Most of all, I feel really bad because I have promised many, that I would keep this blog alive.
But then again, I’m busy scrambling my gray matter these days – trying to remember what I learnt from the advertising greats like Jeremy Bullmore, Richard Fowler and Brian Searle-Tripp at Ogilvy, long, long time ago. I’m trying to put together a series of presentations so that I could train my team – unfortunately it is not such an easy task. The thing is, advertising has evolved to become the art of communication; the world is changing so fast today that even Facebook has become a “traditional” medium. I feel I am too ‘old’ to keep up with this marathon – sometimes all I want to do is to sit under a coconut tree on a beautiful Sri Lankan beach, sip a nice Old Reserve with Wild Elephant, put my legs up and enjoy the gorgeous sunset to the rhythm of the waves slashing against the white sands.
Instead, I spend most of my time in a land where restaurants have two entrances: one for the “Single men” and the other for the “families” and women. My time in this country has become such a regular affair that I cannot even call my blog “Life in Taprobane” anymore – it might as well be re-christened as “Life in-between Mecca and Medina” I suppose.
Not that I have a miserable life here - compared to most who live in Saudi Arabia.
I have access to alcohol - albeit a bottle costs nearly 300 US dollars. I see women in bikinis if I peep from my front window at home. I live in a heavily fortified “compound” that’s similar to what’s seen in the movie “the Kingdom.” Every time I come home, I stop at the first gate manned by private security as well as the Army. Various warnings including “No Photos” and “Turn off the Headlights” stare at my face until a security guard scans the vehicle and raises the barrier. I usually wave at the guy and zig-zag through a maze of concrete barricades along a barbed-wire fenced wall, to the main gate where a guard sitting behind a bullet-proof window recognises me and presses a few buttons to lower the steel barrier as I wait for the red light to turn green. There’s another gate that opens immediately after the barrier, then I weave through another concrete jungle, bump over the humps at every 50 yards and slowly get to my home sweet home where I have unrestricted internet access and a bottle of Vodka in the fridge.
Yes, the internet is censored to the public in the Kingdom and it is the “world outside the compound” that bothers me.
There is a notice on our office door proclaiming that “Women Work Here” – and it reminds me of the signs we often see at home: “Beware of the Dog.”
There are times that I find myself alone in an empty elevator, simple because some of the Saudi women refuse to enter because “there is a man inside.” I feel like a leper – but I know it is their loss, not mine. I KNOW they don’t get much opportunity to spend time with guys like me – so even a nano-second lost is a time gone to waste. For them. Besides, my breath could impregnate women – yes I have that gift – I guess that must be what those women are thinking.
The social barricades here are unimaginable and unbelievable, women who live in Sri Lanka have absolutely no idea how blessed are they to be born in such a beautiful country. According to the The World Economic Forum Gender Equality Survey, women in Sri Lanka are treated better than the Australians, Canadians and even the Americans. Sri Lanka ranks at the 16 place, Saudi Arabia of course somewhere at the very bottom, barely keeping up with Chad, Mali and Benin.
Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. Most women are at the mercy of their driver, even if they had to buy a Panadol for a headache (and, a woman needs a lot of those in this country!). They pay his salary, but the driver has the right to “pray” five times a day and the employer has to wait, no matter how important her needs are.
There are quite a few, well-educated Saudi women who are joining the mainstream employment. These are the progressive women who know how to remain ‘progressive’ within the cultural and social norms, but the society isn’t ready for this. We have a client who employees around ten to fifteen thousand people across the Kingdom, but their head office does not have a single toilet dedicated for women. But, on the surface, this organisation is one of the most modern, forward-thinking businesses in the country that encourages the young Saudi females to lead the change. This is a minor detail compared to the other frustrations women have to put-up everyday at their workplace. Saudi men DO NOT look at a woman’s eyes when they talk to her – even in meetings and I find that very irritating. If she is friendly, they mis-read her. If she keeps her distance, they think she is a bitch. Some of them completely ignore her, as if she doesn’t exist. The religious extremism is so deep-rooted in their minds, they act as if they don’t have mothers or sisters.
Saudi women are not allowed to be seen in public without a chaperone, they cannot travel without a male custodian, they are not allowed to represent themselves at a government office, in a police station or a Court without the male guardian. They cannot open a bank account for themselves on their own, even if they are employed and earning their own income. Rights of women, do not exist here.
The society segregates the men and the women, they are not allowed to mix and mingle. We don’t usually ask our Saudi colleagues about their fiancés or wives – asking about someone else’s wife is like having an affair with her it seems. But, however, the lingerie shops in the Kingdom are manned by men who are allowed to measure a woman’s cup-size and talk to her about her underwear at length – because women are not allowed to work in shopping malls. Such is the beauty of this bowl of spaghetti of a country – they are all confused in their own religious laws and taboos.
The other day, while chit-chatting about life of a woman in this country, one of my Saudi female friends put it in proper perspective: for a Saudi man, a woman is nothing else but a pussy!
*2012 UPDATE: The government encourages Saudi women joining the retail trade and now there are women serving at lingerie shops, cosmetics stores, supermarkets and even some restaurants.