Saudi women suffer setbacks as conservatives rise

Reform impetus of liberal-minded clerics has stalled in kingdom; official loses his job after expressing liberal views on mixing of sexes.

April 4, 2011 20:33
3 minute read.
Saudi Women smoke water pipes.

saudi women_311. (photo credit: (Illustrative photo: MCT))

An ideological war is waging between conservative and more liberal-minded clerics in Saudi Arabia, whose religious life is governed by the ultra-conservative Wahabi stream of Sunni Islam. Treatment of women has become one of the focal points in this dispute.

The latest causality is a senior civil servant, who Saudi authorities on Saturday
dismissed from his position for expressing liberal opinions on religious matters. The move marks a setback to liberals’ efforts to penetrate the kingdom’s religious establishment, experts said.

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"The reform impetus in Saudi Arabia has stalled if not ground to a complete halt," Cristoph Wilcke, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. "Conservatives are definitely on the ascendancy at this point."

Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, has been steering a difficult route between liberals, of whom he is believed to be one and the more predominant conservative faction of the country’s religious establishment. Even as he presides over an absolute monarchy, the effort is fraught with political dangers in a country where clerics hold sway over popular opinion and ordinary people tend to hold conservative religious values. The spirit of rebellion sweeping the Arab world magnifies the danger.

Before he was fired, Ahmad bin Qassem Al-Ghamdi served as head of the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), Saudi Arabia's modesty police, charged with overseeing dress codes, observance of prayer times and strict gender separation in the public sphere.

Quite the non-conformist, Al-Ghamdi published research that showed Islamic law sanctioned men and women mixing in public as long as the context is non-sexual and there is no touching involved. Last month he even appeared in a panel alongside women. Al-Ghamdi's views, first published last November, caused an uproar among conservative clerics, resulting in Al-Ghamdi's dismissal.

In an attempt to head off the kind of popular unrest raging through the Arab World, Abdullah has announced two generous financial packages. As part of a multi-billion pound package offered March 18, the king ordered 60,000 new people be hired by the security forces to nip any unrest in the bud and create jobs. Wilcke said many of these new positions will go to the virtue police, a clear indication of the current regressive trend.

Liberalism in Saudi Arabia reached its zenith in February 2009, with the appointment of Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first woman to ever hold a ministerial post in the kingdom. Since then, the status of women has been on the decline, Wilcke said.

Saudi women are banned from driving a car or leaving the house unaccompanied by a male guardian. But the most recent blow they received came on March 28 when the government announced that women wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the April 23 municipal elections. The elections, the second ever held in the kingdom's history, were postponed from 2009 under the pretext that more time was needed to enable women to vote.  

"Participation of women in elections took place in most advanced countries gradually," Election Commissioner Abdul Rahman Al-Dahmash told the English language Saudi daily Arab News. He promised that the next elections would include women.

But Eman Al-Nafjan, an influential Riyadh-based blogger, said she was skeptical.  

"I don't believe him, and I don't think anyone here does," Al-Nafjan told The Media Line. "Women took part in the selection process of Prophet Muhammad's heirs. They personally pledged allegiance to the leaders."

Al-Nafjan said she felt as though the leadership was dragging society back in time.

"The past couple of weeks have convinced me that the government has made a huge scientific discovery, the time machine, and is now using it to pull the whole country back into the eighties," she wrote on her Saudiwoman's blog on April 3. She said there is a feeling that women will never be granted freedoms trivial in the West, like the right to drive.

"I'm hoping that maybe they're trying to appease the conservatives, who were vocal in the anti-monarchy protests recently, in order to subsequently push through reforms," Al-Nafjan said.

"I must be hopeful; otherwise I might as well go and commit suicide."

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