By Samar Fatany
16 May 2015
I was recently asked by a visiting American journalist about some of the misconceptions that the American public has of Saudi women. We both agreed that the stereotypes of Saudi women need to be overturned in light of the emerging role of the modern Saudi woman who is educated, highly professional and capable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century. Many people around the world do not understand the true identity of Saudi women and there is genuine interest in their role within conservative Saudi Muslim society.
Unfortunately, the image of Saudi women abroad is negative. This is because Saudi women are generally identified as faceless women shrouded in black. That image immediately alienates them from the rest of the world. What makes it worse is that they are not engaged with the international community of women. They do not have a presence in international events and do not make an impact in popular global organizations. Saudi women rarely become internationally famous and are reluctant to defy the hardliners who are always eager to attack them if they do not comply with the rule of wearing the black Niqab (the veil worn by Muslim women in public that covers the whole face apart from the eyes). Many of us may have given a few interviews here and there, but we are not recognized because we do not represent a large segment of society that adheres to a rigid ideology that rejects the appearance of women in public with their faces uncovered.
However, recently the controversial issue of the Niqab was the subject of a debate on a popular TV talk show. The bold host attacked his guest for criticizing a group of women who attended a meeting in the presence of men with their faces uncovered. The guest insisted that it was very inappropriate and against our Muslim social norms. However, the host argued that he had no right to pass judgment on respectable women and asked him to apologize for his negative remarks. He asserted that it is a matter of personal choice and many Saudi women choose not to wear the Niqab. He firmly added that not all Muslims believe in the Niqab and it remains a controversial issue among Muslim scholars today.
The open discussion about the subject was unprecedented. It is usually a taboo subject and there are still many in society who frowns upon those women who do not wear the nib. Let us hope that this will be the beginning of other such debates.
It is time that we recognize that there are Saudi women who have a more modern approach to life and do not subscribe to the rigid code of dress and a lifestyle that is based on extremists’ interpretations of Islamic rulings. Women from different regions of Saudi Arabia have different customs and traditions that are tribal and not Islamic; however, many people tend to confuse some of the prevalent customs with Islamic tradition.
Ideas and opinions about the emerging role of women should be frequently debated on talk shows. Many still cling to the inherited traditional role of women being totally obedient and subservient to the will of male guardians. There are hardliners who still regard women as intellectually, physically and morally inferior. Saudi society remains male-dominated and men are given absolute power, and they are the decision makers for every matter related to the legal rights of women and their needs. This cannot go on forever and there should be louder voices to reject the status quo.
It is time we reject laws and regulations that are incompatible with women’s needs in today’s world. Decision makers are called upon to address the ambiguities in the teachings of Islamic scholars, and encourage a more enlightened religious debate to empower women and recognize their rights. There should be concerted efforts to identify progressive and qualified women and facilitate their participation in governmental and managerial positions thus allowing them to have a say in decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their children. Civil society should also play a role in protecting the rights of women and helping decision makers face the realities of our times.
Today, women who are knowledgeable in Islamic jurisprudence can defy the hardliners and argue about Islamic laws and principles to revise the current religious teachings that are imposed to govern the lives and roles of women in society. Laws and regulations that discriminate against women based on the assumption that women are inferior should be totally shunned and rejected and not encouraged and propagated.
Women in the Shoura Council have a responsibility to effect change and to call for new policies in order to radically improve the status of women in society. Opinion leaders must push to empower women experts in every sphere of national life.
Social injustice against women requires appropriate and effective, codified Shariah laws so that all are aware of women’s legal rights and so that violators can be held accountable for misdeeds. The way to reform begins with the will to amend laws, apply new national gender policies, and establish institutions to implement them. Friday sermons, religious teachings and schoolbooks should portray the new image of the more modern Saudi woman, who is educated, capable and professional.
Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer.