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:

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Punishment for Gang Rapists- Saudi Style

Saudi Arabia is becoming harsher with punishments for sexual crimes. Last week a teenager was sentenced to 5 years in prison and 500 lashes for black-mailing for threatening to publish a woman’s photos if she did not go out with him.

Two traffic cops were recently beheaded for gang raping an expatriate woman. It is unclear if the sentencing is because the woman is an expatriate or if this is an indication of longer term changes coming to KSA.

Along with more focus on domestic violence cases as well as child rights, changes are slowly creeping in.

Change in Saudi Arabia- Short and Long Term

As we have all read by now, Saudi Arabia has made some changes in its government and brought in more moderates. Some changes were expected, some were nominal while others are profound.

A lot of people focused on the first woman appointee as it heralds something new, however bringing in women is an inevitable change. No matter how much certain segments of society fight this change, it will happen – and within a generation. The reasons are obvious in a country where women will be majority business owners within a decade: demographics, telecommunications and education. By the way, a week or so before these changes, the first female Saudi cultural attache was announced for Canada.

Some are talking about the change of the Justice minister which is in line with the judicial reform that started a few weeks/months ago. Plans to overhaul the system were put into action several months ago.

Others are talking about the changes in education. This is aligned with the changes in curriculum that have already been started, as well as some of the “experimental” programs that have been tried out.

Changes in SAMA, Health and Info/Culture (along with all the other changes) were necessary for stability. The word is that several people maintained their positions/ranks however they have been reformed by internal pressure- better to reform yourself than be replaced!

The next big area is of course the change in the Hayy’a head (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and  Prevention of Vice). This is where it starts to get really interesting, not because of the change in person but because of the change in status quo in the ongoing tussle between the reform agenda of the administration and the religious right. There is a constant thrust-and-parry dance between society and the Hayy’a; the King has come down on the side of society.

The most profound and long term changes are the ones in the Shoura Council. Changing the head is of  course newsworthy. However this is the first time that all four Sunni schools of thought are being represented in the Shoura Council, not just the Hanbali school. Avoiding a history lesson, Wahabbism/Salafism is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school.

Including the other schools of thought on the Shoura Council dilutes the impact of Hanbalism/Wahabbism/Salafism. This is a long term change that has the potential to change the country in unprecedented ways; it effectively weakens the alliance between the House of Saud and the idealogues of  Ibn Abdul Wahab. There are different extreme end points that can come out of this (over the next few decades):

  • the door can be opened to move from a direct monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy
  • the religious right can feel threatened and destabilize the legitimacy of the monarchy
  • the country moves in the direction of becoming the next Dubai

Reality will probably lie somewhere between these extremes. The reign of King Abdullah has initiated the internal reform process. Crown Prince Sultan will have the choice of continuing on this path or reversing its course.

Several news story that cover the recent government changes are given below:

Religious Tolerance in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: this post includes references to the following two news articles.  I do not know the veracity of the articles nor the legitimacy of the web-sites.

Saudi Arabia arrests Christian blogger

Pastor flees death threats

Churches, synagogues, temples are banned in Saudi Arabia however people are allowed to practice their religion in private. They are not permitted to practice in public or in large gatherings. Proselytizing is definitely banned, whether direct or indirect.

Last year was one of change. There was talk of negotiations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia to open the first Roman Catholic church in KSA. Saudi Arabia hosted an interfaith dialogue conference in June, sponsored a 2-day UN conference to promote interfaith dialogue and is actually leading the same UN Faith Forum!

In light of these happenings in 2008 it is surprising that at the beginning of 2009 there would be reports of arresting a blogger talking about how he converted from Islam to Christianity, and death threats against the ex-pastor of a 300 person church (~ 150 members would congregate at his house, not all 300).

It would appear that the tension between the “Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” and the rest of the administration and population is heating up again. There are constant reminders of the different directions the country is being pulled in. Sometimes it is stories about probes into Vice cops raid of British universities fair and sometimes stories about arrests of Christian bloggers.

The situation is not going to get better anytime soon but at least the indicators of change are starting to appear.

Categorizing Change in Society

Disclaimer: these are thoughts stewing in my head for a little bit. This can eventually become a white paper by refining the following ideas and adding modes of dealing with each.

Change tends to sweep in at different speeds depending on the trigger. A rough way to categorize it is the following:

  • Evolution- this is small, continuous change that happens in systems over long periods of time. Depending on the system being examined evolution plays out over decades and centuries.
  • Reform– this takes generations before it is fully entrenched in peoples mind-sets (a generation is around 20-25 years long). One generation is enough to implement changes and it takes about another generation before the memories of “before” are mostly gone, or at least irrelevant. This tends to start at the top; it requires strong leadership with a long term vision, adequate planning and implementation. This is a proactive role that is necessary to ensure a smooth transition from one status quo to the next.
  • Revolution– this takes years to achieve. This is a word that most governments fear as it is usually assumed to be violent. The connotation is that change will OVERTHROW the status quo. Revolutions are often bottom-up and occur when the status quo gets too oppressive and there is apparently (too) little happening at the top. The conditions for revolution fester when reform is not iterative and the status quo stagnates in a bad place.
  • Crisis– this takes weeks to months to play out. It can cause serious (sometimes irreparable) social fractures. How it is dealt with often sets the tone for other scenarios to play out as they are invariably the catalyst for other types of changes. What is interesting about crises is that they are a consequence of the interaction between internal and external factors. Inadequate anticipation, ignoring causality and avoidance of feedback tend to aggravate crises.
  • Catastrophe– these happen in days to weeks and are often precipitated by external factors. There are limited response options available once events have started playing out.

Each of these modes of change is roughly an order of magnitude smaller than the previous one in the list (decades, years, months, weeks etc).

Martin Luther King, Jr Day

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr day in the US. It is the third Monday each January, commemorating the birth of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr on January 15, 1929. He was an iconic civil rights leader who would have been 80 years old this year if he had not been assassinated at a young 39 years of age.

America would have been a different place if the civil rights movement had not happened. In fact, much of the moral high ground that the US claims nowadays is because of what America became after the 60s because of leaders like MLK, Jr.

One year ago around this same time, we were participating in an MLK interfaith peace walk in Leesburg and talking to Obama supporters about voting for change. This year has been considerably less eventful in sunny Riyadh as we watch inauguration activities on television . Let’s see what next year will bring!

Saudi women in medicine

There is a stigma against Saudi women who go into the field of medicine. It is hard to understand why exactly other than it being a cultural view.

The various comments that I have heard are the following:

  • The women will end up married to their careers
  • Women will work in mixed environments (medical facilities are not segregated like the rest of the work world in KSA)
  • The women will end up getting married late or not at all
  • Women in the field are considered “easy”
  • Men do not want their wives to be doctors

As you might have realized, these comments are not all reasons or even justifications for why women should not join this noble field, they are merely expressions of cultural opinions.

Considering that this is one of the few professions that hires women, and that so many women would prefer female doctors to be dealing with them, one wonders why it is not considered “good” for a Saudi woman to become a doctor. She would be serving a need and helping her country’s economy at the same time. Doctors and nurses are imported to fill most openings around here- clearly Saudization is not required in the field!

There is however a growing number of women who are enrolling in medical school and entering the field as doctors, dentists and lab workers (no nurses yet). Yet another indicator of change.

A sobering reminder of the hurdles in their path is this recent heart breaking news story. A father savagely murdered his daughter by stabbing her and slitting her throat because she was studying medicine.