Saudi-Arabia is a gender segregated society where government offices are no exception to the rule. Women are not allowed in the main buildings at all because their male family members are supposed to take care of most of the woman’s issues. However there are specific much smaller sections for the women, usually located in a separate building or at the side or back of the main building.They are frustratingly bureaucratic places that operate with stone-aged policies.
Inside are female security officers and other office workers in normal clothing. The places are pretty unorganised and confusing especially to a first time visitor. Just like in the main building, the women are also forced to wait in line at one window after another to get anything done. Lots of stamping and shuffling of papers goes on. The only difference is women’s sections are not as crowded and the most important things can be done in the men’s (main) office ONLY.
Women are required to sign all paperwork by stamping their thumb on the forms. I’ve never heard it being compulsory for men, unless the man is illiterate. Note even if the women are literate and fully capable of signing their own names, this ancient practise is compulsory for them.
The illiteracy rate among the older generations and especially women is quite high. This of course poses great difficulties especially for women without a mahram (male guardian)to help. If no male family member is able to write documents for them or they are unwilling to help, there are places these women can go to to get their paperwork done. Men offering secretarial help to write documents can be found near to government buildings. They will have simple old school typewriters, they usually sit on the ground on a carpet which they made a temporary office on.
We (or I) had to go to one of these women’s sections to stamp some papers for our marriage permission application. On the way there I overheard a woman accompanied by her daughter approaching one of these men to help make a complaint about her husband. Apparently the husband had not showed up for over six months after he had taken a new wife. She had no other male relatives to support them financially or willing to help them get the husband to start paying the bills and providing food.
I can’t even imagine how hard and frustrating her situation must have been. Basically this woman and probably countless of others can’t get any legal action done without a man. They are just left hanging on a thread. Women in Saudi-Arabia are forced to be so dependant on men. Nothing can be accomplished without a man! Even running the women’s section of a government office needs a Saudi male to function!
I’m lucky I was out of the office relatively quickly, although not a single woman in there (not even the legal advisor/lawyer of some sort) spoke English. I survived with body language and broken Arabic. The lawyer lady asked me was I sure I wanted to marry a Saudi guy? After I had convinced her that I was indeed serious, she handed me the documents and an ink pad. I could not believe I was being asked to sign with my thumb. What was this, the stone ages? It made me smile but it also made me sad to see how Saudi women were treated by their own government.