Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Advocating the Rights of Women and Minorities

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,
Last Saturday, our weekly diwania was very tense. A prominent Saudi columnist was disappointed that his paper wouldn't publish one of his articles. In the article, he had criticized a prominent family for not announcing the name of their daughter in the wedding invitation card. Most people only print the name of the groom. His conclusion was: If the leading families of the country, who happened to be liberal, are afraid of breaking this custom, then who will dare to free us from Dark-Ages ways?
The rest of us were divided. Nobody disagreed that traditions, mostly accumulated in the last 30 years, insult women by hiding their names. We disagreed on explaining the tradition.
The writer who came from the tribal South assured us that it didn't use to be like that 30 years ago. The men in his village knew all women by the face and name. Today, thanks to the neo-Islamists, they all cover their faces and hide their names.
Instead of referring to your wife, sister or daughter by their given names, you say my folks or dependents, he noted. "Last week, I was called to my son's school because he was in a fight. Why? His classmate kept telling him his sister's name. Yes, she is my sister; my son's response was every time. Finally, my son told his friend: I know your sister's name, too. The boy went bananas and into big fight. What my son didn't know in the beginning of this episode was that the boy meant it as an insult. This was common. It shouldn't, and we, opinion and society leaders, should fight it. The least we could do is to announce our daughters' names in their wedding invitation cards."
I supported his position and reminded the others that names of the Prophet's mother, wives, daughters and female members of his extended family were not kept secret. We also know the names of the greatest women in our Islamic history. King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia was proud of his sister Nora, to the extent that he gave himself the nick name "Akho Nora" (the brother of Nora). Names of King Abdullah's wife and daughters are announced when they participate in or sponsor public events and charity works.
No one disagreed with our position, but some wondered whether it is the responsibility of prominent families and opinion leaders to advocate such a position. The argument goes like this: "While it is absolutely right to announce the female names in any event or invitation cards, we should also respect the right of those who choose not to. Leading families or not, every group has its traditions, and every person has his/her convictions. We should respect, if not celebrate, cultural diversity."
Then, we debated another point: Should the government advocate changing wrong customs and how? The writer insisted we should use schools, media and all available platforms to promote positive changes in our society.
Women's rights, respect for other religions, sects and thoughts, for example, are not subject to disagreement.
Therefore, the government, media and intellectuals should design public education and awareness programs to promote these rights and principles, starting with kindergarten and children's books.
The movement that took our society to where it is now should be overturned.
Others disagreed. They argued that societies develop in their own way, at their own pace without intervention from governments or other organized forces. No one group or authority has the right to direct social attitudes, traditions and convictions.
My stand was: Since "organized forces" were allowed for ages to take society to where it is now, we should allow others from different schools of thought with noble principles (like rights for women and minorities) to do the same.
The curriculum has to be changed in accord with these values. To reach acceptable level of national consensus on these issues, we could simply follow the recommendations of our national dialogue forums.
This way, we could avoid siding with one group or another. This way, we legitimize the campaign for positive change. And this way, we help society move forward - the least we could do for the majority, our women plus minorities.
History is a train that can only go forward. And it won't await us forever.

No comments: