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Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism vs. Islam

New York – Human rights in Saudi Arabia, birthplace and heartland of Islam, are based on Islamic law, or the Sharia, under the rule of the Saudi Royal Family.

It has been widely accepted that the application of these rights, more specifically women’s rights, is emblematic of Islamic dogma. It must be underlined, however, that the highly contentious theocratic ideology of Wahhabism, the monarchy’s official interpretation of Islam, plays an instrumental role in the formulation of many of these rights. It, therefore, follows that a substantial number of women’s civic rights in Saudi Arabia, or lack thereof, are only validated by the opinions of a chauvinistic male-dominated Wahhabi society, devoid of any coherent Islamic rationale.

Despite the growing attractiveness of this Wahhabi discourse, it is important to recognize that is does not represent the entire gamut of intellectual space in the Muslim world. In effect, although the inferior status of women is a fairly consistent theme in many Muslim countries, its correlation with Islam, though not arbitrary, is not absolute.

There exists endless controversy in both Islamic and Western literature over the Muslim position on women. In their war against Islamic law, women’s rights organizations expose abuses committed by the Saudi regime against women; inherent in their message, therefore, is that Islam is incompatible with the human rights of women.

To terminate this debate, it is crucial to discount all stereotypes attributed to Muslim women and to understand the actual teachings of this faith, and second, understand the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. This comparative analysis reveals that an examination of women’s rights as outlined in the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet, highlights Islam’s highly revered notion of egalitarianism. Wahhabi regulations for women, on the other hand, are only traced back to the legal codes based on fiqh texts selected and interpreted by a modern patriarchal order.

The Quran and the Hadith, as opposed to the whole of sharia, will be used in the course of this paper to provide authentication for any position or view associated with Islam as much of what is now considered divine and immutable sharia is, in fact, the result of a long, male-dominated intellectual process. This essay seeks to demonstrate how the very nature of Wahhabism diverges from the peaceful premise of Islam. However, the Wahhabi attitude with respect to women is akin with Najdi tribal culture that is dominant in Saudi Arabia, perhaps explaining why this radical ideology is so deeply imbedded within Saudi society.

The issue of the claimed superiority or inferiority of any human, male or female, is unambiguously addressed in the Quran. The sole basis for superiority over another person, according to traditional Islamic belief, is piety and righteousness, not gender, color, or nationality. One of the most remarkable features of the Quran, particularly in comparison with the scriptures of other monotheistic religions, is that women are explicitly addressed as being equals to men (Ahmed 64).

In consonance with the spirit of equality in the Quran, the Prophet is reported to have said, “All people are equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a white over a black person, or of a male over a female” (Heyneman 51)The wives of the Prophet Muhammad were vibrant and outspoken women. The Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, perhaps best defies the popular perception of Muslim woman. A prominent businesswoman, she was neither oppressed, nor submissive, or subjugated.

On the contrary, she was a source of immense affection, strength, and comfort for Prophet Muhammad. Aisha, the Prophet’s favorite, served at various times a judge, a political activist and a warrior. An eminent traditionalist, she transmitted Hadith to several of the foremost early Muslim traditionalists. Some 2,210 Hadith are attributed to her: “…women’s contribution to this important literature indicates that at least the first generation of Muslims—the generation closest to Jahilia days and Jahilia attitudes had no difficulty in accepting women as authorities” (Ahmed 47). Among Muhammad’s eleven other wives and concubines were a leatherworker, an imam and an advocate of the impoverished (Altorki 22). Because the prophet’s wives assumed such distinguished positions in society, it, therefore, follows that any emphasis on Muslim women’s domestic confinement did not emerge from Prophetic teachings.

Moreover, Islam decreed women entitlement to independent ownership, a right which a woman was deprived of both before Islam and even as late as the 20th century. Islamic Law recognizes a woman’s right to buy, sell, or lease any or all of her properties at will.  For this reason, Muslim women have traditionally kept their maiden names after marriage, an indication of their independent property rights as legal entities. Islam also restored to woman the right of inheritance at a time when a female was an object of inheritance in many cultures (AlMunajjed 65).

Her share in most cases is one-half a man’s share, with no implication that she is valued at only half a man’s worth. This variation in inheritance rights is only consistent with the disparity in the spending duties of man and woman according to Islamic Law. Man in Islam is fully responsible for the maintenance of his wife, his children, and in some cases, his disadvantaged relatives. This obligation is not waived because of his companion’s fortune or her access to any personal income gained from work, rent, profit, or any other means. A woman, on the other hand, is not burdened by such financial responsibility as she is free to use her accumulated wealth as she pleases (Doumato 19).

