Some glimmers of hope regarding women’s rights in Saudi Arabia appeared last week when King Abdullah decreed that women would finally be allowed to vote. But upon careful reading, this ‘law’ may well be a mirage. First the voting allowance does not come into force for at least another three years and this will only apply to local government elections. Furthermore, such elections are of little consequence in a monarchy where absolute power of veto resides with the king. Saudi women are still subject to arcane ‘guardianship’ rules at the behest of a primordial view of Islamic law. Due to this, they cannot travel, open a bank account, or visit a doctor without being accompanied by a male relative. Only a few days after this supposed modernisation, a woman was ordered 10 lashes for driving!
For decades, the Saudi elite who can be found carousing around Fifth Avenue in New York, have said that “they need time” and cultures must change with ‘caution’. This argument is now stale and sickening. The only way to change moribund traditionalism is to confront it directly since the conservative establishment does not have any allowance for change or development. Recall the only real change in Saudi laws occurred when the late King Faisal directly decreed that women could attend school. He refused to buckle under the extreme views of the clerics and perhaps was assassinated as a result (though the conditions and causes of his assassination are still shrouded in mystery). Thanks to King Faisal, Saudi women can at least attend school!
The Saudi establishment must realise that the only way of change against theocratic forces is to provide a direct alternative theological narrative and stick by it. Incremental approaches in religious context lead to inertia. There is no doubt that allowing women to drive will unsettle the clerics in the Saudi hinterland but this is a price they must pay for empowering 50 per cent of their population. Now, it is important to also note that some Saudi women might well be quite sanguine about their subservience. When you live in palaces and have chauffeurs and servants to meet your every need, there is little cause to yearn for emancipation.
Acolytes of subservient Saudi women have given rise to Pakistani women evangelists such as Dr Farhat Hashmi and this is where the problem becomes more acute and is not just a Saudi issue. The evangelism of the Saudis is eroding the edifice of pluralism within the Muslim world and needs to be stopped and countered. Even progressive Muslim states like Malaysia are being radicalised by such exclusionary, intolerant and xenophobic views which have already spread across Pakistan. Furthermore, since this view also repudiates population control, the birth rate of the fanatics is much higher than the moderates. The same problem is also true of extreme versions of Judaism that have radicalised Israel.
So what can we all do? Even supposedly liberal Pakistani scholars go to Saudi Arabia on lavish business class trips to give lectures. The American elite are similarly lavished with hospitality and contracts to buy their acquiescence. During the apartheid years, South Africa’s racist elite had to be shamed into changing their behaviour. While sanctions against Saudi Arabia are out of the question, individual acts of protest must continue and rise. The right to drive can be a simple and symbolic focus of action (though there are many other problems in Saudi law as well towards religious minorities etc.).
I have thankfully done my Hajj so the religious obligation having been completed, I personally commit to rejecting any lectures or contracts from the Kingdom until women are allowed to drive. Most Saudis would laugh and say — who cares about little old me — but if enough scholars and practitioners take this bold step, change will come. When their billion-dollar boutique universities have minimal brain trust — change will come. Even if there is no change, at least my conscience will be clear because how can one justify not giving basic rights to members of the gender under whose feet paradise is promised by the Holy Prophet (pbuh).
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2011.