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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid

Published on Feb 14, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler and Nathan Bloom

Published by NewsRealBlog

A Virtual Revolution in Saudi Arabia

Yes, today there are protests in the streets of Iran, Egypt (again), Bahrain, Yemen, and Algeria. In the last few weeks, there were also street uprisings in Tunisia and Jordan. Iranian riot police are tear-gassing their own people in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Egyptians are now demanding that Mubarak's military give them jobs and money.

As I have noted before, the Egyptian women in the streets of Cairo were wearing severe hijab; some were wearing face veils. The men and women carried signs against Israel and America. But I saw no signs demanding women's rights.

Thus, the real Arab and Muslim "revolution" is a virtual one. It has only just now appeared on the internet, more specifically, on Facebook, and was recently launched by Saudi Arabian women, some who still live in the Kingdom and others who live in exile, either elsewhere in the Middle East or in the West. The site is mainly in Arabic with some English.

One fan posts, in English: "Girls, after Egypt and Tunisia we can demand our rights."

Another fan writes, also in English: "We all should take an action and stop being treated as slaves. We are free to choose our lives. My son was murdered because his father abused him so badly… I will never let this go… I will fight to death for my son's right and all the abused children in my country Saudi Arabia. Where is the Saudi Human Rights? Why there is no justice in Saudi? Where does our money go?"

A third woman says, in English: "The root of it all is the male guardianship system, if we can get rid of that, we're half way there. AUTONOMY over our own lives is key. The right to gain access to financial and medical services without having to attain permission first."

I wrote about this new website yesterday, mainly to applaud the bravery of these women who know full well what can happen to them for demanding their rights. My understanding is that while the site is based outside of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi authorities cannot take it down, they can punish some of the individuals associated with it.

May this not happen.

The comments at this site in Arabic about what "rights" they want are, understandably, somewhat less fiery—although entirely serious and practical. Thus, a fourth woman writes in Arabic that she wants the Saudi King to:

  • Drop the requirement that women older than 18 be accompanied by a guardian
  • Open up more jobs and specialties to women
  • Ban child marriage
  • Pay attention to abused wives
  • Grant citizenship to the children of Saudi women
  • Grant women the right to drive

She suggests that "We need to publicize the issue; the more the word spreads the more powerful we'll become."

Another woman also in Arabic wants the King to:

  • "Grant women the absolute right to total independence from any guardian."
  • "Open up all areas of study and all fields of employment to women without exception."
  • Proclaim that "wearing an abaya should be a matter of choice and not a matter of law. "

Another woman, in Arabic, proclaims: "We do not want our rights as gifts and handouts; we want them as mandatory rights."

Another, in Arabic, says that the King should "grant women the right to represent us in the national councils" and "open up the playing field so that women can assume positions of leadership in the country." Another woman, also in Arabic, calls for "prison time, fines, and public shaming for those who are proven guilty of harassing women." She also wants women to be "granted the right to be members of the King's Consultative Assembly. "

The Facebook site has already been "liked" by nearly 400 people.

What is really going on?

The site's slogans include: 1) "We are demanding the rights granted to us by Islam"; 2) "In the era of the Prophet women straddled horses and participated in wars"; 3) "Yes to granting my rights in accordance with the Islamic Sharia"; 4) and "We insist that our rights be granted but not that they be forced on anyone…Whoever says 'We're OK, we don't need [these rights], we're honored queens, etc.'…[to each her own, just] don't get in the way of [our] legitimate interests."

In other words: I don't want to force my mother to unveil against her will or to drive by herself if this is not her desire.

Trust me: I understand that it is absolutely essential to couch such western-sounding demands in Islamic terms. Perhaps, that is the only way that Muslim women in the Kingdom will be able to gain a hearing, a following, and achieve some kind of reform without being placed under permanent house arrest, divorced against their will, or beheaded in the public square.

And, it is true: Christian and Jewish women have made certain gains within their respective religions; many denominations have women ministers and rabbis. However, such gains have also been sharply limited by fundamentalist misogyny among both men and women in these denominations. In addition: Catholic women cannot become priests; thus, a woman can never become Pope. Orthodox Jewish women have gained enormous religious knowledge and can pray in women-only prayer groups. They still cannot become orthodox rabbis or the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Mainly, women's rights—as the Saudi Facebook site has enunciated them—have only been gained, worldwide, by using existing secular laws to argue for such rights. Indeed, many have viewed religion as one of the chief enforcers of gender oppression.

However, there is no concept of secular law in the Kingdom and in many other Muslim-majority countries. Separation of religion and state is a uniquely Western concept.

Asra Q. Nomani, a religious Muslim-American woman who was born in India, did try to achieve gender dignity and some gender parity in the mosque founded by her own father in West Virginia, but the combination of increasing jihadic-era, Arab male immigrant misogyny coupled with aggressive female submission to such authority made her task impossible. She wrote a very moving book: Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She was also featured in a documentary about her struggle.

Nomani also organized a first-ever woman-led and women-only Islamic prayer service. It was led by Dr. Amina Wadud in NYC—but not in a mosque. No mosque would have them, nor would an art gallery which backed out due to a bomb threat. The prayer service was held in a church and filled with media. The worshippers were moved, transformed—but the service was still condemned.

I hope and pray that the Saudi women who are behind this website study the attempts of Muslim feminists, both religious and anti-religious, to bring about women's rights. And I hope they draw clear conclusions, clear but canny battle plans, and demonstrate the patience for which their people are well known.

This is a 500 year struggle.

Unless, of course, the internet can speed matters up.

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