Polygamy is legally recognized in most Muslim countries, in accordance with the Quran. Islam did not outlaw polygamy, as did many peoples and religious communities; rather, it regulated and restricted it. The scripture highlights the importance of treating all wives fairly and equally—a difficult requisite, even for a wealthy man.

However, it should be remembered that the practice is permissible, though not necessarily ordained by the Quran. The permission to practice polygamy is not associated with mere satisfaction of passion; the Quran permitted polygamy at a time when Muslims were killed in the wars against Mecca, and women were left without protectors (Armstrong 16).

Contrary to prevailing Western beliefs, Islam gives a woman the right to refuse polygamy for her husband by setting it as a condition during the marriage procedures. As long as the condition is set prior to the wedding, the woman is granted divorce if her husband decides to marry another woman while he is still married to her. In fact Prophet Muhammad stipulated that his favorite daughter’s marriage to Ali be strictly monogamous.

If women were given their God given rights, as set out in the religion of Islam, any prosecution of Islamic treatment of women would be trampled into oblivion. Although the spirit of Islam, as Humphrey likes to insist upon, is patriarchal, in the words of Leila Ahmed:

Even as Islam instituted, in the initiatory society, a hierarchal structure as the basis for the relations between men and women, it also preached in its ethical voice the moral and spiritual equality of all human beings. Arguably, therefore, even as it instituted a sexual hierarchy, it laid the ground, in its ethical voice, for the subversion of the hierarchy (238).

Furthermore, Humphrey presents Islamic feminism as if it were an oxymoron, contending that in societies where customs and constraints are governed by Islam, it is difficult to imagine an outlet for feminism to thrive (Humphrey 224). But the essence of the feminist movement that are becoming increasingly popular is not to stray from Islamic scripture, but rather to expose and eradicate male chauvinistic ideals that are glossed as Islamic, and in this manner, recapture Islam’s core idea of gender equality.

To fully agree with this notion, it is crucial to dismiss the liberal western definitions of equality. Western values linked to social conduct, modesty, and decorum that emerged following the sexual revolution cannot be set as universal standards as every culture is unique in its own way. Likewise, the beliefs and practices of a particular and minor sect of Islam should not be taken as being representative of the totality of Islam.

In order to fully understand how Wahhabism has survived the test of time, a brief history of this movement is necessary. Wahhabism is a term commonly given to a strict Sunni sect of Islam. The movement emerged approximately 250 years ago under the guidance of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the first modern Islamic fundamentalist. Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the modern-day Al Saud dynasty, aligned with Abd al Wahhab to begin the process of bringing together different tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.

The theological and political partnership resulted in the fall of Mecca for the second and final time in 1924, cementing their governance in the region (Delong-Bas 14). Following the conquest of the holy city, the tremendous oil wealth of the kingdom was exploited to export the radical Wahhabist ideology across the globe. To this day, these families share control over the kingdom, with the descendants of Wahhab, known as ahl al-Shaykh, in charge of religious life, and the Saudi royal family, or ahl al-Saud, operating the state. The two families also continue to marry their descendants to one another (Altorki 67).

It is the rigidity that defines this extremist movement that has separated its precepts from traditional Islam. Adherents of Wahhabism do not refer to their religion as “Wahhabi”. Many prefer to call themselves “Muslim,” for according to their beliefs, they are the only true Muslims. Some Wahhabists refer to themselves and their religion as “al-Muwahhidun,” or “Unitarians.”’ Following the legal school of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Wahhabi ulama allegedly only accept the authority of the Quran and the Hadith, and accordingly, reject reinterpretation of these divine sources with regards to issues settled by the early jurists.

By rebuffing the validity of reinterpretation, Wahhabi doctrine adamantly disagrees with Muslim reformation movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latter movement sought to reinterpret parts of the Quran and sunna to conform with standards set by the West, most notably standards relating to gender relations, family law, and participatory democracy (Delong-Bas 27).

Though the Wahhabis and Salafis claim to be returning to the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam, they have only revived particular aspects of this history. In the words of Ibn Battuta, “they are practicing selective revision, relying on narrow cultural interpretations that reinforce their patriarchic and misogynist views, redefining Islam in a manner that is un-Islamic” (AlMunajjed 87).

Traditional Islam views religion as a bond between man and God and, therefore, the realm of piety. In this belief, there can be no coercion or force used in religion. Contrary to this, the Wahhabi ideology is constructed upon the pillar of political enforcement of religious beliefs, thus negating any variations in faith (Hunter 76). Under this modern ideological extremism, Islam’s essential principle of tolerance has been abolished. The contents of the textbooks taught in Saudi schools help propagate this extremism:

The concept of jihad (struggle or holy war) features prominently in the religious textbooks, which distinguish three aspects of jihad: the spiritual or personal jihad, the striving against sin and sinful inclinations; the jihad against the enemy, which should be fought with weapons; and the jihad with the tongue, through speeches etc. The same paragraph of the textbook that lists these definitions talks about Islam as a religion of love and peace, high-lighting the often contradictory messages disseminated to Saudi students (Prokop 5).

