Our dirty little secret
The way women are treated in Saudi Arabia is a disgrace - and Muslims, including myself, are colluding with the regime's gender apartheid
Reading about the lives of Saudi women reminded me of the brief but bizarre time I spent in the country, reporting on the Hajj.
Performing the pilgrimage is probably the only occasion that Muslims will visit the kingdom; tourism visas are non-existent and travelling for business and family reasons requires extensive documentation. I had heard about Saudi women being stripped of their rights, or having them pared down to the point of ineffectualness, but wasn't ready for this experience and had a rude awakening on arriving at the pilgrim's terminal in Jeddah. I looked for the man who was supposed to meet me, but when he failed to materialise, airport officials kept me in baggage reclaim for five hours. Showing them my papers - including a visa, a list of contact names and numbers and a letter from my employer - made little difference. I asked to leave so I could get a cab to Mecca, only to be told I would be stopped and turned back at checkpoints lining the route. The misunderstanding was cleared up, seven hours after landing, and I was allowed to go to a hotel, staying overnight and travelling to Mecca with a group the following day.
It became a familiar pattern. The lack of a male shocked some and surprised many but, as I always explained, I was working and had permission to be in the country. How else to explain the visa? I was discouraged from walking on foot - by far the quickest form of transport during the pilgrimage - and was stuck on buses and coaches for arduous journeys while male journalists were able to hop off and flag down motorcycles operating as taxis. Restricted movement was the least of my concerns, however. I was sexually assaulted three times in Mecca - the least distressing incident took place near the Ka'aba when a male pilgrim mistook my breasts for a balustrade and used them to hoist himself up the stairs - and was met with indifference when I complained. Being sexually assaulted is, I learned, an almost occupational hazard for the female pilgrim. It will happen to you or someone you know and incidents go unreported because of apathy from the security guards on duty.
If this is happening in Islam's holiest city, what is happening in the rest of Saudi Arabia? There was an unsettling dearth of women from the workplace - on TV, in hotels, restaurants and shops. I also became conditioned to being ignored by officials when asking questions about anything - whether it was the pilgrimage or more mundane matters. I shared my concerns with a male Saudi journalist and he told me I was imagining things. A female journalist told me how she and her husband were discussing Qatif girl with some young, educated Saudis. She thought they might be ashamed and embarrassed by the government's behaviour, but they thought the gang-raped teenager deserved every moment of the ordeal inflicted on her.
1) Our dirty little secret