Saudis say they want more women’s rights – this Muslim-American reformer doesn’t believe a word of it

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Saudi Arabia now says it requires brides-to-be to agree to their marriage, instead of the usual practice of having fathers decide who their daughters will marry. This seems like progress, but one Muslim-American reformer says it’s just the latest smoke screen in an ongoing bid to appease the West, and that the Middle East nation continues to treat women as chattel.

Saudi women are 4th class citizens in a country that has been a major oil supplier to the U.S. for decades. Every aspect of their lives is dictated by male relatives, and this male dominance is enshrined in law and backed by an ultra-conservative brand of Islam. Women cannot drive, cannot work outside the home, and have few property rights. Rape victims are often blamed for being assaulted, as it’s considered their fault for being alone with a man in the first place – a big no-no in the Kingdom.

Women in Saudi have traditionally married whomever their father chooses, no matter what. If your father is deceased, than a male guardian, such as a brother, uncle or even a younger male cousin – it doesn’t matter if he’s younger than you, as long as he’s a guy – will choose your husband for you. It doesn’t matter if the groom-to-be is toothless, fat as a cow or violent toward his other wives.

Now,  Saudi media is reporting that Minister of Justice Walid Al-Samaani has directed officials who handle marriage contracts that they must have the woman’s consent before the legal process can go ahead. Borderless News Online could not independently verify this, and the Saudi embassy in the U.S. did not return phone calls.

But one well-known Muslim-American reformer says that if this is true, it’s just the latest charade in an ongoing Saudi con game. The Saudis are simply throwing a bone to the West in a bid to look like they are improving human rights, but not overhauling a system built on subjugating women, Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told Borderless News Online.

Jasser noted that last year, the Saudis for the first time allowed women to be elected to public office. While the elections were trumpeted as a big step forward, the women were simply elected to municipal councils in small towns – low level positions without any real power.

“That was heralded by many in the Western media as being advancement in the participation in the electoral process. (But) it was a facade, it was smoke and mirrors. Ultimately, it wasn’t related to any real change…This is the classic Saudi method,” of appeasing the West, he said.

Indeed, U.S. media, at times eager to contend that all the world’s governments deep down really want to be just like the U.S., was quick to label the move with such words as “milestone” and “historic.” But Jasser said there’s been no sign that they’ve led to any rise in human rights for women.

There are still no female jurists in Saudi, and jurists are the people who hold the real power in the ultra conservative Islamist nation. Muslim clerics make rulings on life’s most important aspects as well as its most trivial – from public morals to whether it’s appropriate to take a photo with a cat (it was ruled there’s nothing wrong with our feline friends but that only photos that are “necessary” are permitted).

“Once you have women jurists, that’s when I’ll start to believe that there’s actual change happening, because then they will be equal. But as long as there’s only men sitting on the benches and making the decisions, most of this stuff is just window dressing,” he said.

The other key issue, Jasser said, is Saudi women being allowed to work outside the home. “Because once they have independent incomes and can start their own businesses, that’s when real change will happen,” he said.

He noted that the Saudis have not addressed a laundry list of issues, such as what a woman can inherit — women are only permitted by law to inherit a quarter what male relatives can, for example.

Jasser contended that part of Saudi’s ruse has been to set up centers such as the Vienna, Austria-based King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, or KAICIID.  The Kingdom has also set up the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Washington, D.C.

“These centers will have some professors who’re on the Saudi payroll that do some work about the need for certain modernizations, but they never criticize the Saudi royal family, they never criticize Wahhabism,” he said, referring to the ultra-strict Saudi form of Islam that requires women to cover their face and entire bodies, and gives men ultimate control over women’s lives and destinies.

The centers are retrogressive, and “never propose any types of Western ideas like the universal declaration of human rights, and unfortunately they are complete obstacles to any forms of real reform,” he said.

Jasser went to Saudi as part of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Describing some meetings, he said: “some of the meetings would parade in front of us women, some of whom (were completely covered), you couldn’t even tell the face of the person you were talking to, and she would on behalf of the government talk about how she has the choice to wear this…The bottom line is that they view men’s and women’s equality as a Western concept, and not  necessarily a human right. They reject it as  a human right,” he said.

The coalition of a dozen Muslim-American leaders to which Jasser belongs – the non-partisan Muslim Reform Movement –is calling for a worldwide overhaul of Islam, including an end to human rights abuses, including against woman.

There have in the past been Saudis who were sincere in calling for women’s equality. A few years back, Saudi cleric Sheikh Ahmed bin Qassim al-Ghamdi went on Saudi TV and caused a firestorm by calling for more gender equality.

The former president of the commission for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice branch in Makkah – the national police force tasked with making sure men and women are not meeting in private – said it was ok for men and women to mix, and for women to uncover their faces in public. This in a country where women are required to cover themselves in public from head to toe at all times in various ways (although critics say much of this comes from desert traditions masked as Islam).

The cleric had had an awakening after careful study of the Koran, in which he noticed men and women had mingled without the dire social consequences that ultra-conservative Saudi clerics warn about (they believe men will get so turned on by seeing women uncovered that society will take a nose dive, or something like that).

But soon after, the liberal cleric began getting death threats via Twitter and angry calls on his cell phone for bucking the powers that be.

Indeed, clerics in Saudi hold an enormous amount of power, with the authority to dictate every detail of peoples’ lives, down to how many times a month they should trim their pubic hair.

Back to the Saudi Justice Minister’s calls for women to decide who they’ll marry, Jasser said: “My sense is I don’t know if this is realistic change. I think what happens is they’re going to modify that to be mutual consent of the father and the bride. I would be surprised if it actually negates the need to have the consent of the father,” he said.

While this might be some sort of progress, it’s certainly not equal rights, he added.

“Our Muslim reform movement is based on the belief that men and women are equal,” he said, referring to the reform group to which he belongs. To take an example of the injustice women see from day to day, he said: “Women who are rape victims in Saudi Arabia, often the perpetrators are not convicted because the woman becomes the criminal because she was alone with the man, so they (women in Saudi) don’t even have bodily autonomy,” he said.

“When they are victims they actually become the criminals because they are alone (with a man), so that’s one of the reasons they (the Saudi gov’t) don’t let them drive. There’s a feeling they cant be left alone with a man, and that drives a lot of the other laws,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is a big player in the Arab and Muslim world. Not only is it the origin of Islam, but the country also has mountains of cash from the U.S. and most other countries in the world that need access to the country’s vast oil reserves.

Jasser noted that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is now based in Saudi, having moved from Turkey last year. “They speak on behalf of many Islamic countries, and then you wonder why we have a global problem (with the treatment of women) in other Islamic countries around the world,” he said.

Despite the strict ban on mixing between men and women who are not family, Jasser noted that oddly, men and women do mix during the Hajj — the religious pilgrimage to Mecca that all the world’s Muslims are required to make if they are able.

“There’s really no other place in the (Muslim) world where men and women pray next to each other. The reason the Saudis say they do it is because otherwise it would be hard for husbands and wives who might lose each other because there’s 2 million people at Hajj there. Here’s the most spiritual place in the world for Muslims, and men and women pray next to each other and there’s no problem,” he said.

“I don’t understand why we can’t do the same thing anywhere else,” he said.

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