Saudi Arabia — is the change enough?

Published: September 29, 2011
The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

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.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • hihi
    Sep 29, 2011 - 9:13PM

    saudi brains are good for nothing, but saudi oil


  • sharifL
    Sep 29, 2011 - 9:31PM

    The king said that these changes are being made to conform to sharia laws. Surprise, indeed. If that was so, why was it not introduced before, as sharia exists for over 1400 years. More likely scenario is that it was done under pressure or influence of some big power, which happens to be friendly to Saudi kingdom and is non Muslim. So why these lies? Is honesty a treasure nor reserved for the pious?
    Pity the women who cannot decide for their own lives. Being elected for local bodies is more like window dressing. But it is a step in the right direction, although a very small one. I do not think I will live to see the day when women take the driving seat in that country. Pakistan’s laws are like so much better. I suppose we can clap our shoulders for a few steps ahead.


  • faraz
    Sep 29, 2011 - 9:40PM

    But the regime of ex desert bandits draws legitimacy through the clergy and its extremist ideologies; reforms in Saudi state would destroy the monarchy


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 29, 2011 - 10:42PM

    In this relatively brief yet laudatory article, most of the significant rights abuses in Saudi Arabia have been touched upon, including the lack of women and minority rights. Saudi Arabia also has an inherrent lack of human rights which needs to be adressed as well.

    The writer’s commitment to initiate a boycott of academic visits is also very commendable.

    Saudi Arabia’s policies have been put in place with a combination of the rulers, ultra conservative religious law givers influenced by a movement that has managed to introduce acrimony not only in Saudi Arabian society but over the years into other Muslim societies as well.

    One can only hope the prevailing winds of the Arab spring can also touch Saudi Arabia to some extent.


  • khan
    Sep 29, 2011 - 11:35PM

    A decade or so ago I was advised by the apologetic letter editor of one of the country’s leading papers, that my missive could be published for policy reasons. What was the policy you may well ask? Extraordinarily it was this : no newspaper could print anything critical about – the Saudis and the Army.

    I am glad to note that those silly days are dead and gone. Recommend

  • narayana murthy
    Sep 30, 2011 - 7:14AM

    The problem with the Islamic world (which, UNFORTUNATELY is the fastest growing religion in the world) is that, the intellectual/academic investment is abysmal. As a result, rationality/reasoning is the same as it used to be a 1000 years ago.

    Look at UAE/Qatar/Saudi/Kuwait and where they are investing their money. On mindless lavish mega projects. These people fail to look at the future beyond a couple of years.

    What will happen when oil becomes irrelevant. In the field of science and technology, things become obsolete quickly. And when that day comes, what will these countries have to offer?

    Women are not allowed to drive or vote. Is that a surprise?!!!


  • Was A Pakistani
    Sep 30, 2011 - 9:19AM

    What moral authority do you have to analyse it. What have you done in your country to get rid of the inhumane practices of honour killing and blatent rape supported by your legal system. It is like Arab countries analyzing pros and cons of democracy. Good or bad we are not in position to judge.


  • Sh
    Sep 30, 2011 - 9:33AM

    @narayana murthy:
    Dear N, there is no need to spew hate against Islam in such a GENERAL sense—hence the “unfortunate” comment is totally uncalled for. I do not mean to offend but it it does seem to me as if your primary aim in life is to spend hours on Express Tribune and bash Pakistan and Islam in ALL your posts. It seems wise to comment on issues and deliberate as you have done up there, but there is no need to bring such unpleasantness dealing with religion et al.
    Having said that, there are countless Pakistanis who bring religion into ALL their comments (be it praise for islam or hatred for another religion/race) and I wish those people can change too. Recommend

  • sharifL
    Sep 30, 2011 - 11:00AM

    @Sh: No need to get excited. Freedom of expression means saying things that can hurt others. It is part of democratic process. Just listen to what people say, even when you do not agree. I know when people write anonymously, they let their true opinion give air, which they normally do not do with their real names. WE have to get used to it. How would you know what others think about Muslims, hindus or whoever, unless they tell us? Otherwise, you can carry on believing how great you are. That is called living in unreal world.


  • Ankur
    Sep 30, 2011 - 11:05AM

    “Furthermore, since this view also repudiates population control, the birth rate of the fanatics is much higher than the moderates.”

    Simply love this sentence from the account, I am with you Gentleman!


  • Sh
    Sep 30, 2011 - 11:36AM

    Fair enough, point noted.


