By Pranava Pakala
Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most infamous countries, has managed to grab attention lately. However, it was for a positive reason this time. In a historic move, Saudi women were allowed to witness a football match between Al-Ahli and Al-Batin. This move is momentous for many reasons. Surprisingly, these women were allowed to enter the stadiums without any “mahram”. A “mahram” literally means a male guardian. He can be the woman’s father, husband, brother, and even her son. One Saudi woman, Sarah Alkashgari, helped to organise this match. She described this experience as “great and surreal”. At a personal level, this match means a lot for Alkashgari as she helped in organising it by doing the groundwork herself. This is a first for Saudi women as traditionally they were not allowed to be employed. Alkashgari, a student at King Abdulaziz University, said, “It was about women finally achieving one of their demands. We wanted to enter the stadiums and we did.”
Beginning of an equal era in Saudi Arabia
This move is the newest addition to the relaxation of the strict rules of gender segregation in Saudi. Women’s issues started coming to the forefront during the reign of King Abdullah. He is regarded as a moderate progressive. During his reign, women gained entry into the Parliament for the very first time. Before this, governance was alien to them. Laws were introduced against domestic violence and the country’s first co-educational university was established under his aegis.
Defining events for women’s rights
Saudis regard their homeland as the closest replica of the Islamic code of living. Two events in the history of the world have been decisive for the enforcement of the Islamic code in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These are the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and September 11 attacks respectively. Before the Iranian revolution, women had never worn the ‘abaya’ or the headscarf. They were seen more often in public and actually took part in public life. With the whole of the Middle East unnerved by the revolution, there was a surge in fundamentalist approaches and people called for a stricter implementation of the Islamic Code. They occupied the Grand Mosque and called for an “end to female education”. Saudis felt threatened by the apparent “Westernisation” and tried hard to reclaim their culture. It is actually astounding that a woman is used as a pawn to execute a man’s evil agenda in every culture. Sex is a biological construct but gender is a social construct. More often than not, we make the mistake of linking these two to justify the inability of a woman to fend for herself. This is especially true in Asian cultures. During this period, publishing images of women in newspapers was banned, scholarships for women to study abroad were declined, and wearing the abaya while in public was made compulsory.
The other major defining event in the history of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was the ‘September 11 attacks’ in the United States. This precipitated a negative reaction to the ultra-conservative Islamic society since a majority of the attackers belonged to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since then, Saudi has been on an image-polishing exercise by appointing reformists to the shura, or the parliamentary counsel. The religious police or the mutaween have also mellowed down and school textbooks have been moderated.
Unreasonable restrictions and aftermath
But, the Kingdom still places some bizarre restrictions on women. Women in Saudi cannot apply for passports, travel abroad, get married, and avail financial or medical services without the permission of a mahram. Marriage is typically a contract between the woman’s father and her husband. In the event of termination of the marriage, the custody usually goes to the father. The woman gets minimum financial assistance. The practice of polygamy is widespread in the Kingdom and subsequently, men are allowed to have up to a maximum of four wives. The sole condition is that the man should be able to provide for all of them equally. This practice goes back to the time of the medieval ages during the crusader wars. Since men were on the battlefield, women generally didn’t have anyone to provide for them so a man was allowed to marry multiple women so that they could be protected. This practice finds no significance in the current era.
An overwhelming number of Saudi women supported the idea of having a male guardian and believed that there is no need for a woman to work outside her home. According to them, even if she does decide to work outside, she should be perpetually accompanied by her mahram. One of Saudi’s most popular exports to the West is Princess Ameerah, the former wife of the business magnate Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. Ameerah has vociferously spoken for gender equality at various international forums. The western-educated former princess has received considerable flak from the Royal Family for her public appearances. The Prince also has spoken out for women’s rights and still supports his former wife in all her endeavours. She has been relentlessly campaigning for the women’s right to drive in the Kingdom.
The way forward
Saudi still has a long way to go in terms of how they look at their female race. The spirit of the Saudi women needs to be respected and cherished for their incessant fight to be at par with men. They are taking small steps but those are surely making a difference in their lives.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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