Given the movement’s deviation from traditional Islam, it is only fair to argue that the selection of Saudi women’s rights that are derived from Wahhabi beliefs, are in fact not Islamic.

Saudi women don’t represent every Muslim woman

Western media have inaccurately portrayed the cloaked Saudi woman as the classic symbol of every Muslim woman. Saudi Arabia’s requirement that women wear the full black abaya, the all-enveloping black attire, under the scorching Arabian sun, stems from Wahhabi decrees, not Quranic ones. This ideology claims that all of a woman’s body is awrah, implying that the totality of her body is sexually provocative and should, therefore, not be seen by unrelated men (Dounato 223).

Adherents believe that paradise awaits those who abide by the rigid dress code, while eternal damnation lies ahead of those who don’t. The religious police, known as the mutawwa, particularly active in Riyadh, Buraydah and Tabuk, can arrest those who deviate from the black uniformity. The Mutawwa, known formally as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, have invoked widespread fury for their reprehensible application of the law.  During one such incident in March 2002, Mutawwa forces prevented fifteen girls from escaping a burning school because they were not dressed in accordance with Islamic code (Prokop 3).

Amongst Islamic countries, the varied views on women’s dress derive from different interpretations of Koranic verses and the Hadith. The Quran prescribes a degree of segregation and veiling for the Prophet’s wives. However, there is no verse that requires the veiling of all women (Armstrong 16).

Throughout Muhammad’s lifetime, veiling, like seclusion, was only observed by his wives. It is not known how the customs spread to the rest of the community. According to Leila Ahmed, perhaps the “conquests of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Muhammad’s wives being taken as modems probably combined to bring about their general adoption” (Ahmed 56). Although there is no unanimous consensus among Muslims regarding what constitutes proper dress, most agree that God simply ordered women to dress modestly.

Most recently, Yusuf Al-Ahmed, a professor of Sharia law at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, demanded a radical change in Islamic tradition. He champions the belief that women should be forbidden from joining men during the ritual of tawaf, which consists of walking around the Kaaba during the hajj pilgrimage. Instead, he maintains that a separate area should be reserved for women’s use. Yet in the 1400 years of Islam’s history, women have never been isolated from men during the pilgrimages to the Grand mosque:

The opinion of professor Al-Ahmed follows on a series of similar efforts by Wahhabi reactionaries, including a demand that women wear niqab during pilgrimages – another previously unknown burden on women. The hajj and umrah pilgrimages embody liberation from sin in Islam, which is why women have never been required to cover their faces or occupy separate spaces in the Grand Mosque (Al-Alawi).

The segregation of men and women during the religious pilgrimage exemplifies how in spite of Wahhabi’s alleged emphasis on returning to the pure form of Islam, they’re in fact directly departing from it.

Ironically, the leading country in the export of petroleum, a country whose economy is based primarily on the consumption of oil, denies women the right to drive. The basis of this law is not the Quran or the Hadith as no cars existed in Muhammad’s time. Reasons for the ban are allegedly the spread of corruption, women uncovering their hair and faces, mingling between the sexes, culminating into the ultimate destruction of familial values and society as a whole.

In 1990, a small group of Saudi women defied the ban by driving cars down a boulevard in Riyadh. Several of the women were jailed, while others lost their positions in schools and universities. This law is incomprehensible to many Saudi women seeing as prior to the 1957 driving ban, women were able to move freely on camel and horseback.

Wajeeha al-Huwaidar, an outspoken advocate for the removal of the anti-driving law explains, “Our parents had the right of movement; our grandparents had it too. But we, ladies of the cities, lost the old ways and got nothing in their place” (Al-Alawi). This segregation is also extended to public means of transportation. Women are restricted in the use of public transportation when in the presence of men as they must enter the buses by a separate entrance in the back and occupy designated seating. Nor are they permitted to travel between different parts of the country or abroad without written permission from their closest male relative (Altorki 65).

Segregation in the high education system

The gender-segregated higher educational system in Saudi Arabia is yet another feature of Saudi society that cannot be verified with Quranic teachings. Indisputably, the Quran warns that the intermingling of the sexes can lead to “seduction and the ‘evil consequences’ that might follow” (AlMunajjed 76). Wahhabism, in its strict orthodoxy, interprets the Quran’s cautioning by tightly restricting any type of interaction among unmarried and unrelated men and women. Accordingly, the Saudi education system limits women’s access to labor markets and participation in the global economy:

This remains the case in spite of the consistently higher achievement of women over men in secondary and higher education, in spite of women university graduates flooding into the job market by the tens of thousands, and in spite of an economy vastly overburdened with foreign workers whose positions could be filled by Saudi women (Doumato 22).

