Twenty years ago particularly, one of our neighbors in Saudi Arabia decided to build a sports club for women. He didn’t decide to do so out of his love for women but out of his hatred of a huge area of empty land in the neighborhood. The land struck its owners with what they believed was a mysterious curse.
Every time someone bought it and thought of building a mansion on it, they either got sick or died. So building on it remained an ominous sign until another person was convinced of buying it without fearing its “curse.” The buyer decided to turn the unfinished building into a commercial project, a sports club for women. So perhaps, he may have thought, the curse will befall on the women and he’ll get rid of a quarter of the neighborhood’s women and neighbours will thank him for that. Or perhaps, the women will survive and so, they might say, the curse disappears. But this buyer decided to take the neighbors’ permission first. He was afraid that they will be angry with him or that they will accuse him of being behind a westernization project and file complaints.
The neighbors of course rejected the idea. Not because they fear for their women from the curse. But they said: “As if we need this on top of everything! A sports club for women that will end up packing our neighborhood with cars and blocking the roads.”
Cancelling out women’s rights
What’s strange is that our neighborhood is famous for its teenagers who never stop turning the streets in it into spaces for cars racing. There’s also traffic in our neighborhood due to private schools whose owners never bothered establishing parking lots.
But this doesn’t annoy them as much as a sports club for women does. And so, our neighborhood lost the opportunity of having the sports club as a result of a blunt referendum. At the same time, shops that sell cigarettes for children and expired candy and sandwiches have increased since no one holds a referendum on these. This of course contributed to confirming the failure of democracy in our neighborhood. It confirmed the theory that our neighborhood does not deserve democracy. The first of democracy’s victims, after justice, is women.
The last 20 years witnessed many struggles with public opinions. Their victim was sports at girls’ schools. A sports club struggles to open in the capital or in other big cities, and if it does open, its name would be mysterious and would have nothing to do with sports. It would have a name implying that it’s a health or an educational center. I remembered this incident after I read a piece of news stating that the education ministry will open 200 sports clubs during the summer as part of summer activities. And I told myself “Finally, a gym for girls!” The decision of course included one condition, that the sports club must be opened on the basis of what Shariah law permits and restricts.
Everyone, including residents of the planet Saturn, understands the importance of this statement. Whoever hears it knows immediately, beyond any doubt, that it has to do with a project linked to women. Women (and only God knows) are the only ones that society is maintaining these restrictions for, which if we look closely we will realize that half of them are traditions, habits, factional interests and proverbs. But no one dares interfere.
Twenty years have passed. That’s the time we needed to approve a decision that serves people’s interest in general and women’s interest in particular. Strategic planners in our country must take this time plan into consideration and begin 20 years before they will be able to decide on anything!
This article was first written in al-Hayat on June 10, 2013.
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University’s Department of Social Studies. She can be found on Twitter: @BadryahAlbeshr