Sunday, June 26, 2011

When Resistance Is From Within Society

Unless change emanates from Saudi women, there is very little the government can do to promote their rights
By Tariq A. Al Maeena
Over the past decade, numerous columns and features have appeared in the Saudi press touching upon women's rights and calling for more freedom for them to pursue their independent destiny and the removal of gender discrimination.
And the government had cautiously responded, beginning with issuance of nationality ID cards for Saudi women and subsequently making it mandatory for all women to get one. They also set about targeting more professions for women, something unheard of a decade ago. While private business had earlier taken the lead, ministries today are slowly joining the bandwagon in creating more jobs for women in various sectors. The Foreign Ministry and the Passport Departments are but two that have responded to the growing awareness of utilising the forgotten half of our workforce. The Commerce Ministry is working on moves to eliminate the much-despised requirement of a male guardian in the running of companies owned and operated by women.
But despite these steps, the response from most Saudi women has been surprisingly disappointing. Other than the few hundred thousand urban or foreign-educated women who have grabbed the challenge, there are many who are seemingly uncomfortable with the pressures of having to change. And puzzling as it may seem, it is the mindset of these women that adds significantly to our social resistance to amend.
In talking to a few of these women who are against the ‘corruption of our way of life' as they prefer to see it, they are not hesitant to parrot some vague reference to our religion forbidding them from venturing into the present world. And when reminded that their interpretations are misguided according to renowned scholars, they remain stubbornly unconvinced.
Just what has got them to this stage? Until the late Seventies, there was more free thought and less fear and suspicion of change. Women made the news then, while universities were admitting record numbers of female students.
Torrent of edicts
In fields of medicine, education, law, media and business, women were quickly establishing themselves. There was an atmosphere of challenge, a building of a nation that each felt they had to contribute to. And some of those early female students went on to distinguish themselves in various fields and earn international recognition.
But not long after that, subtle variations started taking place within our schools and societies. Religious edicts flowed in uncontrolled torrents rejecting one progressive thought after another. Women soon disappeared from the media. Women's businesses were conducted behind closed doors. Work in ministries to process paperwork had to be done by a male guardian. Banks would not open accounts for women without the consent of their male guardian. Hospitals would not admit women unless their male guardian consented.
And the intensity of such acts kept increasing, with vociferous debates on what constituted a proper veil, why women couldn't drive and what professions were noble and limited to women and the like.
And not surprisingly, most of these restrictive declarations came from men. Men who paraded around pushing their own repressive interpretation of Islam with authority; men who until today continue to force their own interpretations of Islam in the apparent act of subjugating their women. Grudgingly, women found solace either in teaching in an all-girl's school or else retreated into their shells waiting to get married. Even an honourable profession such as medicine was frowned upon as it would lead to contact with men.
Saudi educational institutions were not far behind in promoting this new wave of oppressive thinking. End of the year celebrations were frowned upon in certain schools, deemed by some teachers as a wasteful sin.
Some schools even went as far as banning any shows put up by students to celebrate Mother's Day. Intra-mural activities between girls' schools were abruptly stopped, and the prospect of physical education for our girls was quickly buried under a morass of indigestible edicts. The dress code became more restrictive, as did the thought process of those who administered such schools.
And thus new generations were shaped, with a mindset evolved from a narrow view; a generation who lived a life in fear of sinning. Everything was deemed either black or white. Creativity and queries had been replaced by strict obedience, or else the sword of utter damnation hovered above their heads. They were expected to conform to this school of thought and soon knew no other. Many fathers and husbands used the prevailing atmosphere with moral authority in repressing the female members of their families to their own advantage.
And it is these women today who form the mass of resistance from within. Conditioned by men into beliefs that left them with very little stature, these women remain a considerable number within our society. Until and unless change comes from within them, there is very little the government or anyone else for that matter can hope for in promoting their God-given rights.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 26/06/2011
-Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

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