17 April 2014, Thursday
Today's Zaman


26 October 2013, Saturday

What's wrong with this picture?

Female driver Azza Al Shmasani alights from her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh. (Photo: Reuters, Fahad)
Global Muslims often wonder why the image and reputation of Islam and Muslims is so negative these days, especially when it comes to the mistreatment of girls and women.

Muslims counter-argue that the Quran and Hadith support women's rights and equality, and call on respecting them.  Muslims cite the example of the Prophet Muhammad and how he treated his wives with respect. There is a serious problem, however, and that's the “say-do gap,” as in the modern era we see countless examples of abuse, repression, inequality, disrespect, and even cold-blooded murder of girls and women in predominantly Muslim countries. And, Muslims have the laughing stock of the world – though it would be even funnier if it weren't so vile and violently misogynist – who has done the most damage to the image of Islam, and that is Saudi Arabia, the “custodian” of the birthplace of Islam.

It begins with the asinine “ban on driving” for women, which activists are planning to protest on 26 October. Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg, this issue of the driving ban, because some Muslim men have made snide remarks about how this is such a petty issue, and so why are women complaining about it? That in and of itself illustrates tremendous misogyny and lack of intelligence and intellectual depth about the deeper ramifications of the driving ban for women's rights and freedoms.  Many fail to see the deeper meanings.  It is endemic of the ignorance and misogyny that pervade in many Muslim societies.

For those who need further explanation, the driving ban is only part of a larger social policy that is obsessed with controlling girls and women's mobility, behavior, choices, decisions, and lives.  In other words, it's all about control, and it's also all about denying girls and women the right to be granted basic human rights and freedoms. That means that they are, in essence, treated as sub-humans. Conversely, men have all the rights and freedoms endowed to them, including the custodial rights to control girls and women. I say “custodial” because that is the accurate description in this scenario. Men are seen as “guardians” who have custody over girls and women, including their wives and mothers, and regardless of the age difference.  So, that's why the driving ban is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a microcosm of the society-wide, government endorsed policies that are meant to control girls and women in every aspect of their lives in Saudi Arabia.

Why? Because of fear.  Yes, these men in the religious establishment and governmental authorities who support and enforce these policies actually fear females. They are viewed as the source of temptation, and also as “beings” that need constant control (by male authorities) in order to prevent them from going astray, and/or leading others astray, mainly men. An even more extreme example of this neurotic fear of females is the Taliban, whom the Saudis have supported since their inception.  Read Ahmed Rashid's book, Taliban, and you will learn about it in detail. It's not just the driving ban that illustrates this fear, but also the imposed dress code, and the legal restrictions on women's movement, as well as severe gender segregation, all of which are extremely distorted and literalist interpretations of Islam.

Saudi Arabia does no favors for itself, and nor for global Muslims, with its totalitarian social policies that are based on the ultra-conservative and misogynist ideology called Wahhabism. Repeatedly, the Saudi government and religious authorities have issued statements and policies that ridicule the very claims of gender equality that other Muslims make with earnest. Whenever global Muslims take one baby-step forward, you can be assured that the Saudi authorities will do something to pull everyone several steps back. That's exactly what the Saudi authorities are trying to do this weekend by repressing the women's driving protest and campaign. The authorities have blocked these activists' websites and blogs, and they have issued stern warnings against them, threatening severe penalties if they go forward with driving.  

Pause here for one second.  Driving.  What an atrocious crime!  How horrific!  How dishonoring!  The nerve of them!

Saudi Arabia's religious authorities indoctrinate the people with deep-seated misogyny.  Consider the lengths they are willing to go to stop this driving protest on 26 October:

“The Saudi interior ministry (on Thursday) repeated its warning against activists attempting to defy a de facto ban on women driving.  Interior Ministry Spokesman General Mansur al-Turki told Al Arabiya that ‘women driving inside the kingdom is completely banned.'  

“… According to the Associated Press, the warnings by the ministry come after a number of clerics and religious scholars protested in Jeddah, saying the authorities were doing nothing to stop women defying the ban.  There is no specific law preventing women from driving in the kingdom, but they cannot apply for driving licenses” (Al Arabiya, Oct. 24).

And then there is the loudmouth Saudi cleric who spewed the most ridiculous, stupid, and downright ignorant comment that all Muslims should be extremely embarrassed about:

“One of Saudi Arabia's top conservative clerics has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom's male-only driving rules.  

“…As one of the 21 members of the Senior Council of Scholars, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan can write fatwas, or religious edicts, advise the government and has a large following among other influential conservatives.

“…In an interview published on Friday on the website sabq.org, he said women aiming to overturn the ban on driving should put ‘reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions.'

“…His comments demonstrate how entrenched the opposition is to women driving among some conservative Saudis.

‘If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,' he told Sabq.

‘That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees,' he said.   A biography on his website does not list any background in medicine and he did not cite any studies to back up his claims”  (NBC News, Sept. 29).

Yet, Saudi Arabia has the nerve to complain about its human rights image in the world today. What's worse is that global Muslims are giving them a free pass to repeatedly embarrass and misrepresent them and Islam. Why are global Muslims failing to criticize Saudi Arabia? Why are they tolerating such behavior in the name of Islam, which only maligns Islam and Muslims?  Their silence connotes an endorsement of the mistreatment and repression of girls and women, which contradicts their claims to the contrary.  

It's time for global Muslims to step up to the plate and call out the misogyny in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities deserve a collective finger shaking and condemnation. And, if Muslims are not going to do it, then who?  The hypocrisy here is that Muslims often get upset when non-Muslims criticize such behavior. If that upsets them, then why not preempt them, and do their duty to uphold the Islamic principles of respecting women's rights and freedoms by rebuking one of the worst violators in the world? That's not just their duty, but it also puts words into action and closes the say-do gap. The onus is on them.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.