Dr. Khaled Batarfi,
Women issues have always been hot buttons in Saudi Arabia, just as abortion is in America and immigration in Europe. You push a button and receive instant passionate responses. I wrote a couple of articles about women under stress and heard from so many.
Most respondents agreed with my position, some have interesting perspectives. Few Westerners sound like “how lucky we are to live in a civilized world. What a pity you don’t!” Muslims, especially women, are happy we opened the files, but some are concerned that the stigma might be attached to Islam rather than to misbehaving Muslims.
Saudis who appose my stands seem to be of two minds. No one justifies domestic violence. Many would readily recite Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) positions in women’s favor. But here the agreement ends. When it comes to women rights different cultures produce different stands. Tribal and rural traditions, for example, may contradict urban customs.
Take women driving, for example. Bedouin females do drive their cars, because their environment demands it. Urban women, on the other hand, are not allowed. No one claims Islam prohibits it. They do however cite fears and concerns that women driving may compromise Islamic and social values. Women, they say, need to be guarded all the time. Not only are they “treasures” and easy target that may be attacked by the wolves of this world, they are also weak creatures that can’t be trusted. The latter explains why many women are patronized at all stages of their lives. Like children, they maybe loved, adored and well taken care of, but not trusted to decide for themselves. Worse, some don’t trust a woman with emotions, ethics and character. They suspect that she would fall for all kinds of temptation, sexual, intellectual, material and otherwise.
Some of those people are religious. But when you tell them how women were treated in the era of the Prophet and the caliphs, they tell you those were different times. Corruption and modern temptations are rampant and one cannot be too careful. Why women? Because they are the heart of modern decadence. Look around you, they advise, and see how women are reduced to a sexual commodity. They would readily give you global rates of divorce, illegitimate children, rape and other forms of violence and exploitation. The only way to preserve our society and culture is to keep our women safe at home, they argue.
Other Saudis who disagree with my position would agree with them in private but are afraid of the stigma. They expect Western campaigns against Islam and Saudi Arabia would use such self-revelations and criticism to bolster their case and intensify their attacks. They readily argue that mistreatment of women is not a Saudi specialty and give you figures to show worse cases of abuse and exploitation in America and Europe. So, why us?
My Friend Ed, an American Jew, agreed: This category of human relations is not limited to Saudi Arabia; far from it. It exists in parts of the Western world as well, hidden and exposed. Slamming Islam is totally wrong and irresponsible; some folks enjoy each and every opportunity to belittle Muslims. This has been going on for centuries and we never seem to grow up and be respectful. However, the rights of women are integral to a humanistic society and this is a universal caveat. Nick, a British Middle East observer, disagrees: Argument about image and comparison is often heard in the region. In the US and Europe there is indeed the same problems. But they are discussed in the media; there are civil organizations to support women and very stringent laws against those men who abuse women. This is not an issue about image.
An American friend wrote: The problem of abusing women is indeed universal. What needs discussion is what are the protections available to women faced with abuse. Can a woman get a restraining order easily? Will the police come to her aid or hesitate to interfere in a family matter? Are there shelters waiting for her and her children if she has no family who will take her in? Are laws supportive of her right to live without abuse or do the laws encourage her husband (or father or brother) to blackmail her into remaining in a private hell to provide food, shelter and education for her children?
Many Saudi women are blessed with kind, loving, respectful husbands who know the value of a good woman, helpmate and foundation for the family. The question is where are the laws to protect those who don’t? My stand is: We should work on our problems without worrying about who thinks what of us. The fair and wise will know we are doing the right thing. The unfair and unwise will criticize us anyway. Meanwhile, half the population starves for justice.