not improve where it needs to.

  5. Merav @ AllWays Christchurch Rental Cars

    Great post, Iain, on a very important subject. As much as I try to respect all cultures of the world and be sensitive to the differences, I can’t accept the oppression of women, not only in Saudi Arabia, though they did take it to the extreme there.
    There is no doubt change needs to come from within for it to succeed but it looks like a mission impossible when you know the culture these women live in.

    1. Post

      I agree Merav I don’t really feel cultural sensitivity is an issue here, this is just oppression pure and simple and should be condemned without reservation by every nation. It does seem to be an impossible task for the women themselves to be able to bring about change from within without outside help.

  6. Anya

    traditions, culture and respect is one thing; oppression, cruelty and absolute selfishness is completely opposite. I have just one comment – thank god I wasn’t born in Saudi Arabia!

    I had a weird dream yesterday that I was on the plane to SA and it hit me that foreign women are not even allowed in this country. I was so desperate and scared that when I woke up, I was literally shaking.

    It shouldn’t happen to women anywhere in the world…

    1. Post

      Hi Anya your reaction is probably quite reasonable and also correct that travel to Saudi is prohibitted for solo women without a male relative in the country. You also have to wonder about why there are so many vehicles queuing to cross the bridge to Bahrain on a weekend. The reasons are probably hypocritical.

  7. Katy

    Thanks so much for writing this, Iain. I have been shocked and saddened by things I have read or found out about the treatment of women across the world recently. From a university vice-chancellor in the UK claiming that female students are a “perk of the job” to successful women in Ghana being outcast as witches, medieval attitudes and a fear of women seems to persist in every society on the planet. the fact that you are willing to speak out on behalf of women who can’t speak for themselves is very heartening. It is a very tricky issue, because some women don’t see their situation as unjust because misogyny is so deeply ingrained into their society. But that is a greater reason for bringing these issues out into the open and engaging in proper discussion about them. Thank you.

    1. Post

      Thank you Katy prejudice of all forms is still remarkably common throughout the world, women being one of them. In their won way those examples you provide are equally shocking, that vice-chancellor should be looking for a new job now if you ask me! These attitudes are indeed medieval and there is no place for them in a progressive, civilised world, putting them out there for discussion seems to be the responsible thing to do. Our sites can not just be entertaining places to find some tips on good places to take a trip to, but also ‘prick’ our social consciences and give cause to think about some of the injustice that is happening. I hope my own site can provide just a little insight on such matters occasionally and maybe provide some thought provoking pieces at times.

  8. Nora

    I read somewhere that the temperature inside a burka is up to 30 degrees HOTTER than the outside air temperature, which is already stifling in much of the Middle East. This has proven to reduce the lifespan of women. Yes another cultural injustice of it all.
    But as has already been pointed out, in some cases it is the women who insist on such cultural practices and rituals, in the name of tradition or family pride. Can we ever break the trend?
    Here is an inspirational TED talk about a woman who inherited a newspaper business in Yemen. She’s an inspiration who is instituting change from the inside. Well worth a watch:

    1. Post

      Thanks for sharing Nora some interesting poiints made and on the interview/video too. I am not sure we will break the trend soon but do believe it will happen one day.

  9. Ugo Cei

    I disagree completely with people who wrote that these are traditions and that they somehow deserve our respect.

    The problem with this point of view is that it completely misses the fact that the so-called traditions are owned and controlled by men and imposed on women, who have no choice in the matter.

    [email protected]*# the patriarchy, I say.

    1. Post

      I have to agree Zabion the point of view of Saudi women would be extremely enlightening, I wonder how much internet access they are allowed however.

  10. Alison

    This is a difficult subject. Looking at it from my personal beliefs, the burka definitely appears to be oppressive. But I remember watching a debate programme asking whether burkas are oppressive and it was interesting hearing the for and against. There was a woman in her 20s, who was confident and had a great career, who said she felt ’empowered’ by wearing the burka. She said it was ‘her’ choice and she accepted it for religious reasons and on her own terms. The story about possibly asking women in Saudi Arabia to cover their eyes as well, based on the points you explained above, is sickening though. While I always try and be open minded about different cultures, this is just plain WRONG.

    1. Post

      A very good point Alison I am also aware that many Muslim women not just Saudis welcome wearing a burka and would probably defend the reasons for ic vociferously. The covering of eyes and especially for the apparent reasons for it is simply inhumane and repressive though.

  11. Simon

    Great post and excellent points, Iain. It’s a subject I’ve often been thinking at, and I must confess that I couldn’t tell what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. And perhaps there’s no real answer to your question.

