Monday, June 14, 2004

Conference on Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

Today's Arab News reports on a forum on women in Saudi Arabia.

It starts out promising enough:
The third National Dialogue Forum, which focuses on women’s issues, opened on Saturday with a call to respect the equality between the sexes granted by Islam.
The chairman of the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue which sponsors the event, sounds downright progressive:
“Islam guarantees equality and does not differentiate between people based on race, sex or color,” he said. “It is a natural state that is achieved through ensuring people enjoy the same legal rights, dignity and obligations.”
Soon however, we learn that the conference itself is segregated, with "separate rooms for men and women... linked by closed-circuit TV."


Later, "[w]hen the women’s turn came," presumably after respectful deference to the men who opened and led the conference,
Dr. Saliha Al-Hulais, of Umm Al-Qura University, promptly dismissed calls for equality between men and women.

Justice did not necessarily mean full equality, she argued.
Turns out the tone wasn't so progressive after all. Admittedly though, that the issues are being addressed at all is a step in the right direction.

But does respect for another culture imply acceptance of subjugation of half the population? I can't help musing a little more about women's rights in the Kingdom, a place where women
face government-sponsored discrimination that renders them unequal before the law - including discriminatory family codes that take away women's legal authority and place it in the hands of male family members - and restricts women's participation in public life.
Remember this shining example of the Saudi religious police at work?
Saudi Arabia's religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers.

In a rare criticism of the kingdom's powerful "mutaween" police, the Saudi media has accused them of hindering attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire on Monday.
How about this quaint custom?
Infibulation is the term given to a primitive sexual operation in which the labia are approximated to obstruct the vagina. The custom persists in ... southern Arabia despite the obvious psychologic, obstetric, and gynecological problems that it creates. It can only be hoped that with increasing education and social enlightenment this mutative procedure will soon be abandoned.

And then there is this story about a man "who cut off the right leg of his wife, Amina. He accused her of infidelity, after 'over exposing' herself to a doctor to get an injection." The judge ordered the man's leg cut off as well.

Of course one can always discuss the potential of women serving in the Saudi parliament:
"Appointing women as parliament members is out of the question. Nobody even thinks about it, because the issues the parliament deals with are public matters under the responsibility of men."
Or perhaps not.

Some Saudi women think their lack of rights is overplayed, as shown here. (Click on essay #1):
Reporters make a lot of fuss about the fact that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but it keeps 500,000 men in work as chauffeurs! Also, people from elsewhere go on about wearing the hijab (veil) but most of us are happy with it. Surely there are more important things to write about.
Al Jazeera reported just last week, in an article on the progress Saudi Arabia is making on women's rights,
Women in Saudi Arabia have to be covered from head to toe in public and cannot mix with men other than relatives. They are also not allowed to drive or travel alone.
In a country where "Jewish" Barbie dolls are a moral threat, women still are seeking their "right to citizenship."

Are the rights of Saudi women the top item on my agenda? Far from it. If the Saudis would reign in their financial support for terrorists and the schools that breed them, it would be a great start. But I figure it does no harm to shine a bit of light on the ways of the Wahhabis.