Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Saudi reform is on agenda at last

| Fahad Faruqui | Comment is free |

Despite opposition from clerics, the head of Saudi Arabia's religious police is steering the kingdom in the right direction
One morning, on my way back to the hotel from the holy mosque in Mecca, I saw three Arab men with protruding bellies and thick black beards chatting at the entrance of my hotel. The streets were nearly empty after sunrise. I greeted these men in Arabic, and they responded in unison with a complacent look. The moment two adolescent girls, dressed head-to-toe in black, walked out of the sliding doors of Hilton Mecca, these men became anxious.

A man dressed in a long Saudi tunic with matching white headgear approached the girls and yelled: "Rabt al-niqab!" He wanted them to cover their faces. This would not have been such a problem had they not been enjoying ice-cream cones.

The man's explanation – which was more for my consumption – was both bizarre and comical: "The sun is out; it's time for you girls to cover up." This is how I was introduced to the infamous religious police many years ago, who work under the umbrella of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

The religious policemen enforce moral laws in the public sphere. Thus, they can hold a woman accountable for anything, ranging from letting a lock of hair sneak out of her hijab to sitting with a male colleague at a coffee shop. If a man approaches a female in public, the woman can get into trouble for "seducing" him with her looks, makeup, perfume or her fitted dress.

The religious police also have the legal authority to put anyone behind bars. No wonder the young girls I saw in Mecca, who were aged between nine and 13, threw the cones and dutifully vanished into the darkness of their face-covering – all one could see now was their eyes.

Prior to the days of Bluetooth, men and women thievishly exchanged contact information on a piece of paper or just whispered their phone number to each other. Technology has given the cat-and-mouse game between the religious police and testosterone-driven locals a new twist. Despite the ban on gender mixing, most men and women in Saudi Arabia connect via Bluetooth, while maintaining proper distance. But the religious police have no qualms about snatching someone's mobile phone to check for any sly activity, which can result in the phone being confiscated.

A naturalised Saudi woman expressed her dismay about strict segregation laws, saying that it does more harm than good. Nearly 95% of her free time is spent on Facebook, chatting or surfing the internet – which is the only window to the outer world for many Saudi women. When I asked this unmarried Saudi from Jeddah, who does not wish to be named, about sexual harassment in the kingdom, she bluntly replied: "We have a lot of sexual harassment here [in Saudi Arabia], but it's just never mentioned in the newspapers."

Known facets of sexual harassment in the kingdom are intentionally brushing against women and lustfully eyeing them – common in other countries where social interaction with the opposite sex is restricted (as Khaled Diab discussed recently in connection with Egypt).

In Saudi, though, there is another tier to sexual harassment that can cause physical and emotional injury to a woman.

In a society where there have been cases of honour killings, a woman can be entrapped into performing sexual favours. The woman from Jeddah said: "Due to frustration here of no activities, girls and guys tend to meet online, or in the mall or through friends. Then [they] find a place to have sex either willingly or are forced to have sex; otherwise the guy threats [sic] them that he will tell her parents."

Rape cases are rarely filed in Saudi Arabia. There have been instances where the victim was sentenced to prison time coupled with corporal punishment for fornication.

There is a dire need for reform in the kingdom. Last December, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, the head of religious police of Mecca, approved co-education in Saudi Arabia. This is unheard of in the realm of Saudi hardline thinking. Not to my surprise, Ghamdi's views stirred up a commotion among typical Saudi clerics, who are also fixated on such things as banning red roses on Valentine's Day, fiction and non-fiction books, movies, women driving cars and so on.

Cleric Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak issued a death warrant against all in favour of gender mixing. He probably does not realise that the co-educational King Abdullah University for Science and Technology is not only named after the monarch, but it is also his brainchild. Another cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmad has proposed rebuilding the mosque around the Ka'ba from scratch to ensure segregation – which already has female-only entrances and separate prayer areas for men and women. Barrak and Ahmad's views reaffirm the rigidity of those clerics who are the most potent hurdles to change in Saudi.

Ghamdi has recently made another bold declaration, that Islam does not forbid gender mixing and that it's only natural for opposite sexes to mingle. Until now, it was hard to imagine that lifting the ban on gender mixing would even be possible. But Ghamdi's views are gaining support from prominent Muslim scholars who can steer the kingdom in the opposite direction. And the good news is that it seems to be in line with King Abdullah's vision.


  1. thank you for you to make me learn more,thank you∩0∩ ........................................

  2. very insightful!
    100 ways to be more loving
    God Bless, Bob