    For sure, I am against any form of oppression, especially when it is exerted towards the ones who are weaker, as women and children. However, I cannot help thinking that in the so-called ‘developed countries’ other forms of oppression are in place. They might be less evident, but they exist. Every culture has its positive and negative aspects, and it needs time to change. And although I feel sad thinking at women in Saudi Arabia, I wonder if we have the right to judge according to our own values, and to impose a model which is far from being perfect.

    I feel very lucky for being born in Italy instead than in Saudi Arabia or in Ethiopia. And I have no merit for that. It just happened. And while I try to be grateful, I also do my best – which is not always that easy – to apply a critical view also to our world, because it’s always easier to see (and judge) the contradictions or injustices taking place in countries and cultural environments which are far, and to forget that ‘developed countries’ based their current wealth and superior quality of life on huge injustices. Starting from the drugs to reduce mortality from HIV and other major diseases, scourging many African countries. Preventing poorer and unfortunate people from an adequate treatment, isn’t this another form of oppression?

    1. Post

      Totally correct in your assessment Simon there is so much injustice in the World, much of it either caused, ignored or tolerated by the so called ‘developed’ World. Many of us know that our governments do little about these injustices except a little political or diplomatic ‘posturing’ to demonstrate their ‘care’ but if it is not in our economic interests it is generally nothing more than a gesture.

      There is a great deal of suffering happening that is not necessary, it is about time we put an end to it.

  12. Sherry

    I agree with Zablon – there really isn’t a straight-forward answer. For me, I tend to think its less of an oppression and more of a cultural thing. What we see as oppression in the Western world does not automatically dictate it so in the rest of the world. There is a reason behind this clothing, and like it or not, it is something we must accept in order to be respectful. I saw a documentary not too long ago touching briefly on this subject-matter. Not sure how truthful the interviewees were, but the women who actually spoke out really did like wearing their clothes and think its an acceptable part of their lives so much so they would not have it any other way. But on the other hand, it may also be that they haven’t experienced any thing else and like us, they can’t understand why we live the way we do, much the same way we can’t understand them.

    1. Post

      Interesting to hear your point of view Sherry, I also accept cultural differences but cannot see any cultural reason for stopping women from driving or travelling without male consent. Covering the eys is not a cultural thing, it is not something that has been passed down for generations it is being introduced to protect men! I agree there are women that do not seem to object the wearing clothing which they feel is part of their cultural heritage but maybe being indoctrinated into believing something is right does not necessarily make it so?

      I feel there is a time and place for cultural sensitivity but when it amounts to repression and injustice that is where the line needs to be drawn.

    1. Post

      Very welcome and thanks for sharing the child bride one too, both very sensitive topics. Accepted cultural practice or not it is about time that their rights were taken seriously by the major powers of the World that may actually be in a position to bring about change. We may not totally understand the way of life but when the weak and innocent are unable to defend themselves it is up to those that can to speak on their behalf.

      All it takes for eveil to succeed is for good men to do nothing! Edmund Burke

      Cultural Incidentally it was you that actually drew my attention to the original article.

  13. Jade Johnston - OurOyster.com

    Thanks for posting this – these are some issues that definitely need to be talked about more often. I think that hiding behind the guise of “culture” is used far too often to ignore massive human rights violations.

    Covering a women head to two does not protect her modesty – if anything it dehumanizes her, and stripts her of personhood. And if shes not a person then she doesn’t have rights.

    1. Post

      Another very interesting and valid point Jade and has parallels in the way abductors are treated, by attempting to humanise the victim the police often hope to prevent the situation worsening and hopefully save them.

  14. Bodlagz

    Complete and utter repression, I’m not biased in any way, but a person, regardless of religion, creed, sex or nationality should have the right to wear, say do or what she……. There that says it all.

    1. Post

      This is the heart of the matter, if the women choose to wear traditional clothing that is fine, being forced to is another matter all together.

  15. Katrina

    The danger of cultural ignorance or an imperialistic attitude is well known. Fear of appearing to harbor such tendencies has unfortunately, in the name of cultural sensitivity, led us to avoid some tough questions about the nature of justice, freedom, and civil liberties for all members of the human species. I do not believe that avoidance or allowing harm to continue is the right answer.

    The more I travel, the more I learn about the commonalities that people around the globe share — love of family, hopes, dreams, feelings, joy, etc. — and the different ways in which these things are valued and expressed. Indeed, I learn about expectations and communication every day, as my husband is from a family and a culture that is very close-knit and values connections and sharing, while I am from a family and culture that values individuality and independence.

