Journalist and self-proclaimed feminist Sherlin Barends attempts to immerse herself into the typical lifestyle of a Saudi Arabian woman.
In the Quran, Surah Al-Ahzab, Allāh speaks to the wives of Prophet Muḥammad:
“And abide quietly in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to flaunt them in the old days of pagan ignorance; and be constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto Allāh and His Messenger: for Allāh only wants to remove from you all that might be loathsome, O you members of the [Prophet’s] household, and to purify you to utmost purity.” [33:33]
My hands. My face. These are the only parts of my body that are exposed.
Every other Saturday I am scantly clad in my Pioneers hockey club uniform: a tight fitting, sleeveless, red shirt and a grey skirt that only just covers my buttocks, as I run down the road to the sporting grounds.
This Saturday, with my father’s permission, a family member escorts me to the hockey field that is a mere 250 meters from my house. I’m wearing a loose-fitting tracksuit that matches my black headscarf.
There is a “long-existing ban on sports at girls’ state schools” in Saudi Arabia, a country which is considered to be one of the most sexist societies in the world.
Thankfully I am allowed to play as I am part of an all-girls team that is only interested in recreational hockey. I have exchanged my skirt (or “cookie curtain”, as my close friend Anastacia Slamat aptly refers to the 20 cm long piece of material) for one of my brothers ill-fitting pair of shorts that cover my knees. A long sleeved top, knee-high socks and a headscarf completes my modest attire.
An opponent’s father looks at me for a second longer than what is deemed appropriate, but then forces himself to redirect his gaze. His 4/5 year old son however, continues to stare. Fully in control of his outside voice, but not his inhibition, he shouts “Look there!” at the top of his lungs, as he points in my direction.
Surprisingly I find his candid response refreshing. The same cannot be said for the little man’s father, who wordlessly reprimands him with a tug at the trousers and a fierce glare.
The sky is blue and cloudless; still the wind pierces through my skin. Within the first ten minutes of the game the cold is soon forgotten. I’m already sweating, I struggle to breath, it sounds like my heart is beating in my ears and all I want to do is rip the constricting scarf off my head.
I don’t. But 20 minutes into the game I weakly raise my arms, indicating that I want to be substituted. This never happens.
During the second half of the game I’m back on the field and manage to bypass three opposing players. I wish I could say it is because of my remarkable ball skills, but I have a suspecting feeling that these girls, who have never met me, are being soft on me.
Final Score: 1-1
I shake the ladies’ hands, but avoid all contact with the male referee.
I am exhausted. Al my body wants to do is soak and unwind in a steaming hot bath. Instead I bathe the dog, clean the bathrooms and the dirty laundry gets washed, hanged, folded and packed away.
These tasks would have been more bearable if I listened to the soulful sounds of India Arie or Corinne Bailey Rae.
“The general attitude for many religious people is that music is forbidden; malls and stores do not have music playing through speakers in order not to offend religious customers.”
Before I drag my sweaty self upstairs I am suddenly filled with a sense of accomplishment. The smell of chemicals fills the house and I inhale deeply, as if smelling a fresh bunch of flowers.
It is a Saturday evening and I am in bed by nine that night.
With my father’s permission I go to work the following morning. To be more specific, my father drives me to work.
“Women are banned from driving: This is the most notorious ban involving Saudi women. Women have never been allowed to drive unless they drive in the desert or inside private compounds. The main arguments for preventing women from driving are that it may cause women to leave their houses more often than they need to (which is frowned upon); they may have interactions with unrelated males and the need to uncover their faces.”
I then ask my father to escort me to the MFM92.6 radio studios, located on the third floor of the Neelsie. He does this without hesitation in his role as a Saudi Arabian father, but more so as the concerned father of a Matie student.
Under certain circumstances Saudi Arabian women are allowed to work.
Now wearing a shapeless black dress and a headscarf, it is almost as difficult to avoid my male co-hosts’ hugs than it is to avoid the music.
For the next four hours we host the Weekend Breakfast between six and ten that Sunday morning.
Strictly speaking a Saudi woman will not be left a lone with a male that is not family, then again Robin De Cauwer is part of my MFM family.
We agree to avoid eye- and physical contact and I wear earplugs and kill the volume on my headphones to ensure I don’t listen to the music.
De Cauwer is accommodating the fist 30 minutes or so, but thereafter he is visibly annoyed: “Are you just going to sit there like a hot potato?” he mutters.
As I can not hear the music and because I’m not familiar with the newer songs, I struggle to comment on them: Did I like it, how did it make me feel, is it a potential chart toper? I don’t know. Needless to say this is frustrating.
Instead of making use of public transport to get home after my show, as there is no male family figure around to escort me, I wait (not so patiently) for my father for the next two hours.
I just realised that I can’t recall the last time I spent so much time with my father in one day. Also, during the past 24 hours people, men have been staring, but not one of them looked at me like a piece of meet that they are just dying to devour.
This is refreshing, like the little boy’s frank response, the smell of clean linen and constant feeling of being cared for.