I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. Growing up here, especially as a girl, I had an extremely different experience than I would have had in an Arabian Peninsula state like Saudi Arabia. Whether or not my experience was better is up for debate and hard for me to say, as I did not live both lives and know no woman who grew up in the Arabian Peninsula. I am, however, aware of many differences between the two regions that I believe undoubtedly have an influence on how women grow up, and what futures they are able to have.
I grew up playing any sport I could. My parents wouldn’t let me go a season without playing at least one sport. I began soccer when I was three years old. My parents thought that sports were important for children to learn social skills, get exercise, etc… I was born in 2004, so sports were accessible to me, a girl, in the early 2000s. By contrast, women in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to participate in school sports until after 2018. Even once they were allowed, there was and still remains a difference in the way teams must play in the United States and Saudi Arabia. In a video posted by Fifa, the Saudi Arabian women’s national soccer team can be seen wearing leggings under their shorts. Some players cover their hair while playing. Muslim athletes must often cover themselves to play, which is something I never had to do. Of course, as seen when France tried to ban the wearing of hijabs during athletic contests, some women actively choose to cover themselves. For some though, it is not comfortable. This topic leads me to two ways in which my childhood was different from those in the Arabian Peninsula. The role of religion in daily life, and dress.
I grew up with a religious extended family, but neither of my parents was truly invested in any religion. Most of my friends grew up with religious parents. Some went to church weekly, and some only went on major holidays. Some were Jewish, some were Mormon, some were Catholic, etc… I really didn’t even know which of my friends practiced what until I was much older because it never mattered. I went to church occasionally but grew up with the general understanding that religion was what you made of it, and it wasn’t anyone’s business what you did or didn’t practice. In the Arabian Peninsula, most states’ governments have some form of monarchy, where religion – Islam – plays a large role in policymaking. I grew up watching my parents vote for policies and representatives in a government that encouraged – hopefully and ideally – a separation of religion and state. In the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, the people do not vote, and it is likely that religion will have a role in government.
With the role of Islam in government policymaking comes dress regulations. I had dress codes in school growing up, but most of the time I never needed to think twice about them because what my friends and I normally wore lay well within the guidelines. Outside of school, you could pretty much wear whatever you wanted. In Saudi Arabia, there are some guidelines for what to wear at all times. You must dress modestly, nothing too revealing, nothing with profanity… etc… For some people, it is not a big deal because it is part of their religion. However, I think about the women who lived during the Women’s Awakening under Reza Shah. When he sought to “liberate” women by forbidding them to wear the chador, some still chose to wear it to avoid backlash from the general public, or as a protest against foreign – western – domination (pg 29). I have grown up in a place where I’ve never had to think about what message the clothes I put on will send to others, or the government, or the religious police.
Overall, I think the main differences between how I grew up and how the women in the Arabian Peninsula grew up lie in attire, the role of religion, and sports or women’s roles in traditionally male-dominated fields.