Picture By: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times
In my perusal of the New York Times, I came across an article that at first seemed to explode with the potential for subversion, in a country known for its strict control of its citizenry. It is entitled, “Love on Girls’ Side of the Saudi Divide“. My first thought was, finally a side of Saudi Arabia that never makes the press. My seven year old son has more personal freedom than the women of Saudi Arabia, and so any act of resistance on their part is extremely exciting to me. According to Katherine Zoepf of the NY Times, young Saudi Women are cross dressing in order to enter traditional male only spaces. This is happening at a great personal risk to themselves, because if caught the penalty is harsh. One of the young girls mentioned in the stories even dared to flirt with a woman while she was dressed in “thobes, the ankle-length white garments traditionally worn by Saudi men, and had covered their hair with the male headdresses called shmaghs. One of the girls had used an eyeliner pencil to give herself a grayish, stubble-like mist along her jaw line.“
Further in the article Zoepf states, “There are reports of a recent spate of ugly confrontations between youths and the religious police, and of a supposed increase in same-sex love affairs among young people frustrated at the strict division between the genders.” This commentary of course is interspersed with assertions by the young women she interviewed, about how much they believe in the Wahhabi religious establishment. Keep in mind that this is the same government that bans women from driving, enforces the strict wearing of the abaya, restricts women from traveling without the express permission of their nearest male relative, and keeps them confined to women only spaces. What’s not to love? The girls are quick to report their love of this form of Islam, as well as its enforced heterosexuality.
Did you catch the opening that Zoepf missed? By presenting those that are having lesbian sex as simply subverting a system of control she missed the opportunity to explore different sexualities in Saudi Arabia. It is reinforcing heteronormaitivity to assume that these women are not experiencing genuine feelings for other women. She asserts because the women are always in each others company they turn to each other for sexual release rather than identifying purposefully as lesbians, or even as bi-sexual. In the Victorian age when much of womens sexuality was similarly denied, women were known to have romantic friendships with one another. They may not have been able to name what they were experiencing as such behavior had yet to be labeled, but that did not make their feelings any less real. I believe it is erroneous to assume that availability, rather than will is always the causation of sexual behavior. When Victorian women were asking their husbands to sleep in another room so that they could share a bed with their “friend”, are we to assume that such relations were always for sharing platonic intimacies?
The same of course is true of her scant report on women cross dressing. Obviously women have throughout time dressed as men to achieve a freedom that has been denied them due to their gender, but does that mean that all of the women that are dressing as men are doing so for the sake of expediency? I doubt it. Religion does not make Saudi Arabia immune from people who are trans gender. In fact the strict gender performativity that is enforced would seem to me to encourage shifting. Many trans people report how restrictive western society is to live in due to adherence to gender roles, how much more so must Saudi society be? How many would take the opportunity if presented under any mantle to express who they truly are?
Why are these identities not explored? Could it be the combined desire of the Saudi and Western society for lesbians and trans people to remain invisible. Ignoring their existence does not make them any less real. I submit that these questions were not asked because globally trans people and lesbians are considered bodies that don’t matter. After all what could be gained from a conversation with the marginalized sub group stigmatized as un-women. No it is far safer to write about girls gushing about flirting with men, or throwing aside their abayas to gyrate to music. Heterosexual and man crazy, is a norm that is comfortable for most. Real, concrete identities that disturb understandings of sexuality and gender are simply unimaginable for those who refuse to contemplate the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Gotta love those binary identifications, they reinforce power dynamics of hetero/ homo, male/female and keep us from knowing who we truly are.