WAS MY GRANDMA MORE LIBERAL THAN
MY GRAND DAUGHTER?
When you see your
dear aunt or sister after a long absence you expect her to run to you with
overt joy and open arms to kiss you and hug you with her bare hands and
uncovered head. Now, she meets you coolly with her head tightly wrapped in
scarf and hands tucked in black gloves and she barely shakes hands with you.
Funny jokes and joyful laughs have completely disappeared to be replaced by
austere religious formulas and clichés, as if every minute of our lives
should be used solely and exclusively preparing our souls for the grave and
life after death. You no longer see women walking down the streets, only
moving bodies completely draped in black. You call your friend on the phone
and if one of his women folk answer you on the other end you no longer hear
the polite niceties and sweat utterances used by ladies in the past, only
harsh barking and rough answers because it is no longer permissible for
women to be nice and polite with men.
happening to us? Why are we becoming so obsessively uptight about gender
relations? Why are we getting so anxious to hide and conceal our women, as
if we were trying to deny that they ever exist?
look at old travel books and ethnographies on the parts of Arabia
constituting what is now called Saudi Arabia (from H. R. P. Dickson to Alois
Musil to C Snouck Hurgrornje) we find that in most areas, especially in the
desert and in the southern region of Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen, women
only partly cover their faces or do not cover them at all, especially
married women, and they rarely wear the black cloak. It used to be a common
sight to see men and women mingle together in the village market and engage
in haggling and joking. A woman with a suckling baby meets no objection
whatsoever to baring her breast to feed her hungry baby in public and in the
presence of other men. On weddings and festive occasions when young girls
don their best, it was considered accepted practice for young boys on such
occasions to flirt with young girls and to steal a look, or even a kiss.
Young girls were encouraged to exhibit their feminine charms. Women were
supposed to appear and look and behave like women in their apparel,
gestures, body language, and the way they walk and talk.
honor, decency and decorum have always been upheld very highly and observed
very strictly in Arabia. But such observance has never reached the point of
turning into almost complete denial of any contact between the two sexes.
Until quite recently, it was common among the nomads for young boys and
young girls to graze their flocks together in the empty desert and no one
suspected any foul play. Among farmers, men and women worked together in the
fields and no one raised a brow. Nowadays Dr. Ghazi al-Qusaybi, minister of
Labor in Saudi Arabia and Iyad Amin Madani, minister of Culture and
Information are turned into targets of slanderous attacks by the
fundamentalists only because the two ministers are trying to find
respectable work outlets for unemployed women. The ministers are keen on
finding suitable employment opportunities for women that do not violate
neither the religious dogma nor the cultural codes of Saudi Arabia, yet the
very fact that they entertained the idea of finding jobs for women outside
the home and other than the raising of children and gratifying their
husbands sexually was considered a blasphemy and a good reason for the
fundamentalists to tarnish the reputation of the two ministers and to
subject them to a severe and unfair campaign of character assassination. The
sin committed by al-Qusaybi was that he wanted women to work as sales ladies
in women cloth shops to sell women garments to other women, instead of men
doing the sale. As for Madani, he wanted to employ Saudi women in Saudi TV
to present programs related to women, children and the family.
Of course, not
all women accept this demeaning status to which they have been reduced. Now
and then one hears voices raised and complaints lodged, and we are hearing
more and more of such voices lately. But the majority of women seem to go
along either out of real conviction or out of fear or as a defense mechanism
and a form of denial of the other alternative. I mean by that, and here I am
only surmising, may be when women look at TV and see movie stars and singers
and real beautiful women with their makeup, they might get the wrong
impression that what they are seeing really represent all the women of the
outside world. They may not even be aware that what they are seeing is not
real at all and that it is heavily manicured and synthesized. Many women in
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region are not aware of or familiar with physical
fitness, body makeup, and all the gadgets used by women to look beautiful,
even if they are not. Not to mention that certain skin colors and body
shapes and hairstyles are pushed by the media and advertising agencies as
the standard of feminine beauty. The best defense mechanism against such
onslaught is to reject it altogether and instead of working on your body you
deny it completely and cover every bit of it. The problem becomes acute when
the woman is reduced to merely a body to be enjoyed and not a mind to be
appreciated and a human being to be respected.
of it all is that the fundamentalists keep insisting that the oppression
they practice on women and their imprisonment in the home is takreem
for them, i. e. difference and honor. This is actually not as
far-fetched as it sounds, since in traditional Arab culture, and most
nomadic cultures and cultures with aristocratic outlook, work, especially
manual labor, is considered demeaning and degrading. This is in conformity
with the conservative and reactionary thinking of the fundamentalists.
occupies a central place in the thinking of the fundamentalists. The
greatest reward they expect to get in the hereafter for the “good work” of
persecuting others in this world is unabated sexual drive and unlimited
gratification by unlimited number of huris in paradise. A woman for
the fundamentalists is but a body in which resides only lust and the devil.
Therefore, when a man and a woman come together the only thing that could
happen between the two of them is sex, no intellectual exchange, no
professional association, no friendship, no human comradery or any common
interests, only sex. al-ikhtilat, i. e. the mixing or coming
together of a man and woman (or men and women) is the catch word for the
fundamentalists these days. No man is allowed to be seen sitting or talking
with another woman, not even in a public place such as restaurants and
cafes, unless she is his first-degree relative. The fundamentalists could
easily stop your car on the highway to make sure that the woman riding next
to you is really your wife. You have to show them the marriage certificate.
This is exactly what was happening in the old days of al-ikhwan of
ibn Saud. But on those days there were no marriage certificates, so, to
prove that the lady with you is your wife they asked you to kiss her, under
the premise that you would not dare do it unless she is really your wife.
Many illicit kisses were exchanged gratis between unwed couples in this way
just to avoid the harassment of those stern ikhwan.
The social havoc
caused by those fundamentalists is unbelievably grotesque. It verges on the
surrealistic. We are entering the twenty first century, yet they want us to
go back and live according to the norms and standards of the sixth century,
the time of the prophet and his companions. They seem to confuse religion
with culture and social customs. Even if we grant that religion is eternal
and timeless, cultures do change. But they have a very static view of the
world and a very comprehensive view of religion, which covers all aspects of
life. They believe neither in change nor in diversity. The only truth for
them is the revealed truth, which only they have the right to understand and
interpret to others. They keep saying that Islam is suitable for every time
and place, but instead of adapting their concept of Islam to different times
and different places they only want to straitjacket every time and place to
their extremely narrow understanding of Islam.