Societal Transformation & Role of Women
Commentary by Dr. Ali Alyami
Director’s Comment: Saudi society is going through an unstoppable transformative process despite severe official censorship, a rash of fatawi (religious edicts) against gender mixing, lack of women’s rights to work and drive, heightened disagreements within the ruling family over political, social, religious, educational and economic reforms, and Saudi high officials’ re-emphasis on the “supremacy of Islam and its redeeming values.” Many signs of change can be discerned in the various strata of Saudi society; however, there is one segment of Saudi society in particular where change is more noticeable and undeterred by the State’s institutionalized chauvinistic male opposition: Saudi women are increasingly rejecting their marginalization by the state, by male relatives, and by the government’s use of religion to justify discrimination and oppression of women.
Contrary to the Saudi government controlled media’s reports and the government’s highly compensated apologists’ and beneficiaries’ distortion of facts, the changes that are taking place in Saudi Arabia, especially among women and the youth, are not the results of King Abdullah and the rest of the ruling autocracies desires to alter the stagnant status quo in the Saudi kingdom. Instead they are due to the Saudi people’s demands for better governance and to direct global pressure via modern technologies, especially diverse satellite channels and Internet services.
Tremendous mistrust of their government controlled media and total absence of transparency and accountability under the current political structure has led the majority of Saudis to search for more reliable sources of information and means to communicate with each other and learn about the world, its peoples, cultures, and politics. Given these realities, it’s reported that Saudis are among the most frequent and largest users and watchers of foreign media, especially videos and internet services such as Facebook, blogs, Myspace, websites, listservs, group forums, and Twitter, among other technologies, in the Arab World.
As pointed out in the attached article, Saudi women compare themselves with their counterparts around the world. The results are staggeringly in favor of their independence, self-respect, and freedom from the existing stifling male-dominated religious, social, economic, and educational culture that reduces women to second-class citizens. As always, instead of taking a critical look at their multitude of social, political, educational and cultural ills, Saudi officials and those who support the status quo are quick to blame women’s revolts against their oppression on Western interference in their affairs. This time, they blame the uncontrollable flow of information accessed through modern technology.
The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, urges the Saudi people and the international community, especially democratic societies, to support Saudi women in their struggle to undo centuries of injustice committed against them because of their gender. Empowering Saudi women is not only morally right and in accordance with internationally agreed tenets of human rights, but is in the best interest of the international community. Not only will empowered Saudi women prevent members of their families from falling prey to religious extremists, but due to Saudi Arabia’s centrality to Islam, they will also become role models for other Muslim women. In addition, this will loosen the grip of the deadly Saudi-Wahhabi ideology around the world.
The US government and institutions should take the lead in supporting Saudi women if we hope to undermine those who intend to destroy individual liberty and freedom of choice.
Crown Prince Sultan: Mobilize Muslim Communities Worldwide
Director’s Comment: Mired in what seems to be an unending family feud over domestic, regional, and global policies, facing a more informed and demanding population, threatened by increased Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula activities, worried about their drying oil fields, nervous about the increased possibility of the world moving away from fossil fuels and the steady decline of their regional and global influence, the Saudi ruling dynasty is resorting to its most dependable and inexhaustible source of legitimacy and power: Extreme religious doctrine.
In an unprecedented move, Saudi Crown Prince Sultan (who is also the Defense Minister, Inspector General, Deputy Prime Minister, Director of Aviation, and the President of the High Council for Islamic Affairs, among other titles) summoned the most powerful princes and royal loyalists to his elaborate Aziziyah Palace to instruct them to mobilize all modern means available to serve Islam. He also instructed the high caliber attendees to increase support for all registered Muslim institutions and organizations around the world. Prince Sultan’s goal is to encourage Muslim groups, especially in non-Muslim countries, to strengthen and develop their communities instead of encouraging them to integrate into and build the larger communities in which they live. In light of the Saudi state’s treatment of Muslim minorities at home and beyond and of non-Muslims in general, it’s more likely the communities Prince Sultan and his government want to strengthen will have to fall in line with the Saudi religious ideology, Wahhabism.
