Last Sunday, history was made in Saudi Arabia when the recently sworn-in Shura Council, the country’s consultative assembly, held its first session with thirty women appointees participating for the first time.
Thanks to a Royal Decree issued by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz earlier this year, room has now been permanently made for women to take part in advising the government on issues that matter.
As such, Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council will never again be a “men-only” club.
While most Saudis rejoiced this historic accomplishment; the implementation of the decision was received with the contempt of some who resorted to micro-blogging site Twitter to publically insult the recently-appointed women Shura members.
Derogatory terms such as “prostitutes” and “the filth of society” were used to describe Saudi Arabia’s finest female academics and technocrats.
These terms are already deemed foul and derogatory when coming from the man on the street. But those behind the appalling statements were Islamic teachers and Sheikhs; a slash of irony unleashed from the men who should otherwise be preaching tolerance, respect and compassion.
‘The Filth of Society’
Among the “tweeps” who resorted to insults was member of the Islamic Ministry for Da’wah, Guidance and Endowments, Ahmed al-Abdelqader.
“They thought they can mock the mufti by giving these 'prostitutes' legitimacy to be in power,” tweeted al-Abdelqader.
Following angry reactions by Twitter users whom objected the cleric’s foul language, Al-Abdelqader said: “We have heard and read many insults against (God) as well as mockery against the prophet, prayer be upon him, and none of those defending (these female) members was angered.”
Earlier last week, another controversial Saudi cleric also attacked the decision to appoint female members to the Council.
“Corrupt beginnings lead to corrupt results,” tweeted Sheikh Nasser al-Omar warning more of what he described as “Westernization.”
For his part, Dr. Saleh al-Sugair, a former teaching assistant at King Saud University slammed the assignment of female members at the council and tweeted: “The insolent (women) wearing make-up at the Shura Council represent the society? God, no. They are the filth of society.”
This wasn't the first controversial statement by al-Sugair, who is not a cleric but a medical doctor known for extreme religious views.
Last year, he called for a complete separation in medical colleges between male students and female students.
Shariah is against defamation
Last summer, two courageous young female athletes by the names of Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar agreed to become Saudi Arabia’s first ever female participants at the Olympics.
The decision, which was reached at the eleventh hour, saved Saudi Arabia from being excluded completely from the London 2012 Olympics.
At the time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had insisted that all participating countries needed to have female representation; and even though Sarah and Wojdan knew they lacked the experience to win on the international level, they still agreed to take part and respond to the call of duty.
Instead of praise, the two young athletes received their share of derogatory terms, in a very similar manner to what the ladies of Shura Council had to endure last week.
Wojdan’s father (and her Judo instructor) had pledged to take those who have questioned the morality of his 16-year old daughter and insulted her to court.
As a professional and aspiring Judo player, Wojdan is likely to fight many battles for the rest of her life; however, of all those battles, this legal one has to be the most important, and it must be won.
Of course, the battle will be tough as it will require a much clearer and much stricter implementation of defamation and libel laws, probably under a specialized committee.
Whilst one doesn’t expect all members society to behave in a similar manner, nor to necessarily respect the achievements of Saudi women; the idea here is that this shouldn’t legitimize the public defamation and insults we have witnessed.
Women at the Shura Council should study this matter and make appropriate suggestions to the government to criminalize and penalize such libel acts.
What will definitely help such a move is that Shariah law is renowned for prohibiting defamation; and it doesn’t make exceptions if the perpetrator is a cleric or not.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.