The Middle East Channel

Saudi Arabia: the second sex and the third rail

  For a country where women play such a limited public role, it is remarkable that the women’s issue plays such a large role in Saudi public discourse. Nothing excites such fervent debate among Saudi intellectuals and activists, and divides them more clearly. During my stay in Saudi Arabia from mid-January to early April of this year, ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images


For a country where women play such a limited public role, it is remarkable that the women’s issue plays such a large role in Saudi public discourse. Nothing excites such fervent debate among Saudi intellectuals and activists, and divides them more clearly. During my stay in Saudi Arabia from mid-January to early April of this year, the issue of women’s roles in the Saudi public sphere was the dominant topic for debate in the media. How the women’s issue has developed in Saudi Arabia over the past few years is a good indicator of the very slow and cautious liberalization that the Saudi regime has encouraged; it is also a good example of the real limits of that liberalization. 

The women’s issue is the third rail of Saudi politics. Touch it and risk getting burned. The prohibition on women driving is the element that gets the most attention in the United States, and it is certainly an important element of the debate in Saudi Arabia itself. But the issue is larger than driving, encompassing the more general limitations on Saudi women’s participation in public life — in the workplace, in public spaces, in education — and the appropriateness of the "mixing" of the genders (in Arabic, "al-‘ikhtilat") in these contexts. 

King Abdallah has approached the third rail, but in a very cautious manner. His best known initiative in the West on this score is his patronage of the new King Abdallah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), where male and female students and faculty mix on campus without restrictions. Criticisms of KAUST were widespread among Islamists, particularly after pictures of mixed social events appeared on Facebook pages and were passed around by mobile phone. The King decisively intervened in this debate, in October 2009, by firing Shaykh Saad al-Shithri, a member of the Committee of Higher Ulama — the highest clerical body in the Kingdom — who had mildly criticized gender mixing on campus on a television program. This was a particularly strong reaction, as al-Shithri was known as a staunch regime loyalist with close family ties to the Al-Saud. 

But it would be a mistake to overemphasize the importance of KAUST in the more general Saudi debate on women’s issues. The University is a self-contained universe, 80 kilometers from the closest big city (Jeddah) and sealed off from the wider Saudi society. The number of Saudi students on campus is very small. Its impact on the country can only be judged years, if not decades, from now. The more immediate issue is the role of women in Saudi society more generally, and the pushback that minor advances on that score has occasioned.

There is undoubtedly more access for women to Saudi public spaces now than there has been in the past. The debate over al-‘ikhtilat is not theoretical — it is a reaction to real changes. Two public events during my stay in the country underlined the changes. The first was an education fair where foreign universities made their pitches to Saudi students, tens of thousands of whom (both men and women) are able to study abroad under King Abdallah’s scholarship program. The hall was packed with a co-ed Saudi crowd. The second was the annual Riyadh book fair, a major event on the cultural calendar. Despite the presence of the notorious Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (which not only had members present throughout the hall, but also its own booth, handing out its publications), a completely gender-mixed Saudi crowd attended most days (a few days were limited by gender) without major incident.

It would be a mistake to exaggerate these manifestations of change. We are talking about one-off events, not major social changes. Schools are still strictly segregated through the university level. Women have separate entrances in most places of business. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, which has women on its elected board of directors, is instituting different work hours for men and women so they do not have to encounter each other entering and leaving the building. And the driving issue remains unchanged, despite periodic rumors that change is coming. But the trend toward greater women’s participation in Saudi public life is clear. One evidence of that trend is the increasing number of female writers with their own opinion columns in Saudi newspapers, who take on these issue on a regular basis. Another is the prominence gained by a Saudi female poet, who reached the final round of a popular televised poetry contest last month by lambasting hidebound clerics in verse.

While the trend is clear, so is the pushback. Islamist activists have protested even these small forays into greater integration of Saudi women into the public sphere. Their arguments tend to revolve around a particularly narrow reading of Islamic law and a more general contention that these moves are part of a broader campaign to impose Western values on Saudi society, against the will of the majority. Much of the pushback comes from Internet websites, which have become the major forum for Islamist political discussion in Saudi Arabia. The other public location of the pushback is the religious satellite television channels, which give oodles of airtime to a wide array of clerics and activists, some very close to the government and others more critical. Some of the pushback does not become public, but is passed on to the official Saudi clergy, which then takes the complaints to senior members of the ruling family.  The more extreme and egregious reactions become the focus of public debate, as more liberal writers in the Kingdom’s newspapers use them as a platform to attack the Islamists.

One such incident was the suggestion by activist Yusif al-Ahmad that the gender-mixing at the Grand Mosque in Mecca during the annual pilgrimage was un-Islamic. He called for the Saudi government to tear down the Mosque and build a new one constructed to allow the genders to remain separated during the pilgrimage rituals. His suggestion was greeted with derision among most Saudi writers. A more serious example of pushback was a very strong fatwa from activist cleric Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak. He clearly stated that anyone who encouraged inappropriate gender mixing was an unbeliever and could be killed. Al-Barrak has a track record of extremist fatwas, but is a much more widely known and credible figure in the Saudi religious scene than al-Ahmad.

Al-Barrak’s fatwa was met with a chorus of criticism in the Saudi press. Some speculate that the high profile given to extremists like al-Ahmad and al-Barrak is part of a subtle effort to discredit their point of view before the larger Saudi public. But it is interesting to note that only one member of the Committee of Higher Ulama publicly took al-Barrak to task. Moreover, over two dozen Saudi clerics and professors publicly supported his views. Unlike al-Shithri, al-Barrak has no official position from which to be fired. His personal website has been taken down, but other than that he has suffered no official sanction for a fatwa that can be construed as a call to violence against the ruling regime. This could be a wise bit of restraint on behalf of the authorities, an effort to minimize his importance by ignoring him. But it is clear that Saudi society — both those for and those against his extreme views — were not ignoring him.

It is no surprise that more liberal Saudis have taken on the religious extremists on women’s issues in the Saudi press. The newer, and more interesting, element of this debate is the splits within the religious establishment that have emerged on women’s issues. The director of the Mecca office of the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Ahmad bin Qasim al-Ghamdi, gave an interview in the fall of 2009 saying that there was nothing in Islam that prevents women and men from mixing in public places like offices and schools. He has kept himself in the news since then, repeating his unorthodox (for a Saudi religious official) views on gender issues. Ahmad bin Baz, the son of the former mufti (the highest religious authority in the country), has publicly said that those who support a more lenient view on gender mixing have legitimate Islamic law bases for their position.

While liberal voices in the Saudi media carry much of the debate on women’s issues, any substantive change in Saudi policies on women’s roles in society will be justified and explained by the government in terms of Islam. So the voices of change within the religious establishment on this question are the best indication that more change might be afoot. But the pushback from the religious establishment against the very modest steps taken so far indicates that change, if it comes at all, will come slowly.

F. Gregory Gause, III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and the author of "The International Politics of the Persian Gulf" (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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