As I've already stated, gender dynamics here are difficult to pin down. Sometimes I'm sure I understand how things work, and then something happens to change my mind completely.
I made a previous post on this subject that I don't think is entirely accurate anymore. I thought the women-seclusion thing was more protective than anything, but I can't really say that anymore. At least, not in the case of foreign women.
We've recently had an incident with a taxi driver that has thrown some things in sharp relief.
We have this society where women and men are supposed to be separate (but not equal, mind you), but we also have a society where women are constantly being forced to interact with men who they don't know.
Women aren't allowed to drive, so they need a driver. That driver is not going to be someone related to them, it's going to be someone whose job it is to drive them. In other words, a man who is not related to them.
Shop owners are mostly men. This means that when a woman wants to purchase something – including things like lingerie – they have to buy it from men. Men they don't know.
In the West, this is not a problem. Though I do feel a little bit uncomfortable bringing a bra to a cash register with a man behind it, there is almost always a female alternative. And I don't care who my taxi driver is, as long as they get me where I want to go.
But in a culture where women are not allowed to talk to men – not allowed to be alone in the car with men - this is a serious problem.
This Pseudo Segregation is not doing anyone any favors. These men come to the Kingdom for work, leaving their families (including their wives) behind and then they interact with women who their culture has told them are loose (i.e.: Western women). Things are bound to happen.
As for us, our standards of interaction with men are different than here (obvi) and we don't know where the boundaries are. When a taxi driver starts talking to us, we talk back because it's the polite thing to do. We have trouble just treating them like a servant. This gives the signal to the driver, who is from any number of countries in the region who have similar standards for male-female interaction, the entirely wrong signal.
Where we see politeness, they see flirting and harlotry.
I'm not saying it's ok, I'm saying that's how it is.
So this is the situation we are left with. Forced to interact everyday with men who think the lowest of us for reasons we have a hard time understanding.
The company we work for, who, according to the government is our male guardian and who should be looking after us in this respect, is doing nothing to assure our safety. We have one doorman (who I could probably take) who watches over a set of glass doors in the front of the building. We should have at least three people down there at all times.
This situation, and the situation with not getting paid properly which I will not go into now, has all of us really considering whether or not it's worth it to stay here.
We shouldn't have to compromise our emotional health and physical safety just to exist here. Something's got to give soon, or there is going to be some serious problems.