Reading about the lives of Saudi
women reminded me of the brief but bizarre time I spent in the country,
reporting on the
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
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.
Riazat, it is the world's dirty little secret; we are allowing slavery here in the 21st century.