Monday, March 08, 2010

Somali women in Old Jeddah

Somali women in Old Jeddah, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

This is the blog I was going to post:

It is International Women’s Day today, something which isn’t so big in Britain or Holland, it seems, but maybe more important in the countries of central and eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world.

One place where it probably isn’t being marked to any great deal is Saudi Arabia where women have a very limited role in public life, not being allowed to drive and not being allowed to be out in public with a man outside of her family, akthough another woman is fine.

I was very excited about going to Saudi Arabia before I went, partly because of these stories, partly because it is a forbidden country (for most tourists at least) and partly because my Dad used to work out there in the deserts during the 1960’s while we were growing up in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, just west of London.

I had planned to visit so as to take in our office in Riyadh and our main office in Al Khobar, which is next door to Bahrain. I had a weekend over and decided to go down to Jeddah on the Red Sea, partly as a result of a kind invitation by a flickr friend of mine, and partly because of the lure of the Red Sea and its proximity to Africa and, of course, Somalia. I had spent a day in Bahrain in any case, during a delayed flight out to see my brother in Bangkok three years ago and it did not seem to be the place to offer as much excitement and adventure as Jeddah.

What to expect of Saudi Arabia? Deserts, modern buildings, wide streets, everyone driving around in big cars, shopping malls and more tall buildings. Maybe outside the cities, a glimpse of some Bedouins but mostly more desert and more dust. I would not expect to see any women. And so it was, arriving at Riyadh airport, there were queues of people arriving from the Indian sub-continent, all men, and a plane load of young women from Indonesia, on their way to Mecca or a new assignment as maids? Outside the airport, of course, I was ripped off by the very charming taxi driver who took me past a city scape of low buildings, industrial scrapyards, petrol stations, cheap motels, shops, medical centres and so on, very much like arriving in some American city , all wide roads and big cars, just as expected.

And Riyadh, in the business area was exactly like one had expected, soulless, empty, modern. But then again, I wouldn’t be Charles, if I didn’t go off looking for local colour and adventure and sure enough, before long, I had met up with some other chap staying at the hotel and we were off chartering a taxi to the camel market. Again, arriving at a quiet time of the day, with not so many people around and not knowing too much what to expect, one is a bit shy about walking around such a place but before long, we were chatting to a Sudanese camel herder in some sort of English or Arabic and he is just as friendly and hospitable as anyone in this region of the world and so it continued.

So, despite the political regime and the strange laws and the discouragement of tourism and so on, you get to see that people as individuals do not have to be affected so much and this is always nice to be reminded of.

As it was, I was to have a wonderful time in the country, albeit not meetinmg too many Saudis, but I had my new friend in Riyadh, a flickr friend, Usman, in Al Khobar and another one, Ahmed, in Jeddah, who generously gave me three days of his time to accompany me around his city, where we came across these Somali women, amongst others.

Which leads us onto the new film of the book, Desert Flower, by the Somali woman and human rights activist, Waris Dirie. THis was premiering in Amsterdam today and deals with the issue of female circumcision, a very barbaric practice affecting many millions of young and older women around the world.


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