is at its peak. Throngs scramble to get a glimpse of the holiest
temple shrouded in a thick black cloth with Quranic wisdom
reverently inscribed along its four edges. The paved courtyards
of the grand mosque are now dotted with men, women and children,
each of whom want to grab a piece of heaven for themselves.
At the doors of this holiest place,
sits a woman, who like the Kaaba is also wrapped in a piece of
black cloth. But unlike the Kaaba she is not an object of
veneration, she is instead condemned to a life of subservience. A
source of evil and temptation for men, she must hide her shame in
a cloak of anonymity, if not disappear entirely from public gaze.
These were my impressions of Saudi
women who guarded the doors of the Grand mosque in Mecca when I
visited the country to perform the Hajj in 2002, just a few months
after the infamous 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and WTC.
The month was March but the Saudi
desert climate felt more like the swelter of June. Yet this woman
could not expose any part of her skin. Even her hands were covered
in thick black gloves. I wondered if this was of her own doing, or
was this attire mandated by the conservative Wahabi rulers?
On conducting some research, I
discovered that Saudi women were indeed required to cover up fully
in the city of Mecca under Saudi law. I was just a visitor but I
too could not roam around Saudi streets bare-headed. The rule to
wear my hijab all the time seemed like enough of an imposition.
What would it be like, I thought, for these women who had to hide
themselves completely and what were the implications of such
limiting attire for their status and role in society?
Upon return to Canada, I expressed
my chagrin to a friend who explained to me in a well-intentioned
manner, that Saudi women were in fact a privileged bunch. They
were pampered queens and princesses in their homes and that I was
far too influenced by Western mores to judge a society and
culture that was in fact quite protective of its women, treating
them with the utmost kindness and respect. I asked her if they
were free to carve their own destinies, if they were free to make
choices about which careers to adopt, who to marry, how many
children to have, whether or not to continue in a relationship and
she said, that yes, the men who were in charge of these women,
often awarded that freedom to women.
I disagreed. I told her that freedom
was not theirs to give. It was a right inhering in every man and
woman. A woman was free to make certain decisions only by his
leave? Was that genuine freedom? Sure he was kind to her, but when
he decided to divorce her over a petty domestic squabble, did she
have a say in the matter? Was his kindness also only subject to
his own whims?
We debated this for some time till I
decided that freedom was a state of mind, that it entailed the
knowledge that one was in control of one’s own destiny and that
the state, societal structures and patriarchal control was
usurping that right.
Saudi women have been denied this
right for too long already. The time has now come to free them
from the shackles of patriarchy, subjugation and servitude to men,
so that their full potential, their innate intellectual prowess,
their native intelligence can blossom to the fullest.
But in order to achieve these
objectives, one must try to overcome religious resistance to such
reform through alternatives to the current puritanical Wahabi
viewpoint. Wahabi ideology also demands compliance of its
citizens to their rulers. Any challenges to their dominance have
therefore been stifled right from the very start.
The ruling monarchs have been able
to control an entire population of eighteen million people by
putting forward a contrived religious doctrine that is quite
un-Islamic , given Islam’s history of allowing citizens the right
to question their rulers and hold them accountable for their
It is certainly laudable that King
Abdullah has recently ordered a revamping of the country’s
religious council to accommodate religious opinions that are
different from Wahabi beliefs. This window of opportunity must
therefore be exploited to the fullest to allow other viewpoints to
establish some of their more moderate and female friendly readings
of the Quranic text.
From a theological standpoint alone,
for example, it would be well advised to consider the following
rationale that takes into account the overarching and normative
principles of Islamic jurisprudence:
Justice and benevolence are accepted
as the two overarching principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Every
law derived from the Quranic text must consider these two
principles above all others. From a modernist perspective, these
can be arrived at according to the following rationale. Reformists
often seek to explain certainly legislative injunctions of the
Quran as time-specific regulations with exclusive applicability in
the context of seventh century Arabian society. This would
automatically reduce their scope and applicability in another
society or era which may be vastly different from seventh century
social structures. Injunctions pertaining to polygamy, minority
rights, apostasy women’s testimony and gender relations would fall
under this category of time specific societal regulations.
Modernists believe that although such legislative measures were
perhaps important to regulate early Islamic society, it is largely
the principles behind the specific injunctions that are universal
and eternal, not the special applications of these principles. The
universal principles, they assert can now be expressed in ways
that are more suited to the changing demands of evolving Islamic
Such issues have undoubtedly created
tussles between votaries of conservative and modernist
exegetical persuasions. At the crux of this ideological stalemate
is the blatant contradiction that has emerged between the
contextual injunctions of the Quran and its normative principles
of justice and benevolence. The vastly transformed social
conditions from that time have obviously created this
contradiction. The Quran’s contextual verses sought to regulate
conditions already in existence in seventh century Arabia. While
these were effective in establishing social justice at that
particular time, the same injunctions expressed and applied
literally in our contemporary world have created imbalances and
inequities in society. In having that effect, these literal
applications have come to violate the normative Quranic principles
of justice and kindness. Where for example is the Quran’s
normative principle of justice being applied when rape victims are
barred from testifying in such cases? This begs the question: If
indeed a conflict exists between the normative and contextual
verses of the Quran due to changed social conditions, which of the
two should be upheld?
