I wish I was as gutsy as Mary. I mean the Mary with attitude; the one who wouldn’t help in the kitchen, who wanted to learn and study like a man. That Mary.
But I’m a coward. I was reminded of this one Saturday night, a little after midnight, at a military road block 30km inside the Saudi border.
The border guard barked, ‘Change driver, NOW!’
My husband Richard and I changed over.
As soon as we were out of sight, we changed back. Richard settled back to sleep and I pointed our Jeep down the unlit road towards Qatar, congratulating myself on supporting the protest against the women’s driving ban, rehearsing the tale for future dinner parties. It was pitch dark. The few passing cars were shadows with dazzling headlights – we would be the same to them, but still I slowed to let them overtake quickly.
After a while, I noticed a blue light in the distance. Ambulance? Breakdown van? Best to let it get ahead, just in case. I slowed and kept to the speed limit. But almost immediately, inevitably, like a bad dream, we were upon it: an army roadblock. A Nissan Patrol skewed across the road, a soldier leaning in through the driver’s window, gun slung over his shoulder. Heart thumping, I began to sneak our little Jeep around the other side of the Nissan – worth a try, might not be a serious checkpoint. But instantly a siren gave that ‘woo, woo’, like on American TV.
WE SELF-CENSOR, ACCEPT AND COMPLY WITH THE STATUS QUO
I pulled over and a soldier strode towards us. ‘Change over,’ I said to Richard, my voice oddly urgent. I climbed across to the passenger seat, while he jumped out of the passenger side, brandishing our British passports to ward off the soldier. The soldier strode over, ignoring Richard, and leaned into the driver’s window, one arm resting on the strap of his gun. He pointed at me.
Would it be a fine? Jail? In 2011, Shaima Jastaniah was sentenced to ten lashes for driving in Jeddah, in support of the Women2Drive campaign – thankfully the ruling was commuted a few days later. Then in December,
Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysaa al-Amoudi were arrested and charged by a specialist court which handles terrorism (seriously, terrorism?! For driving?) charges. They were held for 72 days. Maysaa had driven, just as I had, from the UAE border, but not nearly so far.
‘No car!’ he commanded. ‘Saudi: no car.’ I gave him a big smile, giggling nervously like a naughty schoolgirl, and apologised. (Apologised? What kind of a protest is it when you apologise?)
Richard kept calm. ‘But we’re from the UK.’ The soldier repeated firmly, ‘No UK, no America, no Qatar: Saudi, no car.’ I shushed Richard, wanting to be out of there. We drove away, hoping he didn’t take our number. We didn’t want to be refused the precious visa to drive through Saudi next time.
I’m ashamed to tell this tale. The ban on women driving, which is not actually law (although in this country, who can decipher what is) but an enforced religious tradition, is more than a minor inconvenience for women in Saudi. Those who don’t have a male relative to drive them around, or the many who can’t afford a live-in driver, can be virtually housebound. So only 17% of women work in Saudi Arabia, compared to 50% in Qatar. How hard would it be for me, a white woman with a British passport, to make one small protest? And to write about it?
But we don’t. We bite our tongues; we don’t tell. We know email and Facebook are monitored, and worry each other with stories of people’s visas being mysteriously cancelled. We keep our jobs, enjoy our comfortable(ish) lifestyles in this oil-funded economy, our freedom to travel, our precarious freedom to meet as church and worship. ‘We are guests in this country,’ the preacher reminds us. Even mission organisations assume the absolute need for confidentiality: so we bottle it. We abbreviate religious words and self-censor, accept and comply with the status quo, try to think of ways to bless and be a blessing.
But we do nothing.
Yet there is this nagging thought – in the words of Edmund Burke: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’
In this world of saying nothing, Shaima – who got in her car in broad daylight in the middle of Jeddah and drove about, simply to be seen driving – chose with guts.
In this world of saying nothing, Malala, who defied the Taliban’s ban on girls going to school in Pakistan, chose with guts. The Taliban believe it is an obscenity for girls to learn. When other families moved away so their girls could be educated, and the school said not to wear uniform anymore, Malala carried on getting on the bus and going to school. She told her friends she would fight for education for girls. She wrote about it. She planned her encounter with the
Taliban, how to tell them that they were wrong. And she owned up when they asked: ‘Which one of you is Malala? Or we shoot you all.’
They shot only her.
Then, finally, the world began to listen. Gordon Brown took a petition over education for girls. Malala was flown to the UK for surgery, and eventually won a peace prize.
LEARNING FROM MARY
Mary was a little like that. She was a gutsy woman. Often we don’t recognise it – we are more used to a sermon that goes something like this: Martha was a doer, Mary was the spiritual one. Mary was so devoted to Jesus, so fully caught up in a spiritual moment, so determined to be close to Jesus that she didn’t realise she should be in the kitchen. That’s what our spiritual lives should look like, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also serve willingly in the kitchen.
