saudi society: Revolution or evolution
Allow me to
indulge in a little sophistry to begin with by explicating my thoughts on
the difference between change and evolution. Usually, change is
unpredictable, comes all of a sudden and it might be for better or for
worse. It could be revolutionary, violent and disruptive, but it could also
be quite and benign. On the other hand, with the right knowledge, proper
technology, and sufficient funds, change could be willed, planned and
directed towards certain ends in order to achieve desirable goals. The
advancement of a country is measured by how much control and planning it
could exercise over changes affecting its future. Only countries which have
gone a long way on the road of progress and development, especially in the
fields of science and technology, could have a certain measure of control
over their destinies.
a different story. It is an inevitable response that cannot be planned or
predicted. It is a gradual adaptation to changing circumstances that happens
in very small imperceptible increments and it is mostly beneficial. Living
organisms adjust to their natural environment through biological evolution
that could take millions of years. Fast changing environment may not give
the organism time to adapt to it and this could spell extinction for the
species. Only human species has the capacity to adjust through cultural
evolution, which is a much faster and more flexible process.
is going through a slow process of social evolution. This makes the change
taking place there almost indiscernible and hard to perceive on day-to-day
bases. Mostly, it is not willed or consciously planned. Simply put, it is a
spontaneous and pragmatic adjustment to the hard facts and pressing needs of
practical daily living in this fast changing modern world. Saudis are too
busy trying to change their society or adjust themselves to such change,
with no time to document all manifestations of it. To be cognizant of this
change and to realize how much progress has been achieved, one needs to scan
the Saudi society over the past few decades, especially the last few years,
and add together all these small increments of change, each of which
constitutes a small step in the ladder towards social progress. Let us take
account of some of these changes.
still wear gloves and socks and do not show even their nails or twos to men.
Yet some young girls quietly decided to let down their veils and walk in the
streets and public places with their faces uncovered. Less than five years
ago, a woman would be slammed in jail for doing that. The control squads
used to carry with them, in addition to their rattan canes, spray paint when
they take their rounds in shopping centers to spray with red paint the bare
arms of ladies who wore short sleeves or the legs of those who did not wear
their abaya all the way down to the ground. Now the hijab is no longer
forced. It is becoming a matter of personal choice. Furthermore, women are
no longer required to be accompanied by a male escort to go to restaurants
or to travel on airplanes. The government is now working out quietly but
seriously to find socially acceptable ways and means to introduce women in
the job market. To be hired, a woman is no longer required to obtain the
signed consent of her husband or guardian. As a sign of their newly gained
independence, women now carry their own identification cards with their own
pictures with faces uncovered. Only few years ago the very taking of women
photographs was forbidden and pictures in general were considered
of change is that the control squads are now required to take lessons in
interpersonal communication in order to be able to do their job more
humanely with no resort to violent words or use of the cane. Very soon, they
will be required to wear badges and special uniforms so as to distinguish
the chaff from the grain, the hired professionals from enthusiastic
volunteers, who are the most abrasive and callous.
At the book
fair held in Riyadh a year ago, every couple visiting the fair were followed
by one or two of the control squads to make sure that they did not hold
hands in public. Women were scolded for uncovering their faces in order to
better be able to read book titles. Many books were withdrawn from the fair
under the pretext that their content was heretical. If it were up to them,
the control squads would gladly revert to burning all books and heretics on
the stake. But the book fair held last week in Riyadh was a different story
altogether. Of course, the control squads ‘graced’ the fair by their
presence, but they were given strict orders not to molest any body.
Attendance of women was estimated to be over 200,000. Among the titles there
were 23 novels written by Saudi women dealing with social and gender issues.
