Thursday, April 29, 2004

What Do Our Women Want?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

Are women unfairly treated in Saudi Arabia? The West I lived in and have been communicating with for years takes this as a fact. Women’s rights organizations, human rights groups and the media demand that our women be able to decide and plan their own life and future. They object to restrictions on the extent to which men and women can mix in society, the restriction on their ability to travel and marry without family permission, driving, career opportunities....
The US ambassador to Riyadh, Robert Jordan, told me he is against intervening in social and personal matters and focusing on trivial issues. “The men and women of Saudi Arabia will ultimately have to decide for themselves on how they want to adjust to the evolution of women’s rights. What we are really talking about is ways in which women can participate in the economy, the society so that they have the ability to decide for themselves what environment they want. At least have the ability to participate in those decisions,” he explained.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the Western campaign to “liberate” women and those who support it among us are part of a religious crusade against Islam and Muslims. They contend that Saudi women are well taken care of, and live a better and more decent life than Western women who have had to sacrifice their modesty fighting their way in a men’s world. Rules, like not allowing them to drive or work in a mixed environment, are meant to save them from sexual harassment, temptation and compromising situations. The consequences of Western women’s “liberty,” they point out, include indecent relations, low levels of marriage, higher divorce rates, and increasing numbers of orphans and one-parent families.
While I agree with our conservatives on moral issues, I do feel we are confusing religion with customs, exceeding Islamic requirements in our zeal to protect our women. While the Hanbali school of thought requires women to cover their face, others say that they don’t have to. Rules like not allowing women to drive, manage their own businesses, taking certain jobs and reach high positions, are not Islamic.
I do respect the noble motivations behind such beliefs, but limiting religious interpretation and studies in these issues to a certain school of thought leads to religious judgments “fatwas” that do not represent the richness of Islam. Because of this, I was very much encouraged by the conclusions of the “National Dialogue Forum” set up by and addressed to Crown Prince Abdullah, deputy premier and commander of the National Guard, such as the review of obstacles limiting women’s participation in development, activating a broader religious discussion, establishing “fatwa” departments in every region, and restricting the use of “sad al-thara’a” principle (i.e. pre-emptive measures to prevent possible sins resulting from acceptable acts.)
I stand with the best half of our nation in thrilled anticipation and great expectation, and hope we won’t be put off or disappointed... this time.

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