Tuesday, 08 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar
THE National Society for Human Rights conducted a workshop the other day in Riyadh on how human rights issues should be included in school curriculum, especially higher education. This is a noble effort by the organization, although I am skeptical if it will make much of an impression on the people who develop the guidelines for educational curriculum. My skepticism may not be based on sound reason, but I must say that I'm getting impatient with these tiny steps taken to make sure that all of us enjoy the rights we are entitled to and that are granted by Islam.
I remember a couple of years ago Karen Hughes, at the urging of President Bush, came to Dar Al-Hekma College in Jeddah and lectured Saudi women about their right to drive a car, get any job they wanted and to "spread our wings." I felt insulted by the lecture as were most of the Saudi women in the audience. Who was this Westerner to come to Saudi Arabia and lecture us about equal rights for women?
Since Hughes' visit, many Western women's advocacy groups have attempted to speak to us about our rights. And an alleged honor killing by a Pakistani father of his 16-year-old daughter last month in Canada has only heightened the criticism against "Muslims oppressing their women."
Now some readers will say that since I am studying in the United Kingdom, the West has somehow corrupted me, as some of the e-mails I received indicated. But the fact is that for a couple of years now and some recent conversations with my friends in Madina and Jeddah have convinced me that Saudi women need and are entitled to more freedom. There are too many restrictions and the reforms we are entitled to are coming too slowly.
Let me give you some examples other than the obvious about the right to drive a car and have a respectable job.
A middle-aged university-educated woman I know told me her husband deserted her for an empty-headed 19-year-old girl. His family pressured him to get a second wife to provide him with babies she couldn't give him.
He took his new wife on honeymoon to Turkey and has been very much the attentive husband. They have spoken little and are separated.
But can she go to Turkey with her family for a little vacation or even her father? No, since the ownership of this woman was transferred to her estranged husband, she can't go without permission. Can she get a passport on her own? No, not without permission from her husband while she is still married to him. So what if she divorces him? This 40-something woman will have to seek permission from her 70-year-old father to apply for a passport and leave the country. Or worse, her videogame-obsessed 21-year-old brother.
Where is justice in that? What about individual, but equal, rights as written in the Qur'an? Why would a woman twice as old as her brother need his permission for anything. He should be asking her permission for whatever he needs.
Our society demands that we follow these arbitrary laws for our own protection. Saudi Arabia's national treasure, our honor, our capability to have children and provide a home to men, needs to be protected. Well, that's a nice thought and might have been valid 100 years ago. But, Wallahi, we are not children. We are just as wise as men. There is no reason on earth why we need anybody's permission to apply for a passport, get a job, marry the man we want or drive a car across town.
I see a lot of girls around Jeddah. Half of them run around town without a mahram (male member of the immediate family). I remember seeing one woman dressed in a thobe and gutra covering her face like some gangster and speeding along the Corniche in a Mustang convertible. She wasn't too careful about it since her jewelry and painted nails gave her away. If anything, this is a good example of how we as a society need to implement equal rights in a methodical but time-bound manner or more women will be taking these rights on their own terms and in a way that we might not approve of as a Muslim society.
Lastly, I had a conversation last week with a 19-year-old girl who just finished a semester at college and went to a friend's house to celebrate with a breakfast. She came home one hour late. At the door were her brothers who followed her to her room then beat her because they suspected she was on a date with a boy. When she told the brothers where she had been, they forced her to accompany them to the friend's house, then lied to the friend by telling they were looking for her sister when she was actually in the car in front of the house.
The friend replied the sister had breakfast at her house then she walked her home. When the girl confronted her brothers and demanded an explanation for the beating, they told her to shut up. They didn't have the good manners to apologize. Is this justice and equal rights for woman as written in the Qur'an? Of course not. It's injustice in a male-dominated society. It happens because men can do it without facing consequences.
The ‘Qatif Girl' case should teach us many things about our society. I know many people are sickened about what happened to her, but there are thousands of smaller dramas played out daily in homes throughout Saudi Arabia that really say the same thing to women: Shut up!