Astoundingly, the powerful attendees included Prince Naif, Minister of Interior and Second Deputy Prime Minster, Prince Saudi Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister, Prince Migrin Bin Abdul Aziz, Director of Intelligence, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Asaaf, Minister of Treasury, Dr. Khalid Al-Angary, Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Mohammed Al-Essa, Minister of Justice, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al-Alshaikh, Minister of Islamic Affairs and Dr. Abdul Mohsen Al-Turki, General Director of the International Muslim Community.
Natural Allies Against a Common Enemy
Director’s Comment: The West’s overt denial that it’s engaged in a deadly war of ideas or “Clashes of Civilizations” as Samuel Huntington brilliantly predicted a decade and half ago, contradicts what most Muslim media outlets, commentators, clerics, ruling dynasties and religious institutions tell their subjugated populations: The West is waging a war against Islam and Muslims. They cite the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict as examples of the West’s war on Islam. This strategy is succeeding in achieving four ominous objectives: Maintaining the autocratic and antidemocratic forces in power in Arab and Muslim states, spreading the deadly Saudi brand of Islam, Wahhabism, regionally and globally, silencing free expression everywhere and uniting and preparing Muslims for possible violent confrontation with the West.
On the other hand, Western governments and many of their media outlets, think tanks and learning institutions continue to mislead the majority of their populations into believing that the heightened conflict between the majority of Muslims and Western democracies has to do with fighting extremist fringes who happen to be Muslims instead of addressing the real issue: Political Islam. The Western argument defies facts, because the manifestoes (declarations of principles), rallying and recruiting tools of these groups, their supporters and financiers are based on Quranic verses and Shariah law. These groups pose threats, but defeating them will not neutralize or undermine the ideology.
In democratic societies religion is considered a private belief while for Muslims, Islam is an overarching doctrine that controls all aspects of human behavior, actions and perceptions. In short, Islam is a political system and not just a personal religious belief. In fact, Islam has been used from its very inception as a political tool of total physical and mental control by Muslim ruling dynasties to justify their repressive policies against their peoples. By continuously emphasizing to their mostly voiceless populations that the West is waging a war against Islam, Muslim autocratic and theocratic elites are in fact suggesting their captive audiences to wage war against the West.
However, there is a ray of hope. A number of Muslims, especially women (the recipients of the denigrating policies of religious doctrine), some politicians and a number of Muslim scholars are increasingly questioning the use of their faith as an oppressive tool at home and a rallying cry against Western democracies. Encouragingly, some of the loudest advocates against religious extremism come from Saudi Arabia, the country whose name is synonymous with suicide bombers and deadly fatawi, religious edicts, aimed at anything or anyone perceived to threaten the status quo.
The most recent example of this heroic stand against religious extremists happened in March 2010 at a televised poetry reading competition “The Million's Poet” in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A Saudi woman, enveloped in black head to toe, strode onto a lush stage and delivered an earth shaking nomadic style poem, Nabati, in which she depicted fatawi issuers as agents of hate, oppression and death. Hessah Hilal’s poem won her a thundering standing ovation and placed her near the top of the list of the contenders. Millions of Arabs and Muslims watched the popular show which shook the foundations of Muslim clerics and governments around the globe.
The West must understand that Islam is a political system and way of life for most Muslims; therefore, Western democracies should realize that they will not be able to separate the political from the religious aspects of Islam. The best course to undermine the looming threats of Muslim extremism to the very existence of democracy is to work from within Muslim societies. One of the best, safest, and cheapest ways to achieve this objective is for the West to support Saudi women who are leading the way in the fight against religious extremists inside Saudi Arabia where it matters most. Saudi Arabia is the birth place of Islam and home to its holy sites; consequently it exerts undue influence throughout the Muslim World.
