Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saudi Arabia's Selective Amnesia

Tariq A. Al Maeena writes: Some residents have dismissed the edict against mingling of men and women as not being comprehensive enough or practical
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 12/06/2011

In the same week that King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz instructed all government departments to implement the short-term and long-term plans he approved for creating jobs for the increasing number of Saudi graduates, which is also expected to create at least 70,000 new jobs for Saudi women, the permanent committee for issuing religious edicts, chaired by Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, issued a new ruling.

The ruling forbids the mingling of men and women in offices and educational institutions. ‘Women are not allowed to work with men. For example, they cannot work as secretaries for men or at receptions, production lines or accounting sections in a commercial centre, pharmacy or restaurant where men are also present,' the ruling stated.
In response to a question on mingling, the committee warned that the mingling of sexes would have a negative effect on the family and society which would lead to eventual breakdown of the moral fibre of the country. ‘Women's work and education should be done without mingling with men. They should work in women-only workplaces, as Islamic teachings ban the mingling of sexes.'

Quoting a verse from the Quran: "When you ask them [wives of the Prophet] for any goods, ask them from behind a curtain. This is purer for your hearts and for theirs," the committee said the verse applied to all Muslim women until the Day of Judgement.
The committee also stated that the Prophet (PBUH) had said that it was better for women to pray in their homes than in mosques. However, in the same Hadith, the Prophet (PBUH) had urged Muslims not to prevent their women from praying at mosques. The committee urged all citizens and residents to fear God and follow His teachings in all their affairs and dealings.

It was this same committee that issued an edict along the lines of the mixing of the sexes that banned women from working as cashiers at supermarkets. This recent religious edict was signed by prominent clerics such as Shaikh Abdullah Al Mutlaq, Shaikh Ahmad Mubaraki, Shaikh Saleh Al Fowzan, Shaikh Abdul Kareem Al Khodair, Shaikh Mohammad Al Shaikh and Shaikh Abdullah Bin Khonain. Naturally such an edict raises eyebrows coming in the footsteps of an announcement of the creation of 70,000 jobs. Some citizens and residents have dismissed this edict as not being comprehensive enough or practical.
They question the absence of this ruling on the hundreds of thousands of maids and drivers living in Islamic households. Or women having to purchase their clothes and undergarments from male salesmen. And wouldn't mingling as defined by these clerics apply to women approaching male cashiers at supermarket check-out stands? Or riding a taxi driven by a male, seated in the closed confines of the vehicle, barely a foot or too away? Then there is the issue of housemaids in Saudi households. Are they not mingling in close quarters with the male members of that house? Or is mingling considered when both parties are Saudi nationals?

Moral values
In reacting to the fatwa, Olga P. writes: "How about travel by plane? Muslim women enter planes which have mixed company in the kingdom. How about Muslim women studying abroad where universities are mixed?" She wonders, "Is this fatwa for all Muslim women meant only for those living in Saudi Arabia exempting Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain and other Muslim countries like Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia so those women should not worry when Judgement Day arrives?" Another added, "Please don't generalise yourselves to be the sole Muslims on this planet. It's the Saudi culture which you are talking about. Do you consider women of countries like Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan not to be ideal? They mingle with men at work, and still have better moral values than a lot of Saudis living in this country. I am not being biased; I am just saying that the Saudi conservative culture should not be portrayed as Islamic law."

Another wondered if this ban is based on Islamic teaching. "If so, then the ban must be implemented in all, and I mean all establishments, not only in educational institution and offices. They should also ban female nurses from working in hospitals where they can mingle with male patients. Is this ban applicable only to Muslim women? If the fatwa is applicable only to Muslim women, then what about those who belong to different religious group who work in different establishments in KSA? Does it mean it's okay for them to work with their male counterparts and Muslim women are not? The government must establish a separate hospital, restaurants, post office, school and many more so that this edict will truly be more meaningful.
So here we have a fatwa and yet we end up more confused than ever. Are we indeed a special people, Muslims of a different degree who require a different set of rules? Or should we just dismiss this latest edict as another case of selective amnesia?

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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