It’s a familiar ploy: An American woman goes to a Muslim country, dons a veil and later details her culture shock for an appalled American audience. There’s a reason it’s the winning recipe for reportage on women in the Muslim world — it feeds our outrage and disbelief as Westerners that there are still parts of the globe where women can’t drive, or vote, or show as much or as little skin as they please. We scratch our heads, our jaws drop a little closer to the floor — but what more do we get from it?
That’s why reporter Megan Stack’s firsthand account in today’s Los Angeles Times of life behind the veil in Saudi Arabia is such a must-read; it escapes that well-worn path of hysterical, purely reactionary narratives. (Which can be important, but are a dime a dozen.) Her account goes beyond showing how inconvenient or demeaning or just friggin’ uncomfortable the veil is — though she says it is all those things. Stack, who was the Time’s bureau chief in Cairo, Egypt, for nearly four years, simply has the chops to deliver a smart and nuanced cultural critique. And, damn, she doesn’t pull a single punch in her critique of women’s place in Saudi society.
But she isn’t impulsively critical. “I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being,” she writes. “I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?” Her experiences — like being kicked out of a men’s-only Starbucks cafe; or shooed from in front of a bank because, as a security guard put it, “the men can SEE! The men can SEE!” — make the comparison seem appropriate.
She also brings the criticism home — which, to me, lends much more cred to any critique of a foreign culture. “Saudi Arabia is a center of ideas and commerce, an important ally to the United States, the heartland of a major world religion,” she says. “The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.” As much as we think of Saudi Arabia as “a remote land, utterly removed from our lives,” Stack writes, “it’s not very far from us, nor are we as different as we might like to think.”
And I think that’s at least part of why Stack’s experience in Saudi Arabia managed to stick with her and, as she puts it, “follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.” It’s another reason those purely reactionary narratives, which do speak to a certain truth, aren’t enough. They simply allow us to identify with the plight of Saudi women in the only way we know how — through the experiences of a Western woman. And all the while we’re allowed to maintain ignorance about our own, peripheral participation.