The weather is pleasant outside. The wind almost moved the bedroom curtain, just in time for me to catch a glimpse of the neighbourhood haris (guard) mopping the building’s entrance. It is a rare occurrence, pleasant weather in this desert land. Let me make a cup of tea and enjoy it on the balcony. Oh wait – something is odd about that. I have never done this before. What is more, I have never seen another woman enjoying a cup of tea on her balcony before.
Much has been said and written about Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world, so I will not get into that. My concern right now is balconies – spaces that reside both within and without one’s home. As per status quo, it is inside the four walls of an apartment building. Shouldn’t women have access to it then?
The no-go zone in the Saudi domain has a sense of mystery attached to it. Some of my friends do not even have a balcony as part of their otherwise fairly decent apartments. “Where do you dry the clothes then?” is always my first question. The rest does not matter. What is the point of having an outlet if it is inaccessible or highly frowned upon to enter?
Women strolling the streets is not a common sight here, unless it is for ‘necessary business’. The balcony should be a reasonable substitute then. But, what do I find outside?
A sea of balconies across from my own – all deserted – as if an evacuation took place, as if no life ever set foot on them. Clothes drying in the scorching heat, sunlight reflecting on used paint buckets with paint dried on the edges. Some balconies are blocked up completely with metal grills. Light enters the dark holes inside worn out cartons and blazes on tin suitcases and spare tools. Residents also utilise the unused space as a make-shift storage room.
Growing up here, I always wondered why my mother never went onto the balcony, unless it was to hang the laundry, or why I could not play out there with my sisters, like my cousins did on their balcony in my hometown, Karachi.
On our visits to Karachi, I forced my aunt to take me to the local bazaar in hustling bustling Nazimabad. The route we took was always the same, passing through the animated, cramped neighbourhood streets; walking amid all the different kinds of shades and smells courtesy vendors’ stalls; and strolling past tiny apartments with tiny bobble heads looking down from the balconies. In my mind, this familiar pattern crafted a visual montage consisting of all things balconies: small, big, horizontal, vertical, all with one thing in common – people. Residents can be seen on their balconies especially during power outages; men in vests sipping tea or having a smoke; women communicating with their regular hawker over vegetables or a newspaper; mothers watching their children get on the school bus in the morning or returning in the afternoon.
Sometimes after everyone was asleep, I would peek out into the balcony, hoping to find someone else doing the same. It was possible, considering people in Jeddah stay up late and sleep after the Morning Prayer. But all that greeted me were my neighbours’ lights – telling me that they were up. The women must have been awake too then, confined within their homes, inside the ever-tightening four walls. But the curtains were tightly shut.
And just so that no one could take a glance inside or outside, the glass door and windows are painted black. A common sight when travelling on the road: as the car stops at the red signal, I look around to see that the car next to me has tinted windows, hiding the passengers from public view.
What about the men? What role do they play in this whole abandoned balcony situation? In a staunchly patriarchal society like this one, surprisingly, even the men are not part of the balcony space. Where are they then? Too busy disciplining the women in their household, I suppose. In addition, the streets and country landscape are predominantly ruled by men here. Perhaps that is another reason why they do not feel the need to hang out on the balconies.
Growing up here, I always wondered why I could not play out there with my sisters, like my cousins did on their balcony in Karachi
This is very telling of life in Saudi, the dynamics of the land I grew up in, but cannot call home. Perhaps it is too much of a hassle to step out onto the balcony. What attire should one wear? As cultural norm dictates, women must be burkha-clad when stepping outside, but can wear whatever they please inside the house.
In this whole inside vs. outside chaos, what dimension does the balcony fall into? The term ‘bastard child’ comes to mind here – the neglected, the abandoned and almost threatening sphere. A private space that provides you with access to the outside world, enabling you to witness your surroundings – and God forbid, allowing you to be part of the public gaze. It holds great power.
After all the muddle over trying to define the space, what to do now? Stay within of course! Home is a woman’s safety net, they say. A woman belongs inside four walls, they also say.
The sun has long gone down, the birds have cleared the sky, it is getting dark outside, and the last call for prayer was heard hours ago.
Time for the nightly ritual. Close the curtains, turn off the lights.