Some were there to sign copies of their novels. Starting this year,
membership of women in literary clubs and chambers of commerce is allowed.
more, books usually subject to censorship were allowed in the fair this
year. It was a laissez faire fair. There were books by the Saudi dissident
and famous novelist the late Abdul-Rahman al-Munief as well as books by
Madawi ar-Rashied, usually a hot potato in Riyadh. Such titles are not so
much religiously objectionable as politically offensive. This indicates a
trend towards slightly lifting the strict censorship and allowing a certain
measure of freedom of speech and thought. Another indication of this newly
gained, though limited, freedom is the new petition addressed to king
Abdullah and submitted on the internet for signature by whoever wishes to
sign it. The petition demands the institution of constitutional monarchy in
Saudi Arabia. Few signatories were jailed under the
pretext of helping finance terrorists, but the majority of the signatories
were left alone, among them was Dr. Abdullah al-Haamid, the composer of the
petition who only very recently got out of jail for composing and signing
with others a similar petition.
If you pick
up any Saudi newspaper on any day of the week, you will find that social
issues take up a good deal of space. More voices are raised demanding
equality for women and a stop of sex discrimination and wife beating. For
the last two months the Saudi society is busy with the issue of genealogical
compatibility between husband and wife. Traditional customs in Saudi Arabia
frown upon a noble tribal man marrying a non-tribal woman or vice versa.
This social custom is given religious sanction by some religious ‘ulama
who annul marriages between spouses of incompatible genealogies. But
nowadays, many young Saudis are finding this to be repulsive, unacceptable
and against human rights.
Demands for opening public theatres and cinemas are mounting these days. The
argument is that if you can watch a movie on TV in your living room why not
be able to watch one on a big screen in a theatre house! Of course, the
objection comes mainly from those who do not want to see ikhtilaat, i.
e. the mixing together of men and women in the same place, because the
prophet said in one hadieth “whenever a strange man and a strange
woman meet privately in seclusion, surely the devil will join them”, meaning
the man will try to seduce the woman. But the other side claims that it is
not true that the only interaction that could take place between man and
woman is sexual intercourse, for women are not merely sex objects.
Furthermore, the theatre can be easily divided into two separate sections,
one for men and one for women. But there is also a security concern
regarding this matter, namely that packed theatre houses could provide good
targets for terrorist attacks.
hotly debated issue is changing the days of the weekend from Thursday and
Friday to be Friday and Saturday. Although some clerics object strongly to
this change claiming that it would coinside with the Jewish Sabbath,
economic realities might eventually force such change because it would cut
down business losses of closing in Saudi Arabia on Thursday and Friday
followed by businesses in the rest of the world closing on Saturday and
Sunday, a total of four days of business interruption. Following the
settlement of this issue, I predict the coming issue to be brought up is the
half-hour shut down of businesses every day during the daily prayers. This
daily closure of four times a day (noon, late afternoon, sunset and two
hours after sunset) for more than half an hour each time is causing a great
deal of confusion, interruption and inconvenience to business and commerce
with great losses incurred. History has proven that business and commerce
are among the most active agents of progress and instigators of social
of the most pressing issues the Saudi society is facing these days is the
coexistence of various religious sects, especially sunnah and
shi’ah. No one even
this issue few years ago. But today it is a burning topic that every body is
concerned about. There are extremists on both sects, but the common
consensus is that the concept of citizenship should mean a kind of
socio-political contract based on legal and not religious considerations.
All people who carry the Saudi nationality should have equal rights,
regardless of their sectarian convictions. King Abdullah himself is carrying
the banner of sectarian tolerance and coexistence. He never misses an
opportunity to stress this point.
society is actually divided into two camps. The camp of fundamentalists who
see danger looming everywhere because the society is changing too fast and
has become a puppet in the hands of Western infidels. Then there is the camp
of the liberals who also see great danger but because they think society is
not changing fast enough to keep up with the rest of the world.
cannot help but recall the worn out metaphor of the glass which is either
half empty or half full, depending on your perspective. Only in the case of
change in Saudi Arabia, the glass seems to be barely one quarter full. There
is a great deal to be done for Saudi society to catch up with advanced
nations. One would wish that the pace of change were much faster. But then
again gradual evolution might be the safer option. Only God knows what is
best, Allahu ‘a’lam.