Women are excluded from studying engineering, journalism, pharmacy, and architecture. They’re studying dentistry, education, medicine, nursing, and public administration among a few other professions. The rationale for this tracking appears to be that these occupations are an extension of women’s domestic roles as they entail the use of the stereotypical women’s qualities of caring and nurturing (AlMunajjed 128).

The limitations on women’s rights to obtain commercial licenses further displays the measures put in place to ensure the women’s isolation from the workforce. Previously, commercial licenses were issued to women on the condition that they hired male managers; now such licenses are not to be issued at all if the type of business necessitates contact with foreign workers or government agencies (Doumato 23).

According to the Quran, a woman’s role in society is first and foremost as a mother and a wife. However, there is no verse which forbids woman from seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it, nor is there any restriction on benefiting from a woman’s talent in any discipline. Even for the position of a judge, where there is tendency to question a woman’s aptness for the post due to her more emotional disposition, we find early Muslim scholars such as Abu-Hanifa and Al-Tabary holding that there is nothing wrong with it (Al-Hariri 3).

There appear, therefore, to be two separate voices within this religion, and two contending understandings of gender.  One is manifested in the pragmatic patriarchal regulations for society, the other in the articulation of an ethical vision:

While the first voice has been extensively elaborated into a body of political and legal thought, which constitutes the technical understanding of Islam, the second—the voice to which ordinary believing Muslims, who are essentially ignorant of the details of Islam’s technical legacy, give their assent—has left little trace on the political and legal heritage of Islam (Ahmed 66).

The encoders of the earlier Islamic period, dismayed by societies in which misogyny and infanticide were the unchallenged norms, strove to turn Islamic precepts into laws that expressed justice according to the available measures of their times. In contrast, their descendants unwaveringly eschew modern understandings of the meanings of justice and human rights effectively reinstituting the laws devised in other ages and other societies.

The tribal explanation for the persistence of sex segregation is pertinent in Saudi Arabia. The importance of tribalism within the nation cannot be understated. Contemporary restrictions on women and the gender ideologies that validate them are fully congruent with the tribal Najdi culture that pervades throughout Saudi Arabia (Doumato 227).

History books ignore the history of non-Najdi Saudi Arabia, the history of the Hejaz, the Asir and the Shi’a. They essentially glorify the role of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in unifying the tribes and regions and establishing order and security. (Prokop 5) Because tribal groups are politically dominant in Saudi Arabia and tribal culture is an important referent for Saudi society, the notion of tribal honor plays a critical role in the continuing appeal of the laws containing women.

The pride and reputation of a Saudi family is directly linked to a woman’s chastity, known as ird. In this kinship culture, family ties are so strong that all members bear the consequences from the disreputable behavior of any one of them: “Her indiscretion is their dishonor. It is as if a man’s honor is buried in the vaginas of his women, for a women’s violation of her chastity is a violation of the honor of her men” (Mackey 124).

Hence, Saudi society is structured to keep a woman within narrowly defined limits that make it virtually impossible for her to lose her sexual virtue. Even before the onset of puberty, a Saudi woman is engulfed with societal regulations dictated and policed by men. Wahhabi Islam conveniently reinforces these tribal values of family, honor, and patriarchy. Inherent in these values is that in a tribal family, it is expected that the individual aspirations of members of the group must be subordinated to the best interests of the tribe because the reputation and economic welfare of the two are inseparable. This tribal explanation, however, falters when taking into account Kuwait and Bahrain, two states politically dominated by tribal groups, but with reduced levels of gender segregation. This discrepancy perhaps highlights the significance of Wahhabi ideology in framing Saudi social structure.

In effect, the misperception that Islam oppresses women is the product of the magnification of some unfortunate tendencies in certain regions of the Muslim world, namely Saudi Arabia. It is, thus, a gross misconception to reduce the Islamic treatment of women to Wahhabi misogynist discourse. The overwhelming restrictions on Saudi women’s freedoms of movement, dress, rights to travel and to work, are the laws of the state, not of a religion. The culture of female separation persists in Saudi Arabia to a level unmatched in the Arab world and the wider Muslim world until the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The very fact that such elevated segregation is unique to Saudi and more recently to the Wahhabi Taliban, is evidence of the weight that this theological ideology plays in shaping attitudes against women. As shown, Islam must be acquitted in the prosecution of Muslim countries treatment of women, in view of the transparent truth that the legal rights of women are clearly enshrined in Islamic law.


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