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:


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:

Hierarchy of "Real Women" in Saudi Arabia

There are ~5.4 million women in KSA between the ages of 15-64 (~Saudi population is 20 million, 60% are over 15 years old, 45% of those are women) and 1.5 million are spinsters according to the Gulf News. 

That means close to 30% of Saudi women are not married because they are either considered old (over 25 according to some!) or unable to “attract” a husband. When asked about what makes women more attractive for marriage it turns out there is a hierarchy similar to that for men (see earlier post on racism and real men).

“Real Women” in order of decreasing attractiveness (for marriage) fall roughly in these categories (attractiveness for affairs or second marriages is another matter):

  • Tribal women- these are either Saudi (or Emirati women) that trace their lineage to a tribe. Each region has a hierarchy of tribes.
  • Foreigners (Western, Arabs, Asian, others)- the preferences between the various foreigners varies based on who is asked. Some mothers prefer Muslim Arab women for their sons, some mothers do not like converts, some sons prefer western women, some prefer someone who can speak the same language, some sons look for beauty and/or compatibility. What appears to be less common are tribal Saudi men married to Asian women (though it was more common a generation ago).
  • Non-tribal Saudi women, Saudi women doctors and divorced women- this category often ends up marrying non-tribal Saudis, divorced men or becoming second wives. Marrying non-Saudi men also happens however it is a prolonged process due to government approvals that are needed beforehand.

What is striking about the order is not that locals prefer to marry locals (that is true for almost every part of the world), it is the notion that non-tribal Saudi women are less desirable than foreigners. Tribalism is such a strong, heavily embedded concept that it completely supercedes nationality and language- not having a tribe while being Saudi is considered less than being a non-Saudi!

Racism and "Real Men" in Saudi Arabia

Segregation of men and women in KSA in restaurants, schools, universities, work areas (even if not required by the government) is explained on religious grounds- that men and women who are not “mahram” for each other should not be alone with each other (different countries and societies deal with the issue of “khulwa” differently- the topic of a different post!).

A mahram is someone in front of whom a woman does not need to cover and can touch/hug e.g. father, father-in-law, bro, son, uncles, nephews, other women etc. For men the equivalent are: mother, mother-in-law, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, other men etc. Other than the husband/wife relationship, the people within the circle of mahram are people that one cannot marry.

So the question comes to mind that if the concept of mahram is so important that all public spaces are segregated, why is it ok for women to be driven by male drivers?

The answer I have received from several locals is mind boggling and has nothing to do with religion. Apparently the drivers in KSA are not considered “real men” as they are almost all from India, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. “Real men” can only be Arab. The hierarchy is as follows:

  • Tribal Arabs (Saudi or from other GCC countries)- real men
  • Syrians and Iraqis- real men
  • Other Arabs (like Egyptians)- NOT real men
  • Asian- not real men

The racism does not end here. People assume that Saudi women cannot possibly be attracted to non-Arab men. They also assume that all these foreign workers would not DARE approach a Saudi woman. Thus it is “safe” to be alone with them. Non-Arab foreign workers  are thus the preferred nationality for personal chauffeurs, limo drivers and taxicab drivers.

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.

Domestic Violence

Yesterday I mentioned the family communication initiative being launched by the KACND to address family values and domestic violence. Domestic violence is a problem in every part of the world, and KSA is not an exception.

The UN  International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was last week, on Nov 25. One of the statistics quoted is horrifying:

At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime — with the abuser usually someone known to her.

1 out of 3. That means that every time you look around, whether at work or in the grocery store, every third woman you see is a possible victim. Just stop for a moment and count around you; one… two… victim… one… two… victim.

Do not for a moment think that “I am in the West, and you’re quoting a number for the third world.” No, the figures are 30% for UK and Australia, 22% for the US (the figure was 31% in 1998). The figures for the Middle East are the same as the rest of the world, it is just talked about less.

We often think of this as a female problem- NO, it is not. It is a problem that involves both men and women. Women will not solve it until men stand up against DV as well. That means YOUR father, brother, son and husband. That is the only way to save YOUR mother, sister, daughter and wife.

Some information and definitions are given below.

Some UN definitions for types of DV:

Physical abuse such as slapping, beating, arm twisting, stabbing, strangling, burning, choking, kicking, threats with an object or weapon, and murder. It also includes traditional practices harmful to women such as female genital mutilation and wife inheritance (the practice of passing a widow, and her property, to her dead husband’s brother).

Sexual abuse such as coerced sex through threats, intimidation or physical force, forcing unwanted sexual acts or forcing sex with others.

Psychological abuse which includes behaviour that is intended to intimidate and persecute, and takes the form of threats of abandonment or abuse, confinement to the home, surveillance, threats to take away custody of the children, destruction of objects, isolation, verbal aggression and constant humiliation.

Economic abuse includes acts such as the denial of funds, refusal to contribute financially, denial of food and basic needs, and controlling access to health care, employment, etc.

The DV cycle:


The Golden Triad: Power, Money, Religion

Q: Where does power come from in today’s world?

A: Depend on where you are.

In the US we have a nominal separation of church and state. What does that really mean? As is, religious values are deeply embedded within the judicial system and now are creeping up all over. Prop 8 is a great example. The Margaret and Helen blog stated the dilemma very succinctly : “If marriage is an institution supported by this country then it must be made available to all of its citizens according to the law.  If however, it is strictly a religious institution then a constitutional amendment determining who can and cannot have access to it is sort of missing the point.  Religious freedom except for people who are not religious is a mutually exclusive concept.” For those that did not follow the issue, the Mormon Church was HUGELY influential regarding the passage of prop 8.

Before I digress too much…the separation of church and state really means that the church (religious institutions as a whole) do not have an automatic claim on power. The have to resort to the same tactics as every other special interest group: MONEY. Basically, power can be bought by the highest bidder and it’s an equal opportunity auction. The bottom line: everyone wants/needs money (money and power have a closed loop that is reinforcing)

Europe is slightly different in the way it separates secular and religious, with immigration from northern Africa and Turkey forcing lines to be drawn. Basically, religion is officially not supposed to exist in the public arena. It clearly does not have any power based on itself, and it cannot use money in the same way as in North America. The bottom line: power needs money, and religion needs power  (note that the circle is not complete and all 3 institutions are getting weaker).

Saudi Arabia is a different animal altogether. If you look at the history of the Saud empire, and how the country was actually formed (pre discovery of oil), religion legitimized power through an alliance. Today, power has acquired money yet it still needs the nod from religion. This creates a unique dynamic where power cannot just do what it wants and continues to need to negotiate with religion. Religion on the other hand does not need money and already has power through proxy. The bottom line: religion and power feed off each other.