The answer is clear cut. All of the
Quran’s ancillary societal regulations have to be measured against
the Quran’s own standards of justice and kindness. If these
regulations, due to changed circumstances do not measure up to the
Quran’s overarching principles, then they have to be suspended.
This was the course of action adopted by Omar Bin Khatab when he
suspended some Quranic regulations during times of extreme
economic hardship for Muslims.
Once Saudi Arabia has adopted a more
forward- looking theological and legal framework, it can serve as
a beacon of hope for the rest of the world in countering growing
radicalism in the Muslim world. Much of the resurgent
fundamentalism is the result of an aggressive Wahabi policy to
export its ideas across the Muslim world. The effects of such
aggressive evangelizing are being felt in much of the cultural
change that has taken place in the religiosity of Muslims
especially in parts of the subcontinent. Wahabism is finding
allies among other revivalist movements in the Muslim world such
as the Islamic brotherhood and the Jamat Islami in Pakistan.
There seems to be a melding of interpretations between these more
or less similar fundamentalist doctrines providing impetus to
Wahabism’s ever-expanding influence both in Muslim countries and
among the diaspora. There is now a trend towards purging the
faith of so called unIslamic elements. Many of the customs and
traditions of the subcontinent are being repudiate by these
latter- day purists as contamination from Hindu culture. Whether
the onslaught is against a more mystical and syncretic Sufi Islam,
or against the simple salutation of saying “Khuda Hafiz”, a
Persian version of the much touted “Allah Hafiz”, a more rabid
conservatism seems to be sweeping across the length and breadth of
the subcontinent. Increasingly, Wahabi Islam is being seen as
the truest interpretation of Islam, teh standard, and all other
brands are gradually being forced to take the back seat.
The fact however is that the Quran
lends itself to several different interpretations. They are all
valid expressions of the Islamic faith. Being the cradle of
Islam, it is not expected of Saudi Arabia to transform into a
secular democracy, but if it must use religion as the basis for
its laws, then religion must be interpreted in a way that is much
more conducive to progress, allowing for equalization in the
rights of underprivileged groups like women and minorities.
The world is looking to Saudi Arabia
for leadership in matters of faith. In stead of being an exporter
of radicalism, it must be a beacon of moderation and
enlightenment. The Wahabi doctrine once regarded as a
misinterpretation of Islam and a heterodoxy in the land of its
origin has persisted there unchallenged until now. It stands for
the most retrogressive of ideologies but now is the time to once
again dislodge it from its position of dominance and stem its
spread across the world. Furthermore, any challenges to the
Wahabi doctrine must be deemed valid as they seek to question a
particular understanding of Islam, rather than Islam itself.
Saudi Arabia as the cradle of Islam
has a double responsibility to lead the world in bringing about
equality in the legal and social rights of women and minorities.
It must model a peaceful, egalitarian, non-militaristic, and
pluralistic religious tradition that recognizes the rights of all
human beings universally, rather than one that discriminates on
the basis of gender or creed. Laws must treat all citizens
equally regardless of their gender , creed or ethnicity. Saudi
Arabia as a powerful nation, wielding tremendous influence on
Muslims across the world must deliver this responsibility to the
admiration, rather than the contempt of the world.
In order to alleviate the suffering
of its female population Saudi Arabia must proceed with the
Greater freedoms in educational
opportunities. Saudi women must have access to all of the
educational opportunities that men have.
Reconfigure Saudi society so that women
can be equal participants in the domestic, social, political and
economic life of Saudi Arabia. The old notions of women being of
lesser intelligence than men needs to be shunned.
Revamp the legal framework of Saudi Arabia
to make laws more women friendly. States and societies ought to
be protective of their weak and vulnerable and create legal
structures that help bridge the gap between the opportunities of
the privileged and underprivileged. At present laws are having
the opposite effect. Women are already weak, ad their position
in society is being further weakened by the legal framework of
More specifically :
Women should be allowed independence to
move about freely unescorted. This means they must have the
right to drive their own vehicle, travel freely within and
outside the country without fear of censure, assault or arrest.
The US State Department should make a
clear statement that the US does not “respect” such
misogynistic behaviour and will actively work with Saudi human
rights organizations to support positive change. Military
cooperation with the Saudis needs to be contingent on legal
changes in this regard and all major countries that provide arms
to the Saudis need to have a concerted stance on this.