Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Ignorance is bliss! Really?

Many media articles state that women in Saudi Arabia are treated as perpetual children, ignorant and removed from the world outside. If they would like to travel, work, open a bank account, marry or divorce, they require written consent of a male relative, who can be anyone from a father to a son. While we are fighting for equal participation of women in organisations in many parts of the world, it’s shocking to imagine places where there is no participation of women in few of the most basic functions of life such as driving. Imagine having to take the permission and company of a male member to do simple tasks, like going to the market or a clinic, or worse having your son as your guardian if your father and husband are not around.
Apparently Saudi law is based on Sharia and tribal customs, where purdah (segregation of   women and men) and namus (honour) are integral. This fusion of two ideologies creates a much tougher law against women, ignoring the gender equality based elements in Islamic law as well (Human Rights Watch Report, 2008)[1]. The male members of the family are supposed to protect the namus, and can even punish a woman to death if she causes harm to it. In 2007, a woman was murdered by her father for just chatting with a boy on Facebook. And even more shocking was the portrayal of the case by the Saudi media, blaming Facebook for creating strife in the country (The Telegraph, 17th January, 2013)[2].
Mostly, women in such secluded societies are brought up with a mental block and limited exposure. So, some of them don’t mind or realise discrimination in different formats, accepting them as the way of life. Nevertheless, this set-up is against international law (Human Rights Watch Report, 2008), and gradually, the new better educated generation of Saudi women are starting to realise that.
Manal al-Sharif, the face of Women2Drive campaign, has become a beacon of hope to other women there. Being a women activist, she drove in the streets of Khobar campaigning against the strict driving law against women in that country. She was arrested the next day on the charges of ‘incitement to public disorder’, and later released on bail with conditions such as not driving ever in her life, returning for questioning when summoned and not talking to the press about the incident. However, the authorities have not been able to seal her lips. She has opened a feminist pressure group, My Right to Dignity that voices Saudi women’s urge to rise above the second class citizenship they now maintain. Braving death threats and a job sack, she has been the toughest women activist in Saudi Arabia the world has ever witnessed (The Independent, 23rd May, 2012[3]).
Most recently, King Abdullah has granted women seats on Saudi Arabia’s top advisory council, the Shura Council. Even though the council has no legislative powers, this move gives hope to many women such as Wajeda al-Hawedar, who feels it will at least make an impact on the image of women in the country. King Abdullah has also inaugurated the first university in the country that doesn’t segregate the two genders and granted women the right to vote in 2015 municipal elections without the permission of a male guardian. (NY Daily News, 11th January, 2013)[4].
Even though chatting on Facebook with a man, or having coffee with a male friend in a café (considered commonplace in many other parts of the world), remains a far cry from the present Saudi Arabian culture, but such movements by the government along with protests by women such as Manal al-Sharif are obviously laudable and should be supported by the rest of the world, so that the Saudi women can have the opportunity to exhibit their potentials beyond closed doors.
Protesting in a country where women have legal rights is very different from protesting in one which doesn’t.  Hopefully, such countries would continue to have brave women like Manal, who would fight to uplift the status quo of a woman in accordance with international human rights laws. Going by Mahatma Gandhi’s words, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’, I am sure Manal you are almost there and driving towards your goal very fast. All the best!

By Parama Bal

[1] See
[2] See
[3] See
[4] See

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