By Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser
21 March 2012
I was hesitant to write again about the subject of Saudi women, but I concluded, after much consideration, the entire topic is more serious than I originally anticipated. My reasons are simply as follows:
1. Women are our mothers, daughters, wives, sisters and others and they affect if not influence virtually all aspects of our lives.
2. Women comprise more than half of our country’s population, and quite frankly, no real social development can be accomplished without them.
3. Islam is a great religion but some of us are sending the wrong message about this amazing religion by clinging to outmoded attitudes and repressing the basic civil rights of women.
4. Saudi Arabia has a moral responsibility to respect and protect human rights for all of its citizens.
5. We are indeed fortunate to have a monarch in Saudi Arabia who has been trying hard to liberalize women from a negative cultural legacy, and all of us need to support him in his efforts to grant women greater civil rights.
Unfortunately, in Saudi Arabia and around the world, there are always men who want to control women’s rights in the name of religion or otherwise. This is clearly not something that arises out of a vacuum or by coincidence, but is a deliberate and well-planned strategy by certain groups to dominate society; and the most effective way to achieve this objective is to maintain control over all aspects of a woman’s life.
But why is this so? Men in positions of power and authority have a huge stake in ensuring that women remain powerless so they can preserve their power and influence. This actually makes no sense, since the women in our lives, especially our mothers, have the responsibility to teach generation after generation certain principles and values which, have a direct impact on all societies from the moment one is born to the moment of death. As one of the Arab poets said, “A mother is a school; preparing her is like preparing a good nation.”
So, is the status of Saudi women normal or not? The answer is clear: Saudi women do not possess anything close to equal human rights with men. The obvious reason is not simply cultural; it is pushed by some religious figures who are restricting women’s lives through a style called “management by fear”. These religious authorities profess to talk and act on behalf of Allah and the Prophet (peace be upon him), and anyone who disobeys them is a sinner and must be punished in this life and on the Day of Judgment.
Throughout the history of mankind, all religious faiths are supposed to preach a noble message to enlighten people and promote progress, prosperity and humanity, but sadly the message is often invoked to dominate members of society, particularly women.
Although the Qur’an clearly states that personal freedoms must always be respected, that is, everyone should be permitted to make his or her own decisions, the tragic reality is that women are not left alone to make their own decisions and live a normal life. Here are four examples:
1. What was appropriate for women in ancient times is no longer suitable for them today. Ironically, women used to enjoy more rights in the first days of Islam than Saudi women nowadays (e.g., the issue of not allowing women to drive a car, although she used to ride a horse or camel which were not only necessary means of transportation in the old days but exposed women to a great chance of bodily harm). There is simply no rationale to treat women as second-class citizens. Why, if a women is killed, is her blood money half that of a man? Isn’t the loss just as devastating to her family as the loss of a husband or father?
2. Women cannot travel without a male guardian. This is no longer justifiable in the age of the Internet and the times in which we live. Likewise, it is regrettable that a woman has no right to self-determination, since her husband may divorce her and reunite with her whenever he pleases. These practices must cease.
3. Why is a man allowed to beat his wife simply because she is a woman and may be disciplined by him? Why, if a husband is missing and his wife has no idea of his whereabouts, she must wait four years before getting a divorce from a judge? Why are men preferred and considered wiser and more competent that she?
4. We have seen those countries that are governed only by men. They have the worst conditions of all, unlike many developed countries where women share political decision-making and the country’s governance with men. Yet, we only need to look to the wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Khadijah bint Khuwailid, to see the example of a very successful businesswoman, not to mention others who show us Islamic tolerance and respect.
If any of the above examples is based on the Qur’an, I urge you to read the story of the second Khalifah (Omar bin Al-Khatab) when he, on more than one occasion, determined what was good for his own people in spite of the fact that it was different from the literal text stated in the Holy Book. He was really a legend.
We must acknowledge that Saudi women do not have the political power to remedy this inequality on their own. Only Saudi men can do so. To honor the women in our lives and ensure that they have the same social and political rights as we do, I suggest the following:
1. We urgently need a Saudi personal status law for the protection of women and gender equality. I am fully aware that such equality, if it is ever achieved, will not happen overnight, but let’s at least initiate the process of narrowing the gap between men and women’s rights.
2. We also need to make a social treaty and eliminate guardianships over women and let each Saudi citizen live his or her life without interference. This country was established, and remains, based on the respect of its people’s rights just as the great founder, King Abdul Aziz, desired.
3. Since Islamic jurisprudence is underdeveloped, fatwas by those who are open-minded and progressive thinkers to remove the obstacles plaguing women are now required more than ever. Islam is a tolerant religion and the beauty of it is that it is valid for each time and place, so Muslim scholars must devote more effort to develop Islamic jurisprudence.
4. Most importantly, all of us need to support our king in his difficult mission of reform to rescue not only Saudi women, but all those who have been victimized by outmoded school of thoughts in the Muslim world.
Saudi men must step in and embrace these reforms to guarantee our country a bright and prosperous future where all citizens are valued and treated equally.
Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a columnist and a Saudi attorney with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah.