Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
Thirty women have just been appointed to the Saudi Consultative Council (Shoura) for the first time ever. They make up 20 percent of the Council’s 150 members — up from the 120 strong of the previously male-only legislative assembly. It has been a long journey for Saudi women since King Faisal, then Crown Prince and Prime Minister, established public schools for girls in the 1960s.
Milestones for women include university education, owning and managing businesses, running and voting in Chamber of Commerce elections, equal access to scholarships abroad and now membership in the Shoura Council and equal rights in municipal elections.
Is that all? What about driving, traveling, working, getting married and studying without the permission of a guardian? When will women be able to work and study in a mixed environment, and be ministers or senior muftis? Can we see them as captains of airplanes and ships, petroleum engineers, police officers and judges?
The question is not whether this is going to happen — it eventually will — but if we are asking for too much in too short a period of time. Are our expectations too high? Are we not considering the sensitivity of a conservative society and the strong opposition of some influential Islamic scholars?
Before answering these questions, let’s first consider Islam’s position on these issues. I was once asked on a radio program by a religious caller: “How far do you want Saudi women to progress?” I explained that I actually wanted them to regress — 1430 years.
At that time, Muslim women had more rights than they do today. They owned and managed businesses. Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) as a young man worked for his future wife, the mega businesswoman Al-Saydah Khadija. Women joined the army as soldiers and nurses.
The Prophet (pbuh) consulted his wives on social, state and religious affairs. So did Caliph Omar, who changed his position on marriage dowry and admitted his mistake after a woman challenged him in public. As for driving, women rode their camels and horses, even in war.
The caller explained that it was a different era then. Our women need more time to reach that level, he argued.
I answered him by asking: “Do you mean after 14 centuries and 50 years of modern education, our women are less educated, trained and responsible? And if so, who is to blame? Our education system? Our upbringing? Our Islamic teaching?”
If we are to admit that we have had 50 years of educational failure and that it is getting worse, then we should drastically change our curriculum and teaching methods. But if we insist that we have the best system in the world, then we should trust our women to prove it right.
All this reminds me of an issue in court right now. A Saudi girl was taken from her Egyptian mother after an ugly divorce. As a child she was told that her mother was dead.
Her father and stepmother mistreated her. When the love of her life asked for her hand, he was refused, only because the father suspected that the young man had had a relationship with her.
The father pressured the young woman into marrying a man of his choice. She agreed provided her Egyptian mother, whom had she discovered was alive, attended the wedding ceremony.
After her marriage, her husband proved to be a male chauvinist. Since her father refused to even acknowledge her complaints, she finally ran away.
Her uncle convinced her father to allow the young woman be be divorced, but as a punishment, the father denied his daughter a college education and put her under virtual imprisonment.
Under intense pressure, she accepted a suitor, and agreed to be his second wife. As it turned out, he was no better than the first husband.
Still, out of this marriage she had two blessings: A college degree and a wonderful daughter.
Six years later, she was divorced. Now, her father was so angry that he refused to give her shelter and transferred her custody to his brother who sexually harassed her.
She ran away, this time to the police with evidence of the harassment. They allowed her to live on her own and work in the women’s department of a company, to support herself, her daughter — and a driver!
The father did not like the arrangement. Accusing her of being a bad woman, he insisted on denying her his name and inheritance. The issue is going from one judge to another with more psychological turmoil in every step of the way.
The woman does not mind being cut out of her inheritance because, as she told the court: “I was denied what is much more important, my father’s love, care and protection. I don’t care for his money.”
This story explains what our women need and why we are still far from getting there. I am sure that the women who have been appointed to the Shoura Council are well aware of these issues and that they will do their best to resolve them. Empowering our women is an Islamic duty.