Young woman in Jeddah during Ramadan festival, 2015
© AFP
Young woman in Jeddah during Ramadan festival, 2015
Last updated: January 19, 2016

Digitally included, physically excluded: The case of Saudi women

Banner Icon Technology Women in Saudi Arabia have gained access to the online public discourse. But their growing presence in the digital sphere has also created a fake sense of freedom, Dr. Abdulrahman Al Lily writes.

Digital technology has challenged two forms of gender-based separation in Saudi Arabia. In Form 1, the micro infrastructure of Saudi Arabia, including universities, schools, wedding venues and workplaces, is divided into male-only and female-only sections. This division is thorough, to the extent that one is not permitted to access the other gender’s section. A clear sign is placed by the door of each section specifying the gender that is allowed in the section. The female-only section is private and sheltered, being bordered by concrete 210-cm walls with no halls, preventing men not only from penetrating through the halls but also from seeing through them. This separation is carefully implemented, to the extent that, in single-gender spaces (e.g. schools and universities), the relatives, employers and employees of the other gender cannot access them.

Non-related people of different genders must not meet, whether individually or collectively, privately or publicly. Friendship and colleagueship across gender lines are prohibited. Friends do not socialise in spouses’ company, with wives socialising alone and likewise husbands socialising alone. This custom of gender-based separation, like many other patterns of Saudi Arabia, tends to be reinforced not necessarily by the cultural authorities alone but also by the society itself. Notwithstanding this physical separation, Saudi men and women have reportedly started to communicate with one another through online communication channels, therefore becoming physically disconnected while digitally connected. This change in Saudi culture has already been investigated by different researchers. What has not been researched yet, however, is the second form of gender-based separation, which is explained below and investigated in this post.

In Form 2, the macro infrastructure of Saudi Arabia is partitioned into a domestic ‘inside-the-house’ domain and public ‘outside-the-house’ domain. Women are responsible for and belong to the former, whereas men are in command of and are affiliated with the latter. This division is all-pervasive, so that, when a woman goes outside her female domestic inside-the-house domain, she covers her whole body with a loose black cloak as an indication that she is not supposed to be there. When entering the male public outside-the-house domain, women are escorted by an ‘insider member’ of the entered domain, i.e. a (related) man. When a man accompanies his female relative in the public domain and walks into a friend of his, the two friends do not talk to each other or have eye contact, owing to the presence of a female relative. The domestic domain has its own national school curriculum, wherein women are taught how to be effective members of their domestic domain, for example by learning ‘home economics’. Home economics is not taught to men, since this kind of knowledge is seen as not fitting with the protocols and configurations of their public domain and as lying outside their duties.

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Sports facilities normally belong to the public domain, and therefore almost all these facilities are exclusively for males. There is no sports and physical education for women, since this kind of education is seen as associated with the public domain. The constituents of the domestic domain (i.e. houses) are detached and isolated from the public domain, with each house (including its courtyard and gardens) surrounded by a substantial border. The contact information of the domestic domain’s members is considered private and confidential, and hence women tend to give the contact information of their male relatives when they complete forms and applications.

A man customarily does not know the names of his friends’ wives, mothers or any other female relatives, which are considered to be private. Although raising children is regarded as belonging to the domestic domain and hence being a duty of the woman, the act of driving children to and from school takes place in the public domain and therefore is done by men. Although cooking for the family and decorating the house are understood to be associated with the domestic domain and therefore to be women’s roles, the act of buying home supplies and groceries happens in the public domain and therefore is perceived as a male activity.

Driving a vehicle or riding a bicycle is an activity happening in the public domain and hence is done entirely by men. Although Saudis are supposed to pray five times a day at mosques, mosques are in the public domain, and hence only men are obligated to go to mosques. Funerals occur in the public domain and hence are male-only ceremonies. Although men are encouraged to visit graves, graves are located outside the house, and therefore women do not go there. The physical, psychological, social, cultural, economic and political structures of Saudi society have been constructed in line with the gender-based separation pattern. In spite of this concentrated division between the domestic and public domains, digital technology has enabled Saudi women to digitally access the public discourse from within their domestic domain, thereby making these women physically excluded and digitally included. This is what current research has found, which is based on a survey distributed randomly on the Internet to men and women. There were 727 respondents, half men and half women.

The study shows technology to have created a virtual communication channel between the public and domestic domains, enabling women to gain access to the (online) public discourse. The two genders have become the same in the sense that they both have engaged in the same online public discourse. Yet, from a different vantage point, women are still unlike men, in that they access the public discourse while still remaining at home. These women’s act of going online while staying at home can be seen as a fake form of freedom, whereby they can theoretically hold a discourse with this freedom, speak to it and feel their ‘other self’ or ‘Avatar’ that exists only via technology, and yet this may not be who they really are and what freedom really is. Thus, it cannot be accurate that what technology brings to us individually is the possibility of finding out who we are. Technology may trick an individual to think of himself or herself as someone that is not who he or she really is.

