Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, Arab News
When Wafa Al-Rasheed cried during her speech to the National Dialog Forum in Madinah last week, many of us cried with her. She was responding to a member who went out of his way to criticize the women who drove their cars in 1991 to present their case to the government and demand their natural right to drive.
Not only did Dr. Muhammad Al-Arifi accuse them of an outrageous, anti-Islamic act, but he expressed his astonishment that some of those women still work in educational institutions, providing a bad influence on our girls and threatening the sanity of future generations.
Ten members, men and women, left the conference in protest, and demanded an apology from Al-Arifi. He did apologize, through the media, and mediators brought the protesters back.
However, his apology wasn’t really an apology.
The man never retreated from his positions, and still believes every word he said. That includes his demand for women teachers not to wear their hair and dresses in fashionable ways. Such behavior, he contends, contradicts Islamic ways and may influence young students to follow suit.
Teachers, he preached, must be a conservative model of modesty to their students. He also feels that we don’t need to teach our children subjects like world geography. In the minds of Al-Arifi and people like him, the only useful subject is religion.
I would ask Wafa: What do you expect? This forum is just the first step in the first mile of the 1000-mile rollercoaster trip.
In the real world rights were never granted, they had to be taken. Women and other underprivileged groups must prepare for a long and bitter struggle with those whose interests happen to be in conflict with theirs.
French women fought for their rights to family inheritance up to the 1960s. Swiss women only got the right to vote in the 1970s. Many, there and elsewhere, were punished for their views and paid dearly for their positions. But at the end of the long road, they won their rights.
Al-Arifi is not an authority, but he represents a large body — women and men, young and old, educated and illiterate — that confuses religion with tradition. Some are ignorant, some are just confused, but others intentionally use the confusion to preserve the status quo and protect their interests.
The ignorant we could educate and enlighten. With the confused we could debate. But with those who resist in order to protect their self-interest, we can only fight for our rights.