In Patriarchal Saudi Arabia, a Woman's Place Is Still in the Home, Not at the Front

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

From its tribal beginnings, Saudi Arabia has been a land where women always walked in the shadow of their men. Then came the oil boom in the mid-'70s—and with it an influx of wealth, Western visitors and foreign ideas, all of which threatened to unravel the complex relations between the sexes in this most Islamic of Arab nations. "The Saudis were in a position where they were almost captive to the West's demand for oil, "says Sandra Mackey, author of the 1987 book The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. "They wanted the air-conditioning and the fast cars, but they didn't want the Western influence altering their own traditions."

The wife of a physician working in the capital city of Riyadh during the late '70s and early '80s, Mackey, 52, was forbidden by the government to write about what she saw. So she smuggled her stories out of the country, publishing them under a pseudonym. She witnessed firsthand how petrodollars have changed relations between men and women in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women can now become doctors, but they still cannot get a driver's license. Most still wear traditional Islamic garb, but under the veils and robes are often the latest French designer clothes. Mackey, who has a master's degree in international relations from the University of Virginia, now lives with her husband, Dan, in Atlanta (son Colin, 21, is at the University of Georgia) and is at work on a book about PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. As U.S. troops poured into the Saudi desert, Mackey spoke with Boston bureau chief Dirk Mathison.

What will the Saudis think of American mothers who are in the military?

If Saudis get wind that American women left their children to come and fight, they will be appalled. For a woman to leave her children in the hands of strangers would be beyond comprehension. They wonder specifically, when they see Western women, what sort of effect they'll have on Saudi wives and daughters.

To American eyes, Saudi women seem to be second-class citizens. Is that so?

People in the West look at Saudi culture and say, "How horrible the way they treat women." By Western standards, this may be true. But a Saudi woman's identity comes from being a member of a family. Because of religion and tradition, I a woman's role is to bear children and take care of the home. They're not simply regarded as breeding stock. Because of the tribal background, providing sons to protect the family was vital. Many women accept this role and see it not as degrading but as a valuable contribution.

Can a Saudi woman have a profession?

Yes, if her family approves. Women can get an education, even go into business. But they can't engage in activity that brings them in contact with men. The government employs educated women but has actually erected walls within the ministries to separate the sexes. In universities, if the professor is male, his lecture reaches the female students via TV.

Why are the Saudis so concerned about encroaching Western influences?

Since the oil boom, they have developed a great fear that increased rights for women will undermine the family. I think it's the thing they fear the most from the West. You find that Saudi men and women both feel that as women pursue careers, they not only alienate themselves from their family but actually endanger the family structure. There are, however, an increasing number of Saudi women who want to break out of the traditional role; many are becoming doctors.

With their great reliance on the West's expertise and technology, how do the Saudis keep out Western influence?

Obviously foreign influences are creeping into the country. But the Saudi customs office is incredible. They check for alcohol and anything they suspect might not be right. They don't like romance novels with suggestive covers or any books about love affairs. They don't want anything pornographic, and their idea of pornographic once included a book of knitting patterns I was bringing in, which had a design for a swimsuit. They've erected these types of walls around the kingdom. What they've tried to do is get the Westerners in but keep out their cultural influence.

Are they becoming less frightened of Western influence?

No. If anything, they are more anti-Western because they see us as corrupting the values of their society.

How will a Saudi man feel knowing that American women are helping defend his country?

I found that the educated Saudi man has an ability to deal with professional women in an entirely different way than he would with nonprofessionals. A Western businesswoman in the kingdom can work with a Saudi man because he somehow sees her as neither male nor female. They will probably reason that these women soldiers are here with the military, that they are isolated from their own women and not a threat. However, I think very traditional Saudis will use the women soldiers to illustrate what the infidels will do to Saudi society.

Given the royal family's control of the media, do you think Saudis even know there are women soldiers in their country?

The government will try to keep that suppressed. If they can keep the U.S. military isolated, they can pull this off without too much impact on their own people. Fortunately, most of the troops will literally be in the middle of the desert.

From Our Partners