By Javed Anand
An amazingly durable holy pact that has lasted over 250 years — between Prince Muhammad ibn Saud, a clan chief who ruled over a patch of the Arabian peninsula, and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a religious fugitive — which forcibly imposed the latter’s arid, ultra-orthodox, intolerant version of Islam on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is finally showing signs of coming apart.
Saudi Arabia ‘s all-powerful religious police (mutawallees, muttawa or Hey’a in Arabic), empowered by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, are now hated and despised as never before. In May 2010, in an unprecedented outburst, a married woman shot at several officers in a patrol car after she was caught in an “illegal seclusion” with another man in the province of Ha’il. Only a few days earlier, the Saudi daily newspaper, Okaz, reported that a religious cop was taken to hospital with bruises after being punched by a woman in her 20s in the city of Al Mubarrazz. The young lady reportedly got violent with the officer after he asked her and the man she was with at a public park to verify their relationship.
Change is certainly coming to Saudi Arabia. Leading this churn are Saudi women and lending support to them are some very powerful men in the Saudi hierarchy, including the monarch, King Abdullah, who to some is the kingdom’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Whether the rumblings on the surface are indicative of a tectonic shift in the making is difficult to say. But there is no mistaking the shifting sands, especially in the last two years.
December 2010: Saudi Arabia is elected a member of the executive council of the recently created UN Women, an organisation meant to stress gender equity. Sceptics are not impressed, but others see this as one more marker of the kingdom’s belated march towards modernity. Meanwhile, the former Saudi education minister Muhammad Ahmad al-Rashid kicks up a storm in the Arab world with his book that staunchly opposes gender segregation, supports co-education and questions the relegation of Muslim women to the rear section of the mosque. Al-Rashid argues that Islamic scholars who prescribe the headscarf or the veil merely represent a “minority view”. (In December 2009, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, appointed head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice after the sacking of his hardline predecessor earlier in the year, had also questioned Saudi Arabia’s strict gender segregation. The nation’s outraged clerics have been baying for his blood since, in vain.)
July 2010: Adel al-Kalbani, a cleric at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, issues a fatwa saying he found nothing in Islamic scripture forbidding music. This when musical performance in public is banned in the kingdom and the orthodox insist that music is prohibited even at home.
June 2010: Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Bin Nasser al-Obaikan, member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars and adviser to the king, creates a sensation by issuing a fatwa that says Saudi women can breastfeed their foreign drivers for them to become their sons (as a way of skirting the ban on gender mixing). Weird and even obscene as the fatwa may sound, Saudi women activists choose to turn it to their advantage and demand: “Either allow us to drive or to breastfeed foreigners.” (Women are banned from driving and hired drivers are mostly migrant males.)
May 2010: King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan get themselves photographed alongside 40 Saudi women with their faces uncovered. By Saudi standards, this is highly “provocative”. Also, a survey conducted by the Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Riyadh, examining Saudi newspapers and websites, showed that from mid-January to mid-February 2010, some 40 per cent of the articles in print and 58 per cent of online articles addressed gender issues.
April 2010: A national campaign is launched calling for women’s participation in municipal elections scheduled for the autumn of 2011.
The previous year also saw plenty of forward movement. Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University in Riyadh, describes 2009 as “the year of the campaigns” where women Saudi activists embraced causes as diverse as a ban on child marriage and the right to set up businesses without male sponsors.
November 6, 2009: Saudi women launch the “Black Ribbon Campaign”, an international campaign demanding that they be treated as citizens on par with their male counterparts; enjoy the rights to marry, divorce, inherit, gain custody of children, travel, work, study, drive cars and live on an equal footing with men; and gain the legal capacity to represent themselves in official and government agencies without the need of a male guardian.
The “year of the campaigns” is also noteworthy for many firsts: the launch of Saudi Arabia’s first ever mixed-gender university, the appointment of a woman to the council of ministers, the election of a woman to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Perhaps nothing symbolises the changes sweeping the Saudi kingdom better than a picture published on the front page of Al-Jazirah newspaper on November 16, 2010. The photograph shows a pilgrim couple perched on a stone on the holy Mount Arafat, absorbed in reading the Quran. It is the woman who holds the book, reading to the man. And her face is unveiled. Al-Jazirah’s caption applauds her role as the religious mediator.
Ya Allah, what might our own Jamiatul-ulema-e-Hind, Jamaat-e-Islami, Tableeghi Jamaat, Ahl-e-Hadith, All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and above all, Dr Zakir Naik, be thinking of such disturbing developments in Islam’s holy land?
The writer is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy, and co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’
Source: The Indian Express