Not just hidden behind a veil, but covered up up like deep-sea divers, living hidden behind the shadows of a cloth, their freedom entangled within the fabric: this is the life of women in Saudi Arabia. The years go by, one after another. The few, very few concessions of the country’s rulers slowly follow one another: light shots to the status quo, nothing that can really trigger the revolution of freedom which would be needed.
There is no point to beat about the bush: women in Saudi Arabia are still dominated by men, be it their father, their husband or their brother. Alone they cannot fulfill some of the most basic actions we are used to, like driving a car or having a coffee with a friend. There is no escape from the rigid doctrine of the Muslim Wahhabi or Salafi interpretation, and the women under the reign of al-Saud are far from the level of freedom and equality reached by other women in the world.
Yet something is changing. Saudi women are not dormant and, in spite of the close watch of the morality police, in the last number of years they have repeatedly tried to break the glass ceiling and win themselves their rights. This is the case of the campaign for the freedom of driving, started in autumn 2013. It is about the possibility to drive and challenging the entire legal system of parental custody has a very strong influence in restricting the life of children, girls and wives. About a year ago, in December 2015, a reform of the electoral system has allowed women to vote at the local elections for the first time. The change, accompanied by the possibility of being elected, was greeted with popular enthusiasm, although not given much relevance within the monarchy. They are small signs that something is moving forward.
But it is for some time that the Middle East witnesses shoots of emancipation. In 2012 the campaign “The Uprising of women in the Arab world” (The revolt of women in the Arab world) was a movement originated on Facebook thanks to the efforts of four girls: the Lebanese Yalda Younes and Diala Haidar, the Palestinian Farah Barqawi and the Egyptian Saly Zohney.
Thanks to social networks, they have multiplied their capacity to link distant activists to sensitize the global public opinion on this issue. In recent days the hashtag #FreeMalakAlshehri reached high levels of popularity: about the story of a girl, Malak, arrested in Saudi Arabia by the moral police for publishing on her profile some photos taken in Riyadh without veil and abaya.
On December 12, a police spokesperson announced that they had arrested the girl, guilty of “disobeying” the rules that prevent a “vice”. The online response was extensive and has involved, among others, also the writer and consultant Massoud Manal al-Sharif, who in turn published a photograph while laying without abaya on a beach.
The provocation to remove the veil is not new by the “Muslim rebels”. The first one was the Egyptian feminist Hoda Sha’rawi who, in 1923, removed her veil right after returning to Cairo after attending the Women’s World Alliance Congress. It was an act of emancipation, strongly motivated and planned for years.
It must be clear, however, that according to the Koran, the Islamic holy book, women are equal to men before God. It is often the different interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law) that brings to unequal rights and obligations between women and men. Muslim-majority countries grant women varying degrees of rights with regard to marriage, divorce, legal status, clothing and education, on the ground of different interpretations of the Islamic doctrine and of the principles of secularism. There are also Governments in Islamic countries with women in high political positions, and where women have been elected as head of state.
Mozah bint Nasser al Missned for example, the mother of the present Sheik of Qatar, is today among the most powerful women in the world. She has her face unveiled, is President of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, and fights cultural impoverishment represented by its own ideological barriers.
Certainly the way for women’s emancipation in Arab countries and in general in Muslims countries is still complex. In Saudi Arabia, for some women it is already possible to be free, you “just” need to be a foreigner, famous, or part of the royal family. But in Afghanistan Niloofar Rahmani, the first woman pilot of the military aviation had to seek political asylum in the United States after death threats from the Taliban.
It is therefore not only a religious and legal issue; it is above all a cultural problem that needs the attention of politicians, media, citizens’ groups and associations as @uxilia. They can all facilitate the growth of the seed that has now been sown. There are women ready to nourish it and to make it grow, and they are more determined than ever: let’s support them!