Do They Deserve to Live?
Director’s Comment: As documented in the attached article the Saudi Ministry of Education and the Saudi government’s religious establishment are deadlocked in discussions as to whether rescue workers can or cannot enter girls’ schools in cases of disaster without prior permission from religious and other authorities. They are also deadlocked over what government agency should be contacted for permission to save girls’ lives when disaster strikes. One would hope that the Saudi authorities would have learned a lesson after a tragic event occurred on March 15, 2002 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1874471.stm) when a dilapidated girls’ school caught fire with 800 girls locked inside.
Heart-wrenchingly, the lives of 15 aspiring young women were snuffed out and scores of others were injured because the Saudi government’s religious police refused to let emergency rescuers enter the school. In fact, eyewitnesses saw the religious police engaged in fist fights with rescuers as the latter attempted to enter the burning school to save students’ lives. The reason given for letting young Saudi women burn alive was the Saudi-Wahhabi policy of gender segregation and insistence in cloaking women in black garments from head to toe, which the girls were not at the time. As empowered by the Saudi government, the religious police insisted that it was their duty to let the girls die rather than allow their faces to be seen by non-related male rescue workers.
It’s difficult to understand the mindset of the Saudi ruling men. How could there be opposition to saving helpless children’s lives? Monkeys and porcupines run to save their babies during brush fires. Wild gorillas come to the rescue of injured and helpless human children when they fall into their fortified cages. Are Saudi girls’ lives less precious than those of animals? The Saudi government should look the grieving parents in their eyes and answer this question. Eight years later, the Saudi authorities are still deadlocked on this issue.
Read Article (in Arabic)
Reinforcing the Gender-Based Apartheid System
Director’s Comment: The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, supports the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce’s initiative to help facilitate the creation of a small number of jobs for Saudi women at home as reported in the attached article. While this small step would provide some Saudi women with financial independence, it reinforces the crippling and denigrating gender segregation that has plagued Saudi Arabia since the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance took over the country in 1932. Contrary to the Saudi government and its religious establishments’ claims, the costly state enforced gender segregation in Saudi Arabia has no religious or traditional basis. Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are officially compelled to clad themselves in black and prohibited from publicly intermingling with males. This illogical system of forcing women to clad themselves in black is only a part of numerous and formidable denigrating state policies against women. Women can not legally drive. Nor can they live alone, travel, work, go to school or receive life-saving medication without a male relative’s presence or official written permission.
The Saudi government’s justification for severe gender segregation is comparable to South Africa’s former system of Apartheid and India’s Caste system. The Saudi government’s reasoning for gender segregation and covering women in black garments is to avoid confrontations with its religious community and old nomadic traditionalists. Neither argument holds water. Prior to the Saudi-Wahhabi conquest of the vast and mostly inhospitable land in 1932, men and women mingled, worked, ate and traveled together.
After the Saudi-Wahhabi conquest, not only did they name the country and its inhabitants after themselves, but violently imposed their totalitarian brand of Islam, Wahhabism, on all residents regardless of their religious or traditional orientation. In addition, the Saudi-Wahhabi conquerors carried out a campaign of cultural and historical cleansing. This process included artificially dividing society along the lines of gender, religion and regional identity. These divisions within society are still imposed and fostered by the state in a typical “divide and conquer” strategy. This is when gender segregation became “traditional and religiously based.”
Appeasing the religious establishment is not only duplicitous, but is a misleading and diversionary argument. The theocratic and autocratic halves of the Saudi system depend on each other for survival. Contrary to the Saudi royals’ public claims of having to shun confrontation with the religious establishment over policies, the monarchs pay, control and instruct the religious men to enforce the divisions within society.
University Rector: Only Covered Women Have Honor
Director’s Comment: I receive hundreds of e-mails every day most of which are related to the motherland, its people, government, polices and influence on Muslims and non-Muslims. The attached email, with my comment, came from a female professor who wanted to know my reaction to the content more so than the image.
