Thursday, February 26, 2009

Saudi Arabian Panties

I am enjoying this whole blogging thing very much but am sometimes finding myself paralyzed about wanting to write about too much. Like I say, this is a blog about my thoughts, and I think a lot. Therefore I welcome days like today when someone sends me an interesting article and says "hey, what do you think of this!?"

Women's rights on the conservative Arabian peninsula are at best, seriously lacking. Take for example this story of a conservative Muslim woman in the UAE who is now at the receiving end of death threats for writing a book about sexual education.

Just miles from this author in UAE, in Saudi Arabia, legislation which should allow women to work in stores--but only those that sold women's products--has not been properly enforced and so Saudi women are still in the awkward situation of having to buy their undergarments from--generally conservative--Saudi men. The woman in this article hopes to change that in a campaign she's launched that seeks to boycott shops selling undergarments to women which are staffed only by men.

Saudi Arabia has only recently lifted the ban on women being allowed to drive, but here too practicalities are such that it could be a long while before the effect of this new freedom is felt (unrelated men and women being alone in private to do a driving license test, for example.) All the while, the measure is decried as being sure to lead to sin and, as in this Saudi political cartoon--called "Women Drivers"--is being viewed as highly suspect.

Despite women in Saudi Arabia lacking (but seemingly on the road to) these basic rights, for the first time in the country's history, a woman was appointed to a cabinet position as Deputy Minister of Education. It's interesting how on the one hand, while most Saudi women struggle with these most basic issues, such as their privacy and dignity when purchasing undergarments, being able to work in a shop and being able to drive, another can be appointed to the cabinet.

Of course, all this seems like they are steps in the right direction, but are they really? The legal measures taken in favor of women seem like they may not have any real impact on society for quite some time, if ever. My feeling is, that while no doubt the new female Saudi Deputy Minister is highly qualified for her job (as I'm sure many other Saudi women are too,) she has been appointed to her post to send an image to the world that Saudi Arabia is opening up when such is not quite the case. I am aware of how long reform can take, how difficult it can be and in reading the quotes in some of the articles I've posted above (such as: "Saleh al-Lihedan, who last year issued an edict saying it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite television channels deemed to show "immoral" content"), the challenges faced by reformers are enormous. Nonetheless, I am a cynic and have to wonder, how much of this is truly a desire to reform, and how much is a desire to appear to be reforming?

Time will tell, but those outside the Arabian Peninsula who seek a reformed Saudi Arabia should reassure the Kingdom of the House of Saud (which I personally have only ever seen from across the gulf of Aqaba) that they are moving in the right direction and should not rest on their laurels. They have a very long way to go.

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