Saudi Arabia and women. Put the two words together and either shake your head in pity or the more common reaction - make a face in disgust. Whilst Muslim women, like myself, living in the West are banging on about how an Islamic society can protect and elevate the status of women, the reality of the female position in a so-called Islamic place like Saudi Arabia raises an uncomfortable eyebrow.
The Human Rights Watch report released recently reviewing the position of Saudi women, unleashed scores of energised media and journalistic discussion. Some articulating their inevitable deep criticism; and others relaying their personal experiences of being female in Saudi Arabia - the alarming sexual harassment which takes place in a country which is supposed to be brushing sex under the carpet. Secret but fatalistic meetings between strangers, just to find a marriage partner is the shocking reality of Saudi Arabian society; and with a Saudi Prince having married his 100th wife, not so long ago - the value and rights of women, in this pseudo-Islamic society really isn't looking too good.
However the debate conjured around this report has very much been an 'either or' one, that if you reject Saudi Arabian female oppression, the natural antithesis we should call for is equality and total liberalism, as practised in secular states. But it is this mapping of the debate I find difficult to agree with.
I agree that being a woman and living in the shade of Riyadh would not be an experience I would find elevating; however I'd also say the reality of being a woman living in a secular, liberal state also brings it problems. Saudi Arabian society has denied women of basic rights, but Western liberal states, in their call for freedom of thought, expression, sexuality has meant that even though women can work, vote and have no restriction in what they wear or where they go; there is also absolute freedom when it comes to exploiting them and their sexuality. Although many may argue that they don't feel exploited; the reality is that the price of liberalism means utter freedom both ways – Freedom for the media, multi-national companies and men to view women in whatever capacity they see fit or makes money. And the more dangerous result being the effects of ‘freedom’ in a rapist or sexual harasser. The law may disallow and punish them afterwards, but the thoughts and mentality have already allowed to have been created - the law for many of these people are just an after thought.
Typical(!) Many I am sure are thinking - The typical Muslim lashing out on our freedoms. But it's time we admit that women have not only been exploited by distorted Islamic and cultural traditions, but also by the effects of liberalism. It's time we redefine the debate to begin thinking about real rights and value for women - not settle for whatever's half working in the world today. It will be this discussion which will help much of the world understand why scores of women are turning to Islam today.
Saudi Arabia claims to rule by Islamic law, but has little evidence of this and instead has grossly misapplied certain Islamic laws to buffet their sense of supremacy. It is rather another despotic, tyrannical regime where accountability is a far-off daydream and dodgy deals of oil and aircraft are primary concerns. If you believe Saudi Arabia implements Islamic law and values, then you must have seen a pig fly.
As a Muslim woman, this makes me more determined to sell the case for Islam. Islam, implemented correctly, was a complete mode of governance which in the past enabled women to exercise their rights - whether it be to vote, to work, to engage in politics or just be an active member of society. These rights could not be usurped for the benefit of any Government, leader or Minister - rather they are enshrined by the texts of Islam. Unlike Saudi Arabian society, women were protected from sexual harassment and abuse through the Islamic social system of segregation of sexes, and the hijab but these were not used as a method to exploit their position and oppress them. Rather it liberated them to be able to actively participate in society and be valued for their contributions, over the way they looked. This supported the mentality of chastity generated in society, due to an overwhelming consciousness of God and accountability to God.
Unlike liberalism, Islam recognises the need for the running of a harmonious society and instead of leaving women to fight their own gender rat races; it ensures that women are protected and valued - sexually, financially and in whatever roles they take on in society.
And before you start having flash images of the ‘them vs us’ minded Muslim ninjas charged in forcibly implementing their Shariah law on British soil – Just take a breath. Unfortunately continued sensationalist media coverage of Islam and Muslims has disabled the will for Muslims to have open and respectful debate about values, without making us sound like we hate everything and everyone Western and just want to violently take over the world.
Saudi Arabia is truly a quagmire for women's rights, however lets' not hide behind the facade that everything to the West of it, is female utopia. It’s time we really open up the discussion and begin talking about achieving real uncompromised women’s rights.