Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Music, dancing ban on Saudi women denies basic human rights

BACK in the day when I was a daring but responsible young girl I was assigned to cover a fashion show at the Italian Cultural Club in Jeddah.

The show was entertaining and a number of young women and men performed on the catwalk wearing modest outfits. It was a pleasant show that might have put people to sleep if held anywhere else but Saudi Arabia.

Towards the end of show, the Hay’a and police showed up and began questioning us as we left the building as to whether there was a show going on inside. It was no major drama but it reminded me that social events usually get closer scrutiny from the people charged with monitoring our morals.

I recalled the incident when I heard that the Ministry of Social Affairs decided it’s inappropriate for charitable groups to stage events that include entertainment. You remember the Ministry of Social Affairs. Those are the people who feel that Saudi women have it so good they don’t need an organized support group to help them if things get a little tough.

It seems the Ministry prefers that Saudi Arabia be the designated No-Fun Zone in the Middle East. Ministry officials issued a decree that bans music, dancing, singing and fashion shows at events held by women’s charitable organizations. Saudi Arabia reportedly has 500 groups and charities which make up about 16 percent of them.

The Ministry has determined that entertainment “contradicts” the customs and traditions of Saudis. And if there really needs to be a fashion show, then mannequins will do just fine as models. While I don’t know all the details of the decree, the ruling begs the question of just where the ministry draws the line.

Does the decree ban Islamic singing? Does it affect the modeling of abayas and the Jalabiyyah? If mannequins are used for modeling will they be religiously appropriate with no heads or legs?

We don’t want to disrespect our customs and traditions, but perhaps the public is better served by the ministry if it sought out and aided the poor in desperate need but have too much pride to seek help at the ministry offices.

Yet it has the staff in the 13 provinces to investigate whether the charities carry out the ban.
Most of these female charities hold events just for women. So what exactly is the problem of women dancing, singing and playing music, especially if it follows Islamic regulations? We do it anyway at wedding parties and other private functions.

Charity events are staged to raise money and to raise awareness of their cause. Any novice party organizer will tell you that entertainment is the key to a successful fund raising effort. Who will attend such an event if we are expected to sit around an empty room whispering to each other about the latest episode of Turkish soap operas? Are we to sit around all night eating food. That may be awkward if the charity is raising funds to combat obesity.

If the ministry is serious about not contradicting our customs and traditions with music and dancing, perhaps it should consider curbing the Saudi ardhah at the Jendryyah, the annual cultural event in Riyadh, or place limits on the music played by young people to express their patriotism on National Day.

If it hopes to engage young people of being active in charitable causes then consideration should be given on how to attract their participation. The fact is many young people are not interested in attending social events where there is no entertainment.

These charity events are semi-private events and the government is demonstrating that it sees nothing wrong with intruding on our private lives and telling us what is appropriate behavior, although there is nothing really wrong with women modeling clothes for each other or properly dancing to music. Anybody can pull up a YouTube video and see far worse at a Saudi wedding party.

As women become bolder in asserting their rights in obtaining an education, the right to fair treatment in the judiciary and equitable treatment in marriage, there is a creeping tendency by some government officials to put the squeeze on us. It seems at times there is a gradual repeal of the basic human right to go about our business without intrusion.

It’s curious that after decades of public service and staged events to raise awareness of various issues, that the ministry seems fit to issue instructions now with a ban that far exceeds common sense.


Susie of Arabia said...

The lack of entertainment and fun here has to put the KSA in the running for the most boring, unexciting, and depressing place on earth, if there were such a contest. It's very frustrating that so much "morality" is dictated here and that people are made to think that enjoying themselves is wrong.

ms.truewrite said...

This recent development is concerning to me and very sad for the women’s organizations in Saudi Arabia. As you said in the entry, entertainment is necessary for fundraising and successful events. The invasion of the Saudi government into private lives is astonishing. is a website that tracks the censorship on musical expression and there was a story about a journalist who was arrested “on charges of ‘doubting the Islamic creed’ and for ‘harboring destructive thoughts’” after writing about teenagers who were burning books and musical instruments “they considered contrary to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam”.
Another story details the arrest of Hamzah Muzeini, who wrote a newspaper article about “hard-line Islamists who ban music and dance, and the teaching of female students by male professors”. A suit was filed against him and he was taken to court on charges of defamation and sentenced to 100 lashes. Fortunately, the punishment was not carried out, due to circumstances, but the point is that there is absolutely no room for opposition.
Sabria, I wonder at your courage in confronting injustices you see with your blogs and your articles. Have you been threatened? Did you have to register your blog with the government? I recently did a research paper on media censorship in Iran, and many, many bloggers are going to jail. The ban on music and dance is indeed terrible, but even more concerning to me is the absolute crushing of any opposition to current law and authorities. I have a feeling that progress in the direction of human rights and personal freedom will require much suffering and loss of life before the Saudi government wakes up to the cries of its people.