On 23 September 2018 Jean-Michel Jarre is playing a concert in Riyadh. It’s his first time in Saudi Arabia, and some fans aren’t happy.
Because no single women are being allowed into the concert. They must be accompanied by at least one male. If such rules had been in place when I’d first started going to concerts I’d have missed most of the best nights of my life. And all except one of the four Jean-Michel Jarre concerts I’ve attended.
My initial reaction was ‘why is JM even playing this concert? He’s well known as an activist, why has he not taken a stand?’
Money and politics vs women’s rights
My husband suggested it’s because he’s being paid well for less than 2 hours of his time on stage. True, he’s not taking his regular band with him, as at least one of the musicians has refused to attend. He dislikes the ticketing policy and is supporting the Canadian politicians who currently have issues with Saudi Arabia.
mytubemichi on Instagram asks pointedly WHAT ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS??? and suggests a separate area for women who wish to attend on their own. I recall that the last time Jarre was signed to Sony, he released all kinds of stuff to get out of his contract with them. I also recall sniping comments about his appearance at Coachella last year, where it was pointed out that the festival’s promoters have a bar on any artists except their own playing within a radius of the concert within a certain timescale, and that recently their own artists have been headlining more often than others. Michi also points out that there has been next to nothing advertised on social media about this concert, so it’s very much under the radar.
To me, it is surprising that Jean-Michel has agreed willingly to this concert, as the women in his life have been so influential. His mother, France Pejot, raised him, along with her parents. His second wife, Charlotte Rampling, is namechecked on his latest release. His third wife, Anne Parillaud, features in the DVD for Aero; he recorded her reaction as he played her the music for the first time. He took an intimate photograph of Isabelle Adjani, his girlfriend of the time, for the cover of Geometry of Love. He mentions various other important women in his life in the dedications on Planet Jarre, the 50 year career retrospective which he is currently promoting.
So to have women barred from attending this concert, except as part of family groups, goes directly against his own beliefs and feelings. I’m guessing Jarre’s appearance must be contract-related rather than personally motivated as many of his previous tours and concerts have been. I also suspect he is trying to break a new market, much as he did with China in the 1980s. Plus, this being Saudi Arabia, even for a Western musician, standard cultural behavior applies.
A known activist
Jean-Michel Jarre has something of a track record as an activist, however, so to keep silence on this matter would be unusual. He often has an informed view on controversial topics, from environmental issues to copyright, privacy of data and inheritance. Nor is he scared of going to the very top to make himself heard. I would not be surprised to hear him speak out at some point about the issue of women’s rights in Arab countries, even though some of the emirates are taking small steps to open opportunities for women. Many of my colleagues are of Arabic descent, and as medical staff of all types, they prove that the female of the species can and should hold a full place in society.
(Post concert note – he did speak out and he was censored, twice, by having his music cut to ad breaks. He wasn’t happy when he was informed.)
But this has piqued my interest. Why are women kept so closeted in some countries? It can’t always be for reasons of safety, as some of them end up in violent and abusive marriages, mutilated or killed for the ‘family honor’. What sort of a life is that, my liberated sensibilities are asking?
Research leads to a more informed standpoint
So, being me, I decided to start reading. Seemingly, what started as a way of dressing to protect themselves from the sun has now turned into a way for men to protect their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers from unwanted male attention when out in public. In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights are seriously curtailed by Western standards. They have only recently been able to vote (2015), were only officially allowed to drive this year (2018) and should be accompanied everywhere outside the house by a male relative as a guardian (hence the rule on no unaccompanied females at the concert). They must be veiled even then, either a niqab with an abaya or a full burqa. In the UK, seeing a woman in a full burqa is still a rarity, but headscarves, niqabs and modest dress of all types are relatively common. Indeed, headscarf-wearing women in some areas outnumber bare-headed women.
Misogyny or empowerment?
Of course this form of dress inevitably leads to accusations of misogyny, even if many women appear quite happy to embrace a hijab and make it into a fashion accessory in other, more liberal, areas of the world. They do not see it as a way to put them down, but rather a way to empower them, as it stops men from seeing them as sexual objects. No wolf whistles or heckling? No fat shaming? No pressure to be The Thinnest Woman Alive? That has to be a good thing. Naturally, there are those who seek to punish those women who do not behave appropriately, leading to acid attacks and honor killings, among other issues.
However, in rural Bangladesh, it is reported that women in burqas are much more social than might be expected, leading to higher status.
From the point of view of skin safety in a hot climate, head to toe covering is rather practical. I haven’t seen any figures but I would imagine that the incidence of female skin cancer is lower among cultures whose women wear the veil and modest clothing than other females of a similar age.
Other rules and regulations
It’s not all happiness though – marital rape is not recognized and few rapists are ever charged. Victims, however, can be charged with adultery even if the union was unwillingly with someone who is not their husband. They also need permission to travel, marry or undergo some medical procedures. Some women see this as a chance to travel widely with their guardian or husband, others like moral support when they attend the doctors. And as for asking permission to marry – in many other places too, the husband-to-be talks with his future father-in-law to gain permission to marry. Even if it is not required by law, it’s the polite thing to do.
Spousal abuse crosses all cultural boundaries, but has been receiving more attention in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Physical, psychological and sexual abuse is now classed as a criminal offense, but only since 2013. There is a network of women’s shelters across the major cities to help those women who need to flee abusive relationships.
Sex segregation is common – families never eat in the same areas as single men, for instance. This is also related to the necessity to remove the veil when eating. To do so within view of an unrelated male is to break a strict taboo and risk infringing the honor of the guardian and the woman’s whole family. Within the women’s area of a home, totally different rules apply and they can be as free as they like.
The view taken by many Saudi women is that their restriction is not as onerous as Westerners tend to think. Some of them, at least, rather like the idea of having a male guardian at all times, and they certainly feel that some of the depravity which goes on in more liberal societies is anathema to them. I get the feeling this should be a two-way street – if their leaders agree to loosening the regulations around women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, more liberal women should rediscover how to dress and behave more modestly too. Remember all those lurid reality TV shows which depicted horribly drunken holidaymakers running around in next to no clothes? No one really needs to see that, much less behave like it.
Of particular interest to me was the fact that until recently, women were unable to enter sports stadiums. The ban on them attending such public events is also similar to what is happening with Jean-Michel Jarre’s concert, except they’re not even being allowed into the family section unless with their families.
Women’s participation in sports has likewise been curtailed, and even now is limited to private schools and mainly foreign-born Saudis.
The opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
The opening of the first mixed campus in the country was always bound to cause controversy. Staff were recruited worldwide, and a much more relaxed code of conduct was put in place on campus as a result. There is, in fact, no mention of a requirement for gender segregation in any of the religious books or teachings. There were, however, limitations on women’s access to education until relatively recently, and the job gender bias still persists. Only female teachers can teach in girls’ schools and only male teachers in boys’ schools. There is still male domination of the jobs market, with many wealthy male Saudis being employed in the sprawling network of government departments.
But overall, many Saudi women seem happy enough with their lives. They enjoy the security of knowing they have a male with them at all times, and find that others tend to respect them more than they might otherwise. The men, in turn, say they are happy to keep their female relations safe, and do so for them, and because of them.