Growing Pains of Reform in Saudi Arabia

Reform is a slow process that takes years and sometimes generations. The ongoing tussle between the public and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Hayya) is one of the expected growing pains of reform in Saudi Arabia. A recent example was the Riyadh Book Fair, held during the past two weeks.

The event has received much publicity, both local and international. Other than the usual censorship issues, a lot of the attention has been criticism, aimed at an incident where two male authors were harassed by the Hayya for wanting to get the signature of a female author.

As in previous years the Hayya were out in full force and, ignoring their PR booth, were asserting their role as guardians of public morality. What is interesting to note is that the Hayya appear to have become more relaxed over time. This year saw most hours dedicated to family entrance and very little for gender segregated ones. Additionally it was the first time that women were allowed to work at the fair.

Below are excerpts from news reports about Hayya action in previous years and also links to other bloggers who wrote about the 2009 Riyadh Book Fair.

2006 Arab News: Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and wielding religious authority, they went around telling women to cover their faces, wear “abayas” (black cloak) over their heads in one piece, rather than two — head scarf and body cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in bookstands not to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in public.

2009 Arab News: Frustrating Experience

The book fair, which ends on Friday, has been marked with controversy once again — with liberal and literary minded people complaining of harassment by the commission. For their part, religious authorities have complained, not just about the mingling of men and women at the fair or how women are dressed, but also about how they claim their voices are being quelled by the visitors.

In one of the more highly publicized incidents at the fair, Saudi writer Halemah Mozaffar was verbally accosted by men who identified themselves as commission members and accused her of immorality for not having her face covered and for signing books given to her by men — she had signed the books as the men had asked her to do so out of admiration for her work.

What is essential for reform is the continuation of raised voices about these controversial topics, with support and encouragement from the media. With Commission members no longer carrying sticks and two piece abayas being quite common, it should be interesting to see what happens at the 2009 Janadriyah festival which is allowing family days for the first time.

Writings by other bloggers on the Riyadh Book Fair 2009:

Qutb

Saudi Arabia recently removed two books related to Qutb from it’s school libraries. One is written by him, and one is apparently about him. Extremist ideas and deviant ideology is the given reason. IT’S ABOUT TIME SOMEONE PAID ATTENTION!!

Many Muslims consider Qutb’s writings  to be the bastion of Islam without care or worry. They encourage young impressionable minds to read certain books without regard to the content and the context. Banning his books (or any book for that matter) is not the solution; however Qutb’s books need to be read with a full understanding of the context and life circumstances of the author (which is true for all authors).

Some works are particularly insidious in today’s world. Written by authors who hate the “West” and broadly stereotype everything and everyone, persecuted in their own countries, these bitter individuals are/were trying to bring about change through the only means they had available, revolution. Their writings embed the seed of revolt and encourage action, even (especially) if violent. In today’s increasingly divided world, with “us vs them” mantras, disenfranchised masses, and easy access to improvised tools of destruction, violence is becoming the first option rather than the last.

Several years ago I spoke at a gathering of 700-800 people about the need to revise Islamic school curriculums in the US. I mentioned that we have to be aware when an author is writing for political objectives, regardless of how familiar we are with his writings. Some authors teach “hate the West” philosophies which are very problematic for our youth because they too are the West! We should not be encouraging self-hate. If we want our youth to learn about social activism we need to point them towards  Malcolm X, not Qutb. They need to accept who they are and work towards changing systems- not hate who they are and lash out against the world. Instead of always allocating blame we need to take responsibility for the places where we are deliberately or inadvertently part of the problem.

Not surprisingly I was the most controversial speaker on that panel. The responses and questions fell along a generational divide. Roughly speaking, immigrants forty and older disagreed with my critique of their favorite authors; first generation youth thirty and younger agreed with what I said.

Just don’t get me started on Ibn Tahmiyah 😀

of gold and glitter- 2

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

by J.R.R. Tolkien

The most common complaints that one hears from expats are the following:

  • Nothing to do but shopping
  • Nothing to do but socializing
  • Inability to drive
  • Censorship of materials
  • Being forced to wear abayas
  • Shops closing at prayer times

These are intriguing because they are complaints about the lack of choice rather than the actual issue itself. In many many many other countries of the world, expats and/or suburban wives do the same by choice:

  • Shopping
  • Socializing
  • Having chauffeur driven cars (in many emerging economies, expats will rarely drive- actually, middle class and up everyone has drivers)
  • The official position on restricting media and the actuality are very different here. EVERYTHING is available, and quite openly- from music, DVDs, software to books. In fact it is rather odd but the english bookstores around here don’t do any censoring. In some stores you will see faces of women blacked on magazine covers and in other stores there are romance novels that include explicit sex. It is a strange and confused world 🙂
  • This one is quite interesting as it has two major aspects that need to be examined. We can all agree that forcing any particular clothing is just as wrong as forbidding any type of clothing (raises issues about places like France but that is for another post) so let’s leave that aside. One the one side covering up is actually safer for women around here. In many other countries expats dress to fit in anyway but they are not forced to do so (at least not legally, socially it would be VERY unsafe to step out on the streets). We can like it or dislike it but it definitely helps on the safety side. The second aspect is of respecting the culture and not deliberately being offensive. The problem is, many expats are willing (actually consider it their right) to do as they please without respecting the culture that is hosting them. The arrogance/attitude that a different culture must be “less” than theirs is at the crux of this matter. There always a few who want to make a statement and prove their point. This is where the problems emerge. It would be better to help the locals make their own statements rather than trying to prove something. This might sound like being accepting and compromising however the bigger picture has to be looked at. How does one actually bring about change in a system? The most effective way is organically, and bottom up (albeit not the not expedient). External intrusions are just that, intrusions. They do not stick unless coming from within. The alternative is breaking the system- this one can be done from outside the system, however it tends to be messy and more importantly, the consequences are suffered by the people inside the system. It is easy to create trouble and then just walk away, however it’s very irresponsible. Social change is necessary and should be done- but seriously, not as a frivolous hobby to keep boredom at bay. For those who want to help women and their rights, help the Saudi women and activists who are fighting the battle at the front-lines.
  • This is once again an example of creating hard and fast rules that would be better served by having flexible guidelines. While being inconvenient when in a hurry, it is actually rather nice this “lifestyle choice” (of praying!) is not something that one has to hide or do surreptitiously.

I once attended a lecture at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. There was a remarkable reverend who stated (paraphrased very loosely) that what we need is respect, not tolerance. With tolerance we still think the other is wrong and we are the better ones for “putting up” with them. Respect is different because it is an acknowledgement that the other can also be right. You are not any better because you accept the differences of the other.