Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Man After My Own Heart

The religious stranglehold in Saudi Arabia has a very tight grip on the country. It intimidates its citizens from behaving with immoral turpitude, discourages anyone from expressing individuality or from being different, and despises Western values and lifestyles. But from what I can see, these attempts to control people in so many aspects of their lives seem to have the opposite effect on the actual targets. The vast majority of people here in KSA don't really need religious police to keep them in line or make them behave morally because they already are. What the religious police here don't seem to grasp is that a certain percentage of the population is automatically not going to have high morals, is prone to criminal activity, and enjoys being different from everyone else. And they also don't seem to understand that applying all this unnecessary pressure on those who don't really need it is only going to make them resent it, push back, and rebel. Forbidden fruit just tends to make people want it even more. It's simply human nature.

Credit: AFP File Sheikh Ahmed Al-GhamdiThat's why I was so excited to read the latest quotes from the controversial head of Mecca's religious police, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, who spoke in Jeddah this past week to a group of women attending a conference on "Women's Participation in National Development." The issue of women and their employment in various capacities in the kingdom was the hottest topic discussed because of all the unreasonable restrictions imposed on working women by the religious faction.

Not only does this moderate and sensible religious figurehead object to the ban on women driving here, he also believes that there is nothing wrong with “ikhtilat,” which is the gender mixing of men and women, in public and social situations. Gender segregation strongly contributes to the belief by religious fanatics that women should not be employed in countless positions here. In defense of his opinion, Sheikh Al-Ghamdi states that Islam "orders a woman to cover her body to allow her to participate in social life, not to prevent her from doing so." Braaah-Vo!

Many of the hard line religious rulings seem to be aimed at keeping the women of the kingdom at home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, and totally under the control of her legally requisite male guardian, which virtually makes her dependent on a man for her entire life. Saudi women who are lucky enough to have a decent male guardian don't really have a problem with this guardianship system; however there are many women who are abused and taken advantage of by this system in many ways and have no legal recourse.

Sheikh Al BarrakStrict gender segregation is a Saudi Islamic policy that has been challenged by Al-Ghamdi before. Earlier this year when Al-Ghamdi declared that there is nothing in Islam that prohibits men and women from mixing at work or in school, the religious backlash caused such an uproar that it was reported that he had been relieved of his duties as chief of Mecca operations of the religious police. But within days, the outspoken Al-Ghamdi was back in and it was business as usual.

In the meantime, an overzealous religious cleric, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak, called for a death "fatwa" (religious ruling) to anyone who promotes men and women in KSA working or attending school together. This was a huge blunder on Al-Barrak's part since his statement intimated that King Abdullah's revolutionary vision of KAUST, a new advanced studies university outside of Jeddah where men and women work and attend classes together, was worthy of the death penalty. So while the forward thinking Sheikh Al-Ghamdi was reinstated, the bumbling Sheikh Al-Barrak's website was blocked and he was in hot water.

Criticism for Al-Barrak's death fatwa came from many sources, including from a wildly popular Middle Eastern poetry contest television program (comparable to American Idol, but with poetry instead of singing). The viewing public witnessed a female Saudi contestant, Hissa Halal, rebuff the craziness of some of the country's fatwas, using the word "evil" to describe them. She was quoted as saying, “I’m against ikhtilat that leads to social flaws and immorality, but ikhtilat in workplaces and conferences and symposiums and that doesn’t impinge on the dignity of men or women or on morals is harmless and should not be forbidden.”

Image of Rosie the Riveter, Photoshopped by Susie of ArabiaPrincess Adela bint Abdullah, one of King Abdullah's daughters, has also spoken out about the need for allowing more women to hold normal jobs in the country's work force. She said recently that "Women's participation (in the workforce) is behind expectation. A society cannot walk with a limping leg."

Saudi society depends heavily on imported foreign workers to drive around the half of the population here that is deprived of the right to drive. This alone represents a huge “limping leg” for the society and the economy here. Saudis also rely on imported foreign workers to perform much of the sales-related, office, and menial labor jobs that most Saudi men consider beneath them and that Saudi women are denied. This society has crippled itself by being so totally dependent on foreign labor that it will not be able to function on its own without it. And denying women the right to work isn’t helping matters either. Any way you look at it, economically speaking, KSA is headed for disaster if the employment situation doesn’t change and that means allowing its women to take their rightful places as productive members of this society. And there is nothing about this that is against Islam and its values.


  1. Excellent blog. I learn so much from you and your writings. I'm glad I don't live in the KSA. When I chafe under the American Law, I remember how much worse it could be.
    I don't think I'd care to live under Shire (Sp??) Law.

  2. Agree, this country has high unemployement and yet keep importing foreign worker because Saudis doesn't want to do so called "slave job", but doesn't have capasity to do higher level work also, because before to get there you need start with "slave job" first.

  3. Thats a lovely writeup, right in time. MAy Allah Bless the Islamic Brethren like Al Ghamdi. Change is what we need and even if gradual, it is welcome. This announcement by Al Ghamdi is the first step in the right direction. May all my Saudi sisters enjoy their basic rights without hurting the Islamic beliefs!

  4. A breath of fresh air!!!

  5. I don't understand why men and women aren't allowed to be with each other as long as they are both covered up. I mean, isn't that the role of the abaya? Whats point of the abaya if you're not letting people socialize anyways.

  6. I was able to find a video of Hissa Hilal reciting her poem (with English subtitles) and thought I would post it here. It is a beautiful (yet frightening) poem, and she was so courageous to share it with everyone.