THE arrest of a Saudi businesswomen by a religious policeman in Riyadh for having coffee with a male colleague who was not related to her, has brought up the eternal question of whether or not Saudi Arabia wants to join the rest of the world in modernity or remain frozen in time.
But as everything else in this country, there is great ambivalence to opening up to the outside world for fear of losing traditions and the Saudi way of life. Thus, it still remains quite difficult, if not impossible, for individual tourists to visit the country unless they come in large groups. Businessmen also find it difficult at times to get visas to meet partners in the kingdom. It is this sending of mixed signals that illustrates just how conflicted and complex Saudi Arabia’s tussle with coming to terms with modernity and being more open is.
The fact that the arrested businesswoman, named only as Yara in press reports, came from the most liberal city in the country Jeddah, and was arrested in the capital Riyadh, which is in the ultra-conservative heartland of the Najd, illustrates just how divided the country is between the extremely religious and those of a more moderate bent.
Many Saudis are fed up with the excesses of some of the 5,000 members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the most serious of them being a string of deaths last year of suspects following beatings during interrogations. But the government is reluctant to rein them in too much because of the support they get from religious conservatives. Admittedly, the government has put several commission members on trial in the past year for violations, but few have been severely punished, and the fact remains that all commission members are paid government employees who enjoy wide-ranging arrest powers for moral infractions.
Saudi government officials have often claimed that they are ahead of the general population in terms of social issues, specifically on allowing women to drive. Although there is no ban on women driving in the Koran, the Saudi government said that it will allow women to drive once the majority of Saudis support it. “We refuse to impose something on Saudis if they are not ready for it,” one Saudi official was quoted as saying last year.
A case in point is the recent government decision to allow women traveling alone in the country to check into hotels. Until recently, most women, both foreign and Saudi, would be turned away by hotels if they were checking in alone without a male guardian. Conservative religious leaders have denounced the change in policy and several women have already complained that some hotels have refused to allow them to check-in alone.
While it may be true that the government is sometimes ahead of its people on certain issues, the fact remains that negative international publicity is often a great agent of change in Saudi Arabia. Take for example the Qatif girl rape case in which a 19-year-old Saudi woman was gang raped by seven men and then sentenced last October to six months in jail and 200 lashes for having been in a car with an unrelated male. The furore that this ruling caused when the story was picked up by the international media made the kingdom look bad and was probably a major part of the reason why King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz finally pardoned her in December.
Although Saudi Arabia signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2000, it also expressed reservations saying that any provisions in the convention that contradicted Shariah, or Islamic law, would not be applied. That huge loophole has allowed Saudi Arabia to continue to not allow Saudi women to travel abroad without permission of their male guardian, and to make access to medical care and education conditional on the approval of a male relative. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women released a report last week criticizing the kingdom for systematic discrimination against women across all aspects of social life.
A special UN rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Erturk, is currently in Saudi Arabia on a week-long visit to meet victims of violence and record their experiences. Erturk is also going to meet government officials, Shoura Council members and academics.
Saudi officials, and even members of the National Society for Human Rights, have been reluctant to agree with UN’s findings on the lack of women’s rights, lashing out defensively by claiming that Islam provides women with many rights. Hopefully, away from the glare of TV cameras and journalists, Erturk will be able to get across to Saudi officials that incidents such as the arrest of Yara by the religious police must stop if the kingdom wants to join the rest of the world’s modern nations and not end up being ostracized for policies that are unfair and frankly are not very Islamic.