by Dr Nadia Khan
My home phone bell rang and on the other end there was a familiar sound, “Would you mind visiting the conference on 'Arab Women – A change and paradigm shift” is being held in Dubai. This will be associated with few visits to other Arab cities such as Riyadh and Muscat. There will be discussion forums and finally all the participants will meet at Dubai to conclude their observations. These observations will then be translated into recommendations to various Arab countries through their women / human rights organizations for further negotiations with individual governments.”
My response was in affirmative and then next two weeks were gone with travel arrangements, preparations, and sorting out landing details at different cities for meeting & exchanging views with other participants. When the plane took off from Karachi airport, my mind was flying higher than plane to know the status of women in Middle East especially in cities like Dubai, Sharjah, Doha, Muscat, and my last destination was Riyadh. Since then I started my studies, my dream was to know more about the Middle Eastern women and their cultural values.
In cities like Doha, Dubai, and Muscat the initial response with an alone lady at the airport was not very disappointing. Dubai is a known place for foreigner so no issue there but especially at Seeb International Airport, Muscat or at King Khalid International Airport Riyadh, an alone lady was treated well and taken to hotel without any cultural issue. When I inquired from the female coordinator who came to airport to pick me up and take me till hotel that “I was afraid of maltreatment by being alone here, how do you see a single lady landing here and forced to follow the traditions, what could be the repercussions?” She nicely responded that “nothing like the Western propaganda, you will be treated well as if you are at your home!” After that I became curious but really felt that things will not be as per the stories which I read in newspapers about women in Middle East.
Finally at the end of this 2 weeks long observational-visit, in Dubai, the environment was calm. Hotel's conference room was full of Arab ladies, with their colorful dresses under Abayas (veil) and glittering faces. When my name was called to present my observations, I looked at the audience and started reading my written comments.
"Dear Sisters, I am glad that I have been given a chance to speak with the elite of Middle Eastern Female population and share my observations and thoughts. Though I am off Pakistani origin but we all are tied up with ideals and morals of a divine religion that is at the centre of Middle East. Islam and Arabic traditions are nucleus of my thinking sine then I started thinking. You can’t separate the two organically; Arabs and Islam are twins and rest of the Muslim world look at the Middle East, first as the centre of Islam. During last two weeks in various cities, I was observing each event or action that has taken within the perspective of females in Arab cities is looked upon with microscopic eyes by me. I would like to highlight them as follows.
I came across number of issues which you are facing in your respective societies such as driving banned in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, restricted sponsorship for Mehrams (husbands) and kids, no choice of life-partner selection, polygamous behavior of males for no reasons, harassments at work places and outside are few of them to name. However, the points which I would like to highlight are more organic in nature then those I mentioned earlier.
Arab society has its roots date back to time when the birth of a female child was not an acceptable phenomenon. Since then with a very limited period of 30 years (The Caliphates era) Arab society returned back to their old tribal traditions and now 49% of population is somehow deprived of their eternal rights. Choice of husband, inheritance in property, authority to run business and traveling from one place to other, were the issues settled by our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) 1431 years before but they were reborn in last 200 years.
Beside all the evils, which we hear or read in Western media, I still feel that Arab society is far better than any progressive society. I always experience that whenever I come to Dubai airport and numbers of passengers are standing in front of me before the immigration counter, somehow or from somewhere an Arabic officer will come forward and pull me out of the long-standing que as he feels that 'an-alone' woman could be given preference. I still remember those stories told by my friends and relative about the harsh treatment at various airports within Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Two years before, when I landed with my family at Jeddah airport for my first Umra trip, there was longest-ever que, I have seen in my life at the immigration counter. The anticipated waiting time to reach to the immigration counter, I felt, could be 5 hrs or more. But within 15 or 20 minutes of standing in the line, when the Saudi officer looked at the woman in the line, he pointed out at me asking to come forward. Until recently, when I landed at Seeb Airport, Muscat I was treated so nicely as if I am a royal guest. When I compared my experience with Heathrow or Gatwick airports, I felt that women are treated far better in any Arab society than in West or countries claiming more social rights for women.
