Islam has given women their rights to be educated, inherit, and to have a voice in domestic as well as public life 1,400 years ago when the rest of the world did not even consider women’s rights to be an issue.
Ironically, the same religion is practiced nowadays in Saudi Arabia, which is the land of the birth of Islam, as a tool to justify violations of women’s rights. Unfortunately, some of the Arab or should one say tribal traditions and customs, which even predated Islam, have crept into our lives and got confused with Islamic teachings. As a result, many women have not only been oppressed, but they have been convinced that true gender equality is against their Islamic beliefs. This connotation has delayed the demand for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in comparison with the rest of the world mainly because many people would question the piety of any woman who would demand true gender equality.
Accordingly, the recent emerge of women’s movement in Saudi Arabia has not been based on “secular feminism,” but is rather characterized by “Islamic feminism,” which is based on the belief that there is a possibility of having different interpretations of Islamic sacred texts, in which true gender equality can be found within the framework of Islam. Of course, conservative elements oppose this movement claiming that if it were true, great Muslim scholars would have thought of them earlier. Unfortunately, the claim asserts the sad reality of the patriarchal society we live in, where men cannot even fathom the idea that women can participate in a field that has been monopolized by men for so long. In addition, Islam is supposed to fit every age and place and this cannot happen if we refuse to allow the interpretations to evolve and change over time in order to reflect people’s educational, intellectual, and cultural backgrounds.
The late modernization of Saudi Arabia has also contributed to the delay in the Saudi women’s movement. This has led women to stay preoccupied with strenuous domestic chores in addition to taking care of their kids, who used to have a high mortality rate up to the 1970s. Even when the country was modernized, modernity was “imported” from the West.
This “importation” interfered with the normal transformation a society undergoes when it develops and evolves at its own rate creating intellectual gaps between people who come from diverse backgrounds in the first place. The “sudden” change also led conservatives to cling more to their old ways of life and to fear modernity, while others, especially women, found liberation and power in education.
Another problem is that many legislations in Saudi Arabia reinforces men’s supremacist attitude toward women. For example, women of all ages need a male guardian even if her “guardian” himself believes that she is a capable, independent woman who should be allowed to travel, for example, without taking his permission. According to these legislations, a woman is so incapable of taking care of herself that if she is not married and her father passes away, her son could be assigned as her guardian. In this case, it seems that being a woman even precedes the honor of being a mother whom the Prophet (pbuh) asserts that heaven is under her feet, while she is obliged to take her son’s permission to take many legal and personal decisions.
In Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s reign, the development rate of women’s rights seems to have gathered pace, which include increasing female participation in the workforce and even allowing women to participate in the Shoura Council.
The problem is that with the rapid increase of development, contradictions in women’s rights started to emerge as well. For example, women who live in Saudi Arabia are still not allowed to drive cars, which seems like one of the most basic rights women should have before holding any official position.
However, the progress seems to start with the relatively least controversial issues to conservatives while at the same time it appears like a huge development to those who demand change. This means that the progress is not necessarily logically gradual, but rather “safely” gradual.
The progress of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was late in comparison with their counterparts around the world not because Saudi women are weak or incapable because when given the chance they have proved to be strong and accomplished individuals in all areas of life.
Saudi women who demand change are proud of their Islamic heritage and Arabic identity, but they are calling for the respect and the appreciation that they deserve.
Therefore, legislations need to be changed and sometimes created in order to further empower women in Saudi Arabia. More importantly, culture should be differentiated from religion and oppressive actions should not be justified as part of our noble Islamic teachings.