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These women cannot bridge that gap between the freedom of technology and the freedom of their real world. If one experiences freedom only virtually, freedom may mean something virtual, ‘out there’ or a dream that cannot become a reality. Technology and culture have here collaborated to enable ‘distorted learning’ about freedom and identity and accomplish further repression of humans. A theoretical proposition is therefore that technology and culture could collaborate (i.e. not necessarily fight each other, as presented in the literature) so as to manipulate humans. Although the introduction of digital mobility to those who are physically immobile might seem at first to be a positive initiative, the current research argues that this could result in politically negative consequences, for example, making them feel more conscious of their physical immobility and therefore more repressed.

"These women cannot bridge that gap between the freedom of technology and the freedom of their real world"

The fact that Saudi women go online may, at first, seem to suggest that they are expressing a certain level of freedom. Likewise, their act of discoursing with the outside world, breaching virtually the walls surrounding them and being able to take on their own identity may, at the outset, seem a fundamental social change. But it is perhaps not what it seems to be. Saudi women’s act of going online while staying at home could be seen as merely a bogus form of freedom that is allowed to them jointly by societal culture and digital technology as a political strategy for limiting future activities of fundamental social change. It is perhaps merely a tactic for giving them the ‘hint’ or ‘taste’ of freedom, when they are, in fact, not allowed actual freedom. They watch freedom, via the Internet, without physically being able to reach it, or they think that they are free. But in reality, this is the only ‘freedom’ that is allowed to them, and that freedom itself is, they may think, sufficient to satisfy them and their curiosity. Because they have satisfied this curiosity, they are likely to not seek fundamental social changes or to be actually free.

Although technology has been popularised as a liberating tool enabling expression, it could act instead as a repressive instrument. Here, digital technology has further repressed (female) humans, providing the societal culture a politically sophisticated tool to keep them in what is culturally believed to be the appropriate place for them, merely with digital access to the public discourse. Thus, digital technology and societal culture can be on the same page, working together in control of humans. Whereas technology and society are presented in the literature as enemies, it seems here that they can be friends too in some respects. This is perhaps because digital technology is easy to make a ‘friend’ with, since it is proactive, relational, dynamic and interactive and can be situated, i.e. is ‘easy-going’ and ‘easy to hang out with’.

The Saudi public discourse is no longer male-only, given the virtual introduction of new members, namely women. Yet the introduction of these new members does not appear to have brought considerable political changes and reforms, such as the dismantling and demolition of the ‘wall’ between the public and domestic domains. This is perhaps because the power relationship between the two genders has been historically deactivated to a degree that makes it difficult for any activation to come into operation. So the establishment of this bridge has not occasioned explicit fundamental political conflict between the two genders and has not made men and women get into deep politics.

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The Internet is not actually the only technology that has given Saudi women (virtual) access to the public discourse. There have been other technologies, such as newspapers, radio, television and telephones. This accessibility, however, has not brought about major social changes. This is perhaps because the way Saudi women see these technologies. They may not see them as tools for essential social reform, but as entertaining tools inserted into their domestic domain so as to make the experience within this domain enjoyable or to allow them to ‘kill time’ given the limited social activities within this domain. Saudi women may not conceptualise the Internet as what it truly could be, i.e. as an implement for social change. Rather, they may see it as what is convenient. What is convenient for Saudi women is perhaps not to destabilise the culture, but to make this new (virtual) space more comfortable and to use it to make them feel good about themselves. Perhaps they are ingrained in the system and do not want to see political distraction.

Saudi women do not post online messages about fundamental social change but rather reiterate what they think is expected of them, reiterating the ‘slave-mentality’ and oppression they have grown up with. When posting online, they do not say anything against the walls that bind them, but rather are devoted to the current cultural configurations. They do this perhaps because they are afraid that the technology that they are using to pose online is being watched by the cultural authorities or by their family members. A similar reason could be that they are self-regulating in the expectation that they are regulated by higher bodies. The challenge is that, even if they are feeling totally free online, Saudi women are not raised to be confident and courageous critical thinkers who would question existing cultural practices.

So, when going online, they merely exchange mundane messages, reiterate trivial information, promote pre-existing politicised ideologies and reinforce cultural issues. Saudi women may be content with something (i.e. the digital access to the online domain) that seems like freedom and gives them a type of voice. They may not see that the Internet can lend them much more. It could be argued that, the more satisfied and content Saudi women become with the mere online access to the public discourse, the higher the ‘wall’ between them and the real physical world will grow. They may, with the passage of time, become accustomed to the belief that this virtual access is the alternative to real access, and hence they may accept it, take it for granted and not seek real access. When going online, Saudi women may simply transfer the mentality of the offline domestic domain to the Internet, for example seeing freedom as something that belongs to politics and therefore to men.


Any views expressed are the author's own.
 

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Abdulrahman E. Al Lily
Abdulrahman E. Al Lily, PhD (Oxford), is a Saudi Assistant Professor at King Faisal University and a Common Room Member at Wolfson College, the University of Oxford. His interests lie at the intersection of Education, Technology, Culture, Society and Organisational Politics. He has written for openDemocracy, Vocativ, Australasian Science and many academic journals, such as the Information Society Journal. He is the first to write about ‘Crowd-Authoring’ as a methodology. For more information, please visit: abdulallily.wordpress.com.
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