Today and tomorrow, the Kingdom will celebrate ‘Women’s’ Day’ for the second year running. To an outsider such as me, it feels like a historic occasion. An operetta entitled the ‘Daughters of Salman’ will be performed and there will be female poetry readings and a presentation about the history of the women of this country. I’d love to go (but my husband’s away, I’ve thrown my back out and I can’t work out how you buy tickets!).
Even though I’ve been living here for 7 months now, it’s still hard to determine what life is really like for the women here. Do they sense an air of change on days like today? I would love to have a local friend who could tell me what they think and feel but, as an expat, our paths don’t really cross in any meaningful sort of way. I’m a distant observer, occasionally getting a glimpse of life beyond the walls of our compound, but not understanding as much as I would like.
Reading up in the news about the improvements being made to women’s rights here, it seems things are changing, or attempts are being made to introduce change at least. The every fact that there is a celebration of and for women suggests that it is.
One of the biggest barriers to gender equality here is the law of male guardianship, which requires every woman to have a male guardian. Permission must be sought from the guardian for various life decisions. Last year, changes were introduced to ease these laws. They didn’t receive much media attention but they are hopefully an indication that change is afoot. A much more symbolic, media-grabbing issue was that of driving, which is set to be opened up to women this summer.
There have also been changes relating to marriage over the last couple of years. Regulations have been introduced to discourage forced marriages, apparently making these harder to achieve. There’s now a requirement for a woman to give verbal consent to her marriage, for example. In addition, there are new measures aimed at improving a divorced woman’s situation. In the past, a divorced woman whose husband refused to pay her alimony was financially very vulnerable but last year the government created a fund to make payments in these cases. Similarly, divorced women can now maintain custody of their children, provided there’s no dispute, whereas previously they had to apply to the courts to be allowed to take care of them.
More happily, women have been able to vote and stand in municipal elections since 2015. They are also being given roles in the world of business, with a woman being made head of the stock exchange last year. And there are smaller changes, such as the right to attend events in stadiums, which began late last year, and the statement made 3 weeks ago by a Muslim cleric that women here shouldn’t be forced to wear the abaya (see ‘On The Wheel’ post for more about that). More anecdotally, the segregated eating areas in our local mall were recently removed.
Some might say these are baby steps but if they are, there seem to be quite a lot of them in quite a short space of time.
Living in a country that’s in the process of introducing changes that women in Britain and many other countries take for granted has certainly reminded to be more grateful for the freedoms I have always enjoyed. Shamefully, I have never taken a massive interest in women’s rights, complacent that this is a battle that had already been fought for me.
And yet, during our time here, it’s been highlighted by the media that there are still battles to be fought by women all around the world, even in Britain, with the #MeToo campaign and the push to see equal pay for women. I’m realising it’s something that I should never be complacent about- that I need to step up to the plate where I can.
Reflecting back, I’m also reminded that it’s not actually so very long since British women and others were pushing for the changes that are currently being sought here. There was a time when British women also had to be covered up and chaperoned, when they couldn’t vote or stand for election. Last month, on 8 February, it was 100 years since Parliament extended the right to vote in parliamentary elections to some women. It only extended the right to vote to all women 90 years ago, in the same year my grandma was born. We are fortunate that she is still with us. So that’s not even one person’s lifetime ago.
In Britain we started to develop democracy and the rule of law over 800 years ago. It seems we’ve been slow, in many areas, to use it for the benefit of everyone. And in some areas where we thought we had created a more equal, fairer society, we’re learning that it’s possible to regress. Whoever thought we would need anti-slavery policies again?
Life can be unfair and cruel. So many of our opportunities appear to be bestowed upon us by our birthplace, gender, culture, race, social class, education. My new life is highlighting to me how fortunate I am and how challenging life can be for someone born elsewhere, into different circumstances. There are people here, working harder than me, very rarely seeing their families, and their reward is that their lives are tougher than mine.
One of the things I love about God is that he values every part of what makes us who we are but he attaches no value to social standing and background. We are all of equal value in his sight.
I could list all the Bible verses that teach us this but there are too many. For starters: ‘The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord made them both’ (Proverbs 22:2), ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all’ (Colossians 3:11) or ‘So in Christ you are all children of God through faith’ (Galatians 3:26). Equality isn’t a modern concept- it’s as old as God.
Nearly two thousand years ago, centuries before the idea of modern human rights evolved during the Renaissance, Jesus demonstrated that he valued all people. Some of the people invited to his birth were shepherds- a set of people considered, in the first century, to be only marginally better than criminals. When he started his ministry, Jesus sought out people from all walks of life: men, women, children, lepers, prostitutes, those with mental illnesses. There were no ribbons, sound bites and cameras back then, no adulation for reaching out to the world’s waifs and strays. The motivation must have been love.
There are lots of examples of Jesus reaching out to people on the fringes of society. One of my favourites examples is his conversation with a Samaritan woman in John 4. It especially resonates with me today on ‘Women’s Day’. It seems easier to relate to here, living alongside women in similar dress to the Samaritan woman, in a similar climate to her, maybe also wanting to be more valued.
John’s account tells us it was noon when Jesus and the woman met by a well in Sychar. The timing is an indication of her status. Very few people in a hot climate would have ventured out at the hottest part of the day to draw water. Perhaps that’s why she chose to go then- so she could stay out of the public gaze. She had been married five times and was living with someone she wasn’t married to. Back then, she would have been considered morally bankrupt, her reputation in tatters, maybe a talking point for others at the well.
In addition to being a social outcast, she was a woman and she was a Samaritan, a half-Jew despised by the Jewish people for having mixed with other races and religions. For a Jewish teacher like Jesus to talk to a Jewish woman by herself was remarkable, for him to talk to a Samaritan woman was radical.
What’s even more amazing is that Jesus didn’t just pass the time of day with her. He spoke to her about the meaning of life. And he revealed who he was: God’s Messiah. The Bible shows Jesus disclosing this same information on only three other occasions: to his disciple Peter, in the synagogue and before the High Priest. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria, Jesus showed that he valued her as much as those men. He showed that he values all women. In reading the accounts of his life, we see that he values all humanity.
I have chosen the song below because it’s a celebration by men, women and children from around the world, singing in different languages, of a God who loves and values them all.