First, let me congratulate you for being entrusted with such a gargantuan responsibility. To be chosen from among millions of highly educated and hard working Saudi women, you must have proven your academic capabilities, administrative skills, and vision of how a stagnant society can be propelled into modernity and a brighter future for all of its citizens. In addition, you must have known that this job requires at least 18 hours a day, 7 days a week of hard work. This is what rectors of major universities do in modern societies.
When I read the email, I was taken aback by your statement to the media as well as by the picture; they convey the same message. I decided to share my thoughts with you, but not before I did a little unscientific survey. I printed the picture out and asked my neighbor to show it to her students (ages four-five) and ask this question: What do you see in this picture? The response was unanimous: Two people and a ghost.
That’s the image component of the e-mail, but for me and for many people inside the motherland and around the globe, your remarks have far reaching implications, especially coming from a rector of a major university with 32 colleges, 52,308 students and covering 16 municipalities.
Princess/Dr. Al-Johara, I agree with you that in this day and age, a person can conduct an office job while enveloped in an obscuring black garment, as the attached image illustrates, from the air, a wheelchair, lying in a hospital bed or in a gold plated bathtub. This is not what compelled me to write. I am writing because of the pejorative ramifications and disdainful comment you made to the media.
Princess/Dr. Al-Johara, you said that there are covered women who do their jobs well in spite of liberals’ westernized style campaign against Hijab. You condemned liberals (I happen to be one, by your definition) for advocating women to be the authors of their own destiny, including the right to drive their children to school, to emergency rooms, soccer games and to receive lifesaving medications without seeking permission from their male relatives including their ten-year-old sons. You described liberals as decadent westernized failures who have only one item on their agenda: Sex. If that were the case, your Highness, why would these educated fathers, husbands and brothers be motivated to expose their female relatives’ faces to lusty men to prey on them? How about the preference of millions of educated and uneducated women who are unnaturally immobilized and forced into looking ghost-like, as my unscientific survey concluded? Do you think they should have a choice not to cover their faces if they choose to do so?
Princess/Dr. Al-Johara, are you not the one who is reducing women to sex objects? Aren’t you saying that women cannot be honorable and dignified unless they are invisible, enveloped in black? Aren’t you saying that my mother and millions of mothers all over Arabia (before and after it became “Saudi-Wahhabi” Arabia, read attached article) who tilled and irrigated the land to feed their children as well as breast-fed them in public are not dignified and have no honor because they were not disguised in black?
Princess/Dr. Al-Johara, if you are truly concerned about women’s honor and dignity why not stand up and fight the system that is designed to keep them as “perpetual minors?” Can you name any country, Muslim, Arab, or non-Muslim, where women are more excluded and marginalized than in the Kingdom? Just name one other country where women cannot travel, rent an apartment, deliver their babies, or receive lifesaving medication without male permission. Name one country where 95% of women (many of them educated) are unemployed while expatriates hold at least 60% of jobs that women need and can easily do. Name one country where intelligent, capable, and energetic businesswomen are not allowed to manage their businesses directly. Name a country where gender segregation is government policy, yet women are forced to buy their underwear from lusty salesMEN. Name one country where women are prohibited from driving, an absolute necessity in the age of modernity, globalization, and economic development. Name one country where women can be divorced in a text message. Name a non-Muslim country where women are forbidden from attending the burial of their children and other loved ones.
Finally as a rector of a large and important university, you have a huge and daunting responsibility toward the students and the country. If I believed in conspiracies, I would think you are more interested in perpetuating the stone-age status quo than in advancing women and protecting their honor and dignity. In order for the country to move forward and be saved from internal and external destruction, all of its citizens have to be mobilized and empowered to propel their country, yes their country, to a better, safer and stable future through participatory political processes. There is no escape from modernity and its many and impatient demands.
Read e-mail (in Arabic)
Read Article (in Arabic)
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