x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A veiled reading of Islam that Saudi women still pay for

It's almost impossible to imagine what life would be like for a woman election candidate or Shura member in Saudi Arabia. Still, this progressive step must not be reversed.

It would be hard for me to picture the tents of an election campsite set up for a woman running for any public or political office in Saudi Arabia. Four years from now in Riyadh, would such a site be possible? Who is going to run them? Who is going to vote? Fund-raise? Make donations in the first place?

I remember when I entered the Million's Poet competition in Abu Dhabi, male contestants set up to collect donations and booked hotel ballrooms to promote themselves and attract more votes. In my case, my male relatives were bashfully voting for me in the privacy of their homes, finding great embarrassment in mentioning me in majlises.

Likewise, male non-relatives made sure not the slightest mention of me was made in conversation with any of my relatives - to avoid any awkwardness.

In a society like ours, what would become of the husbands, the brothers or even the uncles of women earning a seat on the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia's advisory body, or the municipal councils? These are the same men who have the most uncomfortable time when a woman is brought up in a majlis or in the media.

In theory, many Saudis are excited about the prospects of female candidates, and they have a desire to support women. But in practice, a great deal of courage will be needed to overcome the shame and the psychological block certain to be involved the very first time a woman is the star of the show. And of course, many questions will need to be answered.

How are women going to carry themselves in the limelight? Are they going to give public lectures and hold symposia? Will their audience be men only, or men and women?

Will there be buffets in the female candidate's elections campsite? Who will come to these buffets? Men alone? Men and women? Will the female candidate actually join the attendees? And would they all together have sandwiches and soft drinks?

Surely, many Saudi men - and women - would laugh their heads off at such prospects. In fact, Twitter is already full of jokes on the subject. What will become of "the Saudi specificity"?

For over 70 years, Saudi society has isolated itself in the name of "specificity", and in the name of "applying Islamic Sharia", oblivious to the fact that back in the early days of Islam and in the time of Prophet Mohammed and his companions, Muslim Arab women were performing various activities in politics, social affairs, the military and jurisprudence.

There were the Prophet's wife Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a businesswoman, and Aisha the Mother of Believers, a teller of hadith. There was Rufaida Al-Aslamiya, a warrior and a nurse, and Sukaina bint Al-Hussein, who held a literary salon.

Not to mention Aisha bint Talha, the daughter of one of Prophet Mohammed's companions and the wife of another, who had an open majlis where she received, barefaced, both men and women. She was known for her great beauty, and poems were composed in praise of her charming looks. In fact, some of Prophet Mohammed's companions hurried to ask for her hand when her husband, Al Zubeir bin Al Awam, passed away.

So the history of Islam is full of examples of women participating in public life, both socially and politically.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia himself cited the instance when Prophet Mohammed sought counsel from his sensible wife, Oum Salma, regarding the Al-Hudaibiya Treaty.

I've spent most of my life avidly reading books on the history of Islam and Arabic literature. And, as I've learned, there is enough diversity and openness in them to allow Arabs to lead lives that are no less emancipated than in other powerful, free nations on this planet.

If you make a list of all the names of women who were active back in the day of Prophet Mohammed and his companions, it will be enough evidence for human rights watchdogs and Arab activists to put any Arab government to shame.

What is shocking is that the exclusion of women by a number of present-day clerics is not limited to contemporary women. It also includes the prophet's female companions and other female historical figures. Worse, whole sections of the Prophet's Sunna - the behavioural code - and hadith were censored or misinterpreted for that same purpose.

I've written many times about women and Islam, and the lost half of that picture - the half that was destroyed and buried.

Yet some Arabs and Muslims still refuse to question their culture, disfigured by the interference of politics in religious jurisprudence and the accretion of Arab ignorance. The layer of folklore sitting on Islam has grown so thick that it needs to be dusted off.

Women look at me with astonishment, and men with disapproval, as I keep repeating that there is a lost Islam out there, one that was concealed for a purpose. And if we went back to discover it and started to promote it, we would be like all other free nations and the emancipation of women would not even be subject to debate.

I do admire King Abdullah and know that he is supportive of his people's rights, the rights of Saudi women in particular. But there are voices surrounding him that preach the status quo, with all its ambiguities.

Oum Salma's counsel to Prophet Mohammed has helped, centuries on, in giving Saudi women the right to sit on the Shura Council. Let us see what else could come out from that history that could further the rights of women today.

 

Hissa Hilal is a poet based in Riyadh and the author of Enlightenment and Divorce and Annulment: A Study of Women in Tribal Society Through Poetry