    One of my favorite TED talks puts forth the idea that science can and should answer moral questions: http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html The speaker is quite obviously not a fan of cultures that segregate and denigrate women, particularly Saudi Arabia. Regardless of his personal feelings, he does make an outstanding point about an objective measurement of right and wrong behavior. Put simply, if we measure on the basis of human thriving, it becomes clear that oppression, disregard of logic, abuse and suffering, and refusal of personal responsibility (a man blaming a woman for his feelings of attraction, for ex.), are the opposite of what is right and moral for the continuation of our species.

    Humans simply do not flourish under these conditions, regardless of the culture from which they spring. It is wrong to treat people this way.

    1. Post

      Thank you for the insight in your great comment Katrina and for sharing the link to the another interesting viewpoint.

      Culture is the fabric that knits a community together, as you mention family, friends, traditions are extremely important but repression in the name of culture is simply injustice. Customs should be retained and culltural identity especially is essential to communities in all parts of the World, and fighting to preserve them is certainly worthwhile. This does not really fit with culture however, cultures sustain and nurture the communities, I fail to understand how this form of injustice even comes close.

      It is extremely hard for the majority of us to understand how such treatment of others particularly the weak of society by others, what is even harder to stomach for me is that little seems to be done about it by those that actually can.

  16. Jayne Cravens

    Any time people excuse this behavior as “cultural”, and start talking about “cultural sensitivity”, I think about all these same arguments being used to oppress black Africans in South Africa under apartheid, or black Americans in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. We would *never* tolerate those arguments being used now to oppress an ethnicity – but, hey, when you oppress women, it’s about being “culturally sensitive” and we mustn’t criticize, mustn’t speak out!

    To quote my Arab women friends: Hallas! (enough!). To those of you who say we need to be “culturally senstive” – you are enabling this oppression by excusing it!

    1. Post

      The comparison with apartheid is especially apt Jayne as Saudi Arabia were one of the many nations that excluded South Africa during the years of apartheid, seems to be some double stadards here. Repression is a long way from being culturally sensitive, and I agree that excusing it as such is completely wrong.

      It needs to be stopped now, excusing is indeed enabling.

  17. Caz Makepeace

    Great post and many important points brought up. It is hard to step in and say you should live your life in this way, there are cultural boundaries there. But, I cannot stand the way women are treated in this way, and I believe it should be the men whose eyes are covered or locked away if they can’t control themselves.

    This way of being is saying that no one needs to be responsible, we can just blame someone else for doing something. Nobody can ever have a happy and fulfilled life if they don’t take responsibility for things.

    I don’t believe that change can ever come from our Western governments trying to enforce it, this is just going to pee them off, Change has to come from within. It has to be the women in these countries that change it and it doesn’t seem like that would ever happen. Women in the Western world had to fight for their changes and that was the only way they got it.

    Reading posts like this make me extremely grateful that I was born where I was and have so many rights and freedoms. I could not imagine being oppressed in this way. But then again, maybe some of these women don’t feel that is the case.

    1. Post

      Thanks Caz, some extremely valid points here. It is obviously not our place to condemn or criticise other cultures this goes beyond what may seem distasteful in another culture, this is repression pure and simple.

      Yes change is necessary from within, yes the women need to take responsibility for themselves, however this is not likely to happen in a society which does not allow freedom of speech for women. This is a repressive culture for women, having the courage to speak out would almost certainly be dealt with very severely indeed. It is certainly true that more women than we might understand do not want change or at least not any major change, this in fact saddens me more in some ways than the oppression itself.

      We do need to be thankful of the liberal nature of our own societies, many of the rights we hgave we take for granted and are often abused by some.

  18. Arthur Applegate

    I am sure spys and teroriests from all over the world will love it. Not only can they carry a ton of explosivs, electronic servailance devices, biological specimans and weapons under it, but there can be no description of the purpetrator. There could be a child, a man or a woman under there and no way to know.

    1. Post
  19. Maria Yates

    Hi Ian,

    I follow you on twitter (MG_Yates) and have visited your website in the past, but had not read this piece. WOW!! Thank you for writing it.

    I just started blogging and although I lean towards the side of humour, I feel very passionate about women’s issues in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the basic right of education is denied to girls. I feel angry just thinking about it.

    I have wanted to tweet and/or comment certain pieces that I have read, but being new that this blogging thing, I have been fearful of ‘offending’ anyone, or coming across as too ‘political’. Your commentary here has given me confidence. Perhaps I can do both.

    Again, thank you for writing this Ian.


    1. Post

      Hi Maria, it does take awhile to find your feet and I’m glad this piece helps you realise it is ok to have an opnion. In fact it is important to do so, people may not agree with everything you write but they usually appreciate that you actually have something to say about a topic. They can relate when you feel strongly enough to put those feelings to words. I mix my writing up and certain you can too. Good luck with finding the direction you wish to take.

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