I will focus my discussion with Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it is becoming the central stage for whole of the Arab women. A gradual change is being seen in Saudi society. I have been told that during the historic National Experts Meeting on Domestic Violence held at the Marriott Hotel in Riyadh, a glass shield was installed to separate the male and female sides of the audience. The meeting and such a program would have never seen in KSA society, and neither males nor females would have met under the same roof with nothing separating between them but a low wall of glass, is an accomplishment towards change that is taking its root in the society.
Although, desegregation in Saudi hospitals between male and female doctors is permissible, as female autopsy teachers and students from the opposite sex revealed. But those female doctors and professors participating in such a progressive convention have almost rejoiced at the glass shield, as they compare it to the separate closed rooms where members of the two sexes could only convene through low-quality video screens during regular seminars.
Ultimately, the status of women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains different in contrast to the status of women in the rest of the world, including Arab women in several Arab countries. However, the developments in the Kingdom and the Saudi woman's path is considered as a barometer indicating whether change will be short-lived or will be institutionalized the way KSA women and human rights organizations need it.
Saudi educated elite women are angry at this "step-by-step" slow and gradual approach to acquiring self-evident rights of women. They are also angry at the "delight" of their comrades with the separating glass shield. During my recent visit, one of the women told us that she is upset with the slow gradual approach. She said, "So many decisions and initiatives have been made, only to die in the crib because of the absence of administrative institutions. Institutionalism does not exist. Everyone behaves according to his cultural, tribal or regional nature and background.” She adds that what practically happens is “one step forward and ten backward in our power corridors.” Hence, “gradual change is not successful; we need a set of laws and a system to protect us” one of the right activist informed the team.
According to one of the news from Riyadh reported in Al-Hayat newspaper that, dwellers of Saudi mosques will notice new expressions such as “human rights” uttered by the preachers during Friday prayers, “because the Ministry of Islamic Affairs vowed to mobilize its Imams and Preachers to spread awareness about human rights as part of a new partnership with the official rights entity.” The task will cover this time the rights of children, girls, wives and servants. This will lead towards a major society-building process.
According to the international definition of human rights, the concept of guardianship, like gender segregation, opposes the fundamental human rights. The Saudi woman is subjected to these practices because traditions - not religion or laws - require that she demand permission from her father, brother, husband, or son, even when she is in need of urgent healthcare, not just in matters of travel, education, work, and marriage. In confronting domestic violence, a woman has to practically seek her husband's permission to file a complaint against him. None of this is the result of enacted laws but rather, the result of the lack of legislation that bars these violations and practices.
This is exactly what the Saudi woman is gradually breaking down to eliminate the discrimination against her and to develop herself into a member of society that deserves respect and protective laws prohibiting such humiliating practices. Hence, women themselves are not divided over the need for change but with the pace of the change. In the eyes of some women, the participation of businesswomen in the official delegation that accompanies King Abdullah on official visits represents an unprecedented move that highlights the significant official support for women and proves King Abdullah's determination to support women in the path of change.
Recognizing and speaking openly about these phenomena is in itself a matter of change. However, the recommendations demand actions and not mere recognition and admission. Efforts must be exerted to incriminate all kinds of domestic violence harmful to the victim or her family, and to impose reinforcing and deterring penalties against the perpetrator. I came to know that there is talk about compulsory reporting of assaults, protection to informants, and punishment of perpetrators in the society. There is talk about the need to set up administrations that prevent and counter domestic violence, institutions that would promote cooperation within all concerned ministries and official institutions. We have been told that next year's plan of action will also focus on training and rehabilitating professionals engaged in domestic violence cases and on obliging workers in security entities to receive complaints. There are also recommendations to publish a Sharia'a-compliant log of personal status in Saudi Arabia to limit domestic violence. The recommendations also demand the activation of family courts to rule on cases of domestic violence.
This is not the first time that the issue of violence against women, children and the elderly is discussed in the Arab region. However, this is the first time that men and women speak out in Saudi Arabia about these matters openly and under one roof! Be it slow or fast, this process is part of the change underway in the Kingdom.
Middle Eastern women are now part of change as a result of a serious political decision, and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at forefront. The need of time is that facts must be acknowledged and encouraged. Incorporating the talk about human rights into religious preaching is commendable. However, the slow pace remains an enemy threatening the path of change, as it leaves it vulnerable to the forces that resisted and continues to resist this kind of change.”