January 30, 2012

Women and the law

by Lorraine Collins

Very occasionally I pen a few lines of verse and the other day I came across a couple of lines for a  poem I was going to title "Scandal".  I wrote the lines several weeks ago based on items in the news:

Women in Yemen are burning their veils.

Saudi women want to drive.

I never got any further with that idea but when I looked at a news item in the New York Times last weekend, I was reminded of this attempt at verse. The Times reported that beginning in June, clerks in lingerie shops in Saudi Arabia will be women. Until now, all the clerks were men---usually Asian men---because women have been prohibited from working outside the home. It was very embarrassing for heavily veiled women in their enveloping garments to go to the equivalent of Victoria's Secret and be waited on by a man.

The law was changed in 2006 when the government ordered that these jobs should be transferred to women, but there were so many objections that nothing changed. After all, women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and there is little public transportation, so men would have to drive them to work. And if sales women were in the shops, windows would have to be covered over so men couldn't see them. And of course, no women had been trained to work in retail. But it has only taken six years for the law to be enforced, which isn't bad, considering the history of womankind.

According to the article by Thomas Lippman, who has written a book about Saudi Arabia, the employment of women in lingerie shops will probably lead to other changes in the next 30 years or so. It appears that because Saudi Arabia is such an expensive place to live, more men want their wives to work and more women are being educated. Even now the Ministry of Labor is compiling a list of other jobs women might be allowed to have.

Before we start feeling smug and self-satisfied about how far advanced we westerners are, we should remember a few things. When I graduated from college, it was legal for an employer to refuse to employ women for certain jobs. I was really lucky to get my first job in journalism working for Time Magazine in New York, but as a woman I would never be allowed to write for the magazine. I could be only an "editorial researcher", gathering all the data, interviewing people, sending cables to correspondents, but then when I had all the information, I had to give this file to a man, who would write the story. After he wrote it, I had to check the story to be sure he got the facts right. Luckily, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed all that. Gradually.

When I took some education courses at what is now Black Hills State University to be certified as a teacher, a fellow who was in some of my classes said that he favored a law saying women should be paid the same as men. At the time, this seemed to make him a very liberal chap, but he explained that if a school could hire me for less money than they'd offer him, I'd get the job. It was a case of enlightened self-interest.

Although women in the United States finally were granted the right to vote in 1920, it was not until 1943 that women in South Dakota were allowed to serve on juries. Something in our society seems to have always held that women are too delicate, or unable to understand complex issues, perhaps too morally flawed to be able to make good decisions for themselves and others.

This attitude still prevails among some in Congress and some of our Legislators. The Republican Party has recently been accused of waging a "war on women" because of proposed legislation that would restrict women's access to family planning, health care or even medically necessary abortion. In response, the Legislators say they are just promoting laws to protect women.

Sure they are. That's what they say in countries like Saudi Arabia, too.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at her  new e-mail address, which is:   collins1@midco.net

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