Luke tells us that Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Sitting at the feet of someone is not praying, it is learning; it’s about gaining a formal education. Like Paul at the feet of Gamaliel, Mary was asking to study and be a disciple. Just like the men.
This story is about a woman asking for a theological education. Which was the only kind there was, back then.
But in Mary’s world, women did not learn like men. The education of girls was at best inferior to their brothers. One conservative rabbi argued that it was better to burn the sacred Torah than for it to be taught to a woman. There were exceptions, but in general, it was a religious tradition that affected all of life.
I am a learner by nature. Once an impatient author told me to ‘get myself a theological education’. It was the best piece of advice, ever. And eventually, once I had got over the insult, I got one. I can’t imagine being without it now – it is part of me, in my bones. I love knowing how to study the Bible; I live and breathe to learn through his word. I don’t know how I’d survive out here without knowing how to read, without the Bible and my books. Could you?
BLACK WOMEN AND WHITE MEN
Back to Martha and Mary. Is the idea that Mary was unaware of where she was and what she was doing, convincing? Is it possible that she didn’t know she should not be in the public room with the men, but in the kitchen – didn’t know that she should be serving?
In the Middle East, it’s kind of black and white. Women wear black and men wear white; women go out for dinner at night with women, and men go out with men. There are separate queues for women in the supermarket, separate spaces on the bus, separate carriages on the metro, separate prayer rooms in the malls, separate waiting rooms in the hospitals. I go to the gym in a women-only leisure centre, which has a women-only cinema. I go to a women’s Arabic class in the women’s section of the mosque. Thereare separate wedding celebrations. At cultural events, women sit on one side like a sea of black, while the men sit on the other in a cloud of white.
You would notice if you were in the wrong place.
I DON’T KNOW HOW I’D SURVIVE OUT HERE WITHOUT THE BIBLE
This is not unlike the world that Martha and Mary lived in. In New Testament times, the women worshipped in a separate place in the Temple. The main room, let’s call it the sitting room, where the guests would be, was the men’s space. The women belonged in the kitchen. And Mary knew it.
When Jesus arrived in Mary’s home, 12 other dinner guests came too – and they hadn’t called ahead to say they might be there for three days. Mary had no Poggenpohl designer kitchen to work in: think more like when you last went camping. Dirt floor and a few bowls. Which is, incidentally, more or less what they had in a pastor’s house in Pakistan when I was invited to dinner recently; perhaps with the addition of a single gas burner.
Mary’s servitude was a social expectation. The neighbours were watching, and the honour of the family, of the community, was at stake.
Hospitality was a religious calling, a command – how much more so the honour of hosting a man of God, a rabbi.
So Mary publicly defied the expectations of family, society and religion, and asked for something more valuable: she asked to learn. I always used to wonder about this story, and why the Lord wasn’t gentler with Martha, and didn’t simply tell Mary to run along and help. But now, here in the Middle East, I am beginning to see.
The Lord I love is one who says, ‘Good choice, Mary.’ The Lord I love is one who tells everyone listening, firmly, just in case there is any doubt: ‘it will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:42). And the Lord I love is the same Lord who invites simple fishermen – the ones who didn’t make the grade at shul – to be his first disciples; who invites disloyal, irreligious tax collectors to come along too, and even us, the outcast unclean gentiles, to be his learners, his students, his followers, his disciples.
There are many people in the world who need the freedom that we have. In Saudi they need it. In Pakistan they need it. In Qatar they need it. We must witness to the freedom that we have in Christ. We need to show and live the difference that our faith makes. Not ape the customs of the land we happen to find ourselves in. And we need to be a blessing.
So to make up for my earlier cowardice, I’m writing about this. Because Mary was gutsy, and because my Lord gives me courage. And freedom. And a life that is worth living and dying for – or at least a telling off from a Saudi border guard.
Life for women in Saudi Arabia
In 2014 Saudi Arabia was ranked 130 out of 142 countries in the annual report on gender equality published by the World Economic Forum. Women have historically been banned from voting, but this is due to change in the upcoming municipal elections.
Women must be accompanied in public by a male chaperone, usually a relative, known as a ‘mahram’.
They must not be seen in public without sporting the traditional coverall abaya. In February 2015 a controversial law was passed which forces female television presenters to adhere to a modest Islamic dress code.
Participation in sports is limited and a woman cannot try on clothes in shop changing rooms. There are also restrictions preventing women from entering a cemetery, reading an uncensored fashion magazine, or buying a Barbie doll.
STEPHANIE HEALD and her husband Richard lived and worked in the Gulf for five years. Stephanie is a board member of Tearfund and of Scripture Union and publisher and director at Muddy Pearl.