Yesterday was Valentine’s Day and while the rest of the world celebrated with red roses, romantic poetry and heart shaped paraphernalia, there was none of that here.
The official muttawa stance is that it’s yet another non-Islamic festival, and one that’s all the worse because it encourages open displays of affection between young men and women who may not even be married. You see, in a society where marriages are arranged dating is forbidden and strict gender segregation enforced, Valentine’s Day is an anathema.
Café Batel had red heart-shaped boxes on display when we visited last week, but they would have disappeared by yesterday. No point when there’s a fatwa, or religious edict, banning shops from selling such things. And, of course, it’s not just Valentine's Day - try buying a Christmas tree at Christmas or an Easter egg at Easter. Neither exists here. If you want Easter, travel overseas.
All this is illustrative of a social structure so draconian that common sense flees. Enforced segregation, strict Islamic covering of women, female subservience to men and lack of personal autonomy have all at times had extreme consequences.
In 2002, it was fifteen schoolgirls fleeing from a fire in their school. Confronted by the muttawa as they tried to escape, they were forced back into the building. They were not allowed out simply because they weren’t wearing their headscarves. All of them perished in the blaze.
(Just to make it clear, strict Islamic dress code dictates that women cover, so as to preserve their modesty. The abaya (long black cloak), the hijab (headscarf) and the niqab (face veil) are all components of this.)
Last week a British newspaper reported an incident at King Saudi University in Riyadh. A young woman with an existing heart condition, Amna Bawazeer, collapsed. What happened next is still not clear, but reports have suggested that the university staff and administration panicked.
Either they took 30 minutes to call an ambulance, or they called right away but the male paramedics were denied entry to the all female campus. Either way, the delay was too long and, denied necessary medical assistance, Amna died.
This is what happens in a country where separation of male and female is so entrenched. The male paramedics either could not or would not venture into an all female domain because of the possibility of students, including Amna, being seen unveiled. Alternatively, staff delayed making an emergency call because they were afraid of the consequences if their women students had any contact with the male paramedics.
I knew a little of what life was like here for women before I arrived. I'd heard a report of a young woman who, left alone at home with her father, drove him to the hospital after he’d had a seizure and needed urgent help. There was no one else to do what she did and her prompt action saved his life. However, the interesting outcome for the brave young female driver was not accolades of praise for saving her father’s life. No, she faced legal punishment because by driving, she had broken the law.
My Valentine’s Day musings took me in a direction I’d rather not have gone. I guess all one can say is that while it’s too late for change for the fifteen young schoolgirls, Amna or the young female driver, there has to be hope that things will change in the future and that stories like these will no longer need telling.