Friday, October 05, 2007

Saudi Women Undergo Harsher Restrictions

Saudi Arabia's Royal Family has had a rough time with liberating women from the stranglehold of Wahhabi Sunni male dominance in the harshest patriarchy in any advanced economic country in the world, with the possible exception of Shi'ite Iran, which recently executed by public hanging a sixteen-year old girl for "her sharp tongue," in the words of the Iranian judge.

Back in the '70s, while Political Officer at the US Embassy in Jidda in Saudi Arabia, I was sent by Ambassador Porter to investigate the Shi'ite presence in Eastern Province. While in Dhahran, I was invited to the home of Bandar bin Sultan, then Commander of a Fighter Wing in the SAAF flying F-5s [F-15s came later]. Amid hours of fascinating revelations during an eight-hour conversation after dinner, some of which had been unknown to even the CIA or State Dept, Prince Bandar described the difficulties facing women's education. The secularizing Royal Family faced strong opposition in even allowing girls to go to special female schools when Prince Fahd, later to become King, was Minister of Education in the late fifties and early sixties. Strict Wahhabi interpretation of the Sharia was against education for women. Bandar said that the opposition to the very idea of female education was so strong that all schoolbuses had their windows blacked out so that buses with girls going to the new female schools would not be stoned by irate religious conservatives. After much political and social turmoil, the idea of women's education gradually gained a foothold.

However, in the seventies, as the Kingdom was rapidly modernizing and many social reforms continued, the religious conservatives made a bargain with the Royal Family. The Ulema would drop objections to many modern innovations and social policies if they were given control over elementary education. Higher education would be under a separate ministry. However, the somewhat dated [end of 2003] article in Le Monde notes, another shift subsequently took place:
The shift occurred toward the end of the 1980s and the early ’90s, notably during the war to liberate Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion in 1991. A group of young women dared to take the wheel as a protest for the right to drive. Their audacity provoked the ultraconservatives to close ranks and denounce their behavior as scandalous and sinful. Fingers were pointed at the university for fostering such decadence. The women professors who had participated in the protests were dismissed; the university rector created a Department of Islamic Higher Studies and implemented the total segregation of the sexes. From then on, all male teachers taught their female students remotely, via closed-circuit television screens.

Actually, my understanding was that women had learned via closed-circuit when male professors were teaching since the inception of the female higher education. But that is a quibble and as King Fahd's health became weaker, his support of secular education for women waned as well:
In the absence of any secularizing interference from the government, the religious extremists were free to do as they pleased. One student noted the link between the political and religious powers that be. “When the former weakens, the second grows stronger.” Little by little, dogmatic rigor reached the point of absurdity. Abusive religious interference is the norm, even in the smallest details.

If there is one truism among all the Saudis I have met, it is their contempt and derision for the mutawaa, the universally disliked "religious police" who carry out the Ulema's increasingly onerous and frankly silly religious ukases. These are the moronic nitwits who kept a bunch of female students inside a burning school a while back because they deemed the girls not appropriately garbed to escape the flames in the view of some males who may have been scandalized. Several of the girls perished because of these imbecilic Pecksniffian prigs. This is the sort of religious lunacy prevalent in Iran also, in the Shi'ite version of Wahhabi puritanical hypertrophy.

The Saudi Royal Family now faces a population of young unemployed males due to the burgeoning baby boom in Saudi since the seventies, when a private census counted about seven million native-born Saudis. Now there are over twenty-five million and young men without jobs catch the religious bug easily, as religious universities will grant a degree for simply studying religious dogma and interpretation, with barely any secular skills necessary to graduate. These young men are eager to accomplish something, anything, and sneaking into Iraq or Afghanistan to become a martyr for Islam is better than being an unemployed drone.

So the Taliban in Afghanistan and AQ in training camps somewhere have a steady stream of Saudi males hoping to do something to make life meaningful, even if it means blowing oneself up in an act of "martyrdom" that takes many other lives with you.

So despite the harsh restrictions on Saudi women, they may live longer than their male counterparts.


Jeb Koogler said...


This is a fascinating piece, and I'm glad that I came across your site. I will add you to my blogroll and bookmark your page. Your take on the situation of women in Saudi Arabia is extremely interesting. You note that the Royal Family has been supportive of expanding women's roles in Saudi Arabia. John Burgess, who writes over at Crossroads Arabia, argues similarly. He recently wrote the following:

"The government keeps pushing forward the role of women through various meetings and symposia. More usefully, it is pushing for the expanded employment of women and has opened nearly all professions to women. The government, if not supporting, is not blocking the move to permit female lawyers to represent their clients before Sharia Court judges. The government has also authorized women to obtain their own ID cards, a significant move that give women autonomy and takes them out of some of the control of male family members."

With regards to women's rights, do you also see signs of progress as Burgess does?

Finally, as an aside, I'd be interested in knowing more about where you served as a FSO. Were you primarily in the Middle East?

Regards -- Jeb K

dave in boca said...

I believe that King Abdullah & Crown Prince Sultan will continue to allow women's rights to increase as much as possible, within the constrictions that the religious Ulema allow. But I fear that Interior Minister Prince Naif & his Deputy Prince Ahmed are so conservative that they serve as negative influences on the progress of women's rights. Down the road, the Royal Family might find itself divided on the issue.

I like your blog and am putting you on my blogroll.