Discrimination against women impacts upon and compounds the wide range of human rights violationscommonly reported in Saudi Arabia. These violations, which have been described in detail in two recent Amnesty International reports on Saudi Arabia, A Justice System Without Justice and A Secret State of Suffering, include arbitrary arrest and detention as facilitated by the wide-ranging powers enjoyed bythe arresting authorities; vague written and unwritten laws; secret and grossly unfair trials; torture andcruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the use of the death penalty
PERHAPS NOWHERE IN THE WORLD do women lead a stranger life than in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi women constantly endure being treated like secondclass citizens, even as men refer to them as “well-kept pearls and hidden treasures.”
Despite everything said about the importance of women, women’s rights are still a chink in the Saudi state’s armor, and one of the most hotly debated, yet murkiest, topics in the country. It is difﬁcult to even prioritize the long list of challenges facing Saudi women, which range from their political and legal disenfranchisement, to their curtailed liberties and restraints imposed by their legal guardians.
When I first encountered this installation entitled Suspended Together by Saudi Arabian artist Manal Al Dowayan, I took it simply at face value and assumed I was looking at a collection of 200 fiberglass doves imprinted with what looked like postcards. I got it: birds moving from one place to another affixed with notes and postage. It was pretty. But reading further I realized the piece was not nearly as straightforward or innocuous. I had been duped, and that was the artist’s intention. Though I don’t usually do this I’m going to quote Manal’s statement about the piece in its entirety:
“Suspended Together” is an installation that gives the impression of movement and freedom. However, a closer look at the 200 doves allows the viewer to realize that the doves are actually frozen and suspended with no hope of flight. An even closer look shows that each dove carries on its body a permission document that allows a Saudi woman to travel. Notwithstanding their circumstances, all Saudi women are required to have this document, issued by their appointed male guardian.
The artist reached out to a large group of leading women from Saudi Arabia to donate their permission documents for inclusion in this artwork. “Suspended Together” carries the documents of award-winning scientists, educators, journalists, engineers, artists and leaders with groundbreaking achievements that gave back to their society. The youngest contributor is six months old and the oldest is 60 years old. In the artist’s words, “regardless of age and achievement, when it comes to travel, all these women are treated like a flock of suspended doves.”
A truly chilling situation, yet executed wonderfully by the artist. Provoking yet strangely sentimental. Suspended Together was included in the Future of a Promise exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale last year.