  • meekal ahmed
    Sep 30, 2011 - 5:30PM

    They are a dispicable lot and have caused great harm to Pakistan. But we still support them.Recommend

  • Javed
    Sep 30, 2011 - 5:33PM

    Loved the comment too


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 30, 2011 - 6:18PM


    Very well put.
    Freedom of expression is not only part of the democratic process it is also part of the evolution of a society to increasing levels of tolerance. As long as there is no incitement to violence, free speech leads to positive benifits in accepting opinions diametrically opposed for the sake of tolerance while not accepting it in priniple and it can only strengthen society for people with different opinions to co-exist.


  • Amjad
    Sep 30, 2011 - 6:22PM

    I don’t think any sane woman would want to live in Saudi Arabia. As a man I don;t think I would ever want to live in such a closed minded society. No wonder that the Saudis are looked down upon all over the world as backward.


  • mf hussain
    Sep 30, 2011 - 7:02PM

    Intelligent article!


  • Patrick
    Sep 30, 2011 - 9:17PM

    As I read in a blog recently about the the saudis , ‘Allah gave them Quoran from above, and oil from below but did not give anything between their ears! ‘.

    Interesting how the Saudis pass the most backward laws and then the King gains credit by waiving them for one isolated case. meanwhile the repressive regime carries on regardless …


  • Ram Bharose Singh
    Sep 30, 2011 - 10:14PM

    Personally I am apalled that the Saudis are letting their women get an education. What next – women will start competing with men in workplace?


  • Humayun
    Sep 30, 2011 - 10:17PM

    Leave the Saudi’s aside and think about your own country my friend.


  • Abbas from the US
    Oct 1, 2011 - 3:19AM


    Saudis do not pass laws, there is no passage of laws here. There is only an interpretation of what should apply in any given case from their perspective of Islamic laws which may be tribal laws that have prevailed.


  • Uzma Mazhar
    Oct 1, 2011 - 10:15AM

    About time we stopped calling SA an Islamic State or the leader of the Muslim world. Their version of Islam is dictatorial and misogynistic and in most cases blatantly unIslamic. They have hurt Islam more than any non-Muslim could. Muslims need to start educating themselves about their own religion and confront the closed-minded archaic ideology passed around as Islamic. Women had more freedom in the early days of Islam than they are allowed today. And this is the tragic reality in the entire Muslim world.Recommend

  • abbas from the US
    Oct 1, 2011 - 4:21PM

    @Uzma Mazhar:
    Women had more freedom in the early days of Islam than they are allowed today.

    For female emancipation in economic terms Islam was a positive message in the seventh century. When the right to inherit property was recognized, considering the seventh century tribal culture that prevailed around and in the areas that Islam emerged in.

    Western societies managed to recognise inheritance rights although equal with men, fairly recently in comparison to what was a revolution set as a precedent by Islam more than a Mellium earlier.

    However it is now time to move beyond the trappings of the tribal culture, these changes can only come from the Muslim societies that are in today’s terms severely less misogynistic than the example of Saudi Arabia. Turkey sets a relatively better example of the balance that may be required and that will be accepted within the larger sections of society as proved with their practice of secular democracy. Even Pakistan was doing much better till the seventies, when the direction was reversed by a military coup, and the introduction of retrogressive laws has tragically taken away women’s rights that were already in place. But Pakistan and even Iran have, a recognisable nucleus of a professional class of women, that can generate resources to bring changes to that exemplery level of Turkey in todays terms.


  • Maria
    Oct 1, 2011 - 5:59PM

    @hihi: They are ridiculed all over the world as being the most corrupt and backward people despite this change to allow some token representation in the Shura. The news here in Canada was more about how the Saudis lashed a woman for driving her car. Sad that these people hold the holy sites because the Saudis bring a bad name to Islam. The holy cities should be under some sort of international Muslim trust to save it from being associated with Saudis and their corrupt society.Recommend

  • BruteForce
    Oct 1, 2011 - 11:29PM

    Most of the guys above who say what Saudi Arabia practices is not Islam, I ask, have to studied Islam or tried to reason out with a guy who has and one who thinks this is right?

    Why dont you debate with Zakir Naik and tell him what Quran really says. After all he is a celebrity in Pakistan, isn’t he?

    The truth is, well, if I tell what I really think my comment will go unpublished. So, I’ll let to infer a few things for yourself.Recommend

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