Saudi Arabian women: Then and now

Mohammed Al Shaikh

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Women make up roughly 50 percent of any society, including our own, so any development process that excludes women from its considerations and focuses on men is simply unfathomable. Such a development is destined for failure, as women and men represent the two legs of a society, without which it cannot advance.

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Before this prosperous era, the era of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, we would indeed reaffirm this fact, only to find that conservatives and the Sahwa Movement in particular, attack and insult these opinions invoking all sorts of religious prohibition, or “haram.”

Our demands for equality are either seen as immoral, through which we seek to break women down so as to control them and use their emancipation to satisfy our own desires, or as an attempt to remove Islam as the central code in our society and replace it by man-made, secular laws.

My writing is my means of countering this backward thinking with sound arguments. However, the proponents of this line of thinking have succeeded in rallying the masses around the loudest voice, not the most rational one.

My colleagues and I were confident that logical arguments would one day prevail and put these demagogues in their place. But despite our optimism, we never thought that they would lose and back down, and even disappear from the scene so quickly. However, the fact that King Salman entrusted his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the task of reforming the country and tackling the obstacles that hinder comprehensive development, was a wise move filled with foresight. In just a few short years, everything has changed, transforming a repressive atmosphere into a bright and promising one. Our once distant dream has come true, a lived reality on the ground; a decisive blow to those who seek to sabotage minds, claiming to be God’s representatives on earth. Their flame has been extinguished and its ashes scattered to the winds.

Saudi men and women attend the national day ceremonies at the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh on September 23, 2017. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
Saudi men and women attend the national day ceremonies at the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh on September 23, 2017. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Their priority has thus far been to muzzle women, shroud them in black, and deny their inherent human right to movement and work. Our society, which was once backwards, oppressive, and in crisis, has turned into a beehive of vitality and activity, in which women are true partners alongside men in production and creativity.

To the surprise of many simple-minded people, these changes came about smoothly, were met with broad acceptance, and did not result in the dire scenario they warned of. Women started driving, working in mixed environments, and are now responsible for themselves and their own travel and movement when they reach adulthood. And we have not seen any of the foretold fears worth mentioning.

I have no doubt that empowering women with their civil rights as effective members of society and full citizens on par with men will strongly reflect on human development. It is rather ridiculous to educate women in Saudi Arabia and abroad, then prevent them from working, from movement, and from their independence from men, just like any contemporary woman elsewhere.

A Saudi Arabian woman works inside a call center in Mecca. (File photo: Reuters)
A Saudi Arabian woman works inside a call center in Mecca. (File photo: Reuters)

The question that must be addressed, and that we must not be afraid to answer is: Have we, with these current decisions, violated the teachings of Islam, specifically moderate Islam? Yes and no. No, because we are perfectly in line with moderate Islam which itself is in harmony with modern life, and yes, if the Islam we want is the Islam of ISIS and the Taliban.

When we read the great books of our civilization, we find that women during the time of the Prophet and the apogee of Islamic civilization, played an integral, dynamic and active role in society. But then stagnation overtook Islamic societies, leading to the spread of ignorance and backwardness, with only one voice and no room for differences of opinion.

In these backward eras, civilization fell and with it, women's rights and position, turning them into second-class citizens whose primary job in life is to serve her master, satisfy his needs, and bear his children.

A sociologist says: Whoever lives during the same time period as the great pioneers and reformers does not know their true genius, because only the future will reveal the value of their contribution.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Saudi Arabian outlet al-Jazirah.

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