Before the advent of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia announced that women over the age of eighteen would now be allowed to enter both Mecca and Medina to perform religious rites without a male chaperone. The news was met with celebrations from Muslim women once barred from performing Hajj and ‘Umra because they didn’t meet the legal statute of either being over fifty or traveling with a male relative. Several Muslim women plan to visit the holiest shrines unfettered by male companionship.
This move comes after several actions that aim to advance women’s rights inside the Kingdom. Moreover, the Kingdom has been exerting multiple efforts to modernize its image and provide a more open and tolerant understanding of Islam to overcome the past rigidity of Wahhabism that once reigned the land. This latest step proves the dedication of the current Saudi regime to a modernist plan that isn’t merely exemplified on the secular/cultural front but, most importantly, on the religious one.
Saudi Arabia is central to the Muslim world. We pray five times a day and orient ourselves to Mecca regardless of where we are. Saudi sets the Muslim calendar since it hosts Muslims during Hajj and ‘Umra. Whether one is Sunni or Shia, we all circle the Kaaba seeking refuge from the world’s cruelty in the proximity of his abode. The centrality of Saudi Arabia is indisputable and not merely based on geographical privilege but in various aspects.
As an Egyptian, Saudi Arabia holds a special place for me, and I believe for many Arabs as well. The kinship between Saudis and Egyptians is evident on the governmental and popular levels. I remember as a young girl when Saudi opened its doors for Egyptians to participate in its economic boom after the discovery of oil. Almost no family in Egypt had some relatives living in Saudi during the eighties.
Families would move to Saudi and return to Egypt on their annual vacations loaded with luxuries that were scarce to nonexistent for us. They also came back saturated with a strict interpretation of Islam. The word Haram, meaning forbidden, would get thrown around in family gatherings to label innocuous actions that those family members used to do before. Going to the beach was haram for girls, listening to music; haram, dancing; haram, innocent mingling between the sexes; haram and love; haram.
As a young girl, I was baffled by the number of innocent pleasures that I was supposed to forsake to be a good Muslim girl according to this Islam. I kept asking myself; if Islam was a complete religion during the Prophet’s lifetime, how could all these actions, once considered acceptable, become forbidden suddenly?
I didn’t understand that there were different types of Islam, and I was being told that I should comply with the injunctions that forbid more than allowing me to be a good Muslim. And the changes were present not only in my extended family, but there was a wave of changes washing over the streets of Egypt and especially in major cities. Women were starting to embrace a more conservative attire congruent with an Islam that ensures women’s presence is perfectly concealed, hidden in plain sight.
It filled me with dread when, as an eleven-year-old girl performing ‘Umra with my family, I went to the mall to get ice cream in between prayers and found two strange men following me. The men started shouting at me, “cover your face, woman! Fix your hijab, woman!” I wanted to tell them I was not a woman yet. I couldn’t cover my mouth and eat ice cream simultaneously, but I couldn’t. I fixed my veil and hurried out of their sight and away from their shouting.
Those men were part of a special force that ensured compliance with visible Islamic law. Those men will no longer be found on Saudi streets and in Saudi malls. Those men exemplified a bygone era of Islam that I hope I will never see revived. Now women can plan their trips to Saudi, go for ice cream in between prayers and enjoy all-female companionship without being compelled to hide who they are. Women can go to Saudi alone, and we all should be celebrating.