When the United Nations controversially put Saudi Arabia in charge of a key U.N. human rights panel, I recoiled in revolt, as did others.
Saudi Arabia is not qualified to adjudicate in the international arena on human rights as the very ideology the state is founded upon, Wahhabism, is austere, intolerant and inhumane.
Earlier this year I had the unique opportunity to live in Saudi Arabia for six weeks to study Arabic as part of a knowledge exchange program. At first glance the kingdom has evidently evolved from being an unforgiving desert terrain to modern apartment blocks and skyscrapers. Scratch the surface however and one soon uncovers an ultra-conservative and unequal society on many levels.
Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia
As soon as I landed in the country I was overwhelmed with the continuous decrees of “don’t” and “you can’t do this,” all of which were leveled by female cohorts. We were strongly advised to always venture out in pairs to avoid harassment and warned that most taxi drivers would not accept lone female passengers. I soon found out they weren’t wrong.
Females, whether alone or accompanied by other females, are routinely harassed in the kingdom. My personal experiences include being honked at by male drivers, men pulling up in their cars just to glare at me, and being followed back to the hotel. Even in the holiest cities of Mecca and Medina the sexual harassment didn’t end, despite observing the strict local dress code of hijab and abaya.
When I decided to accept the position in the course, I did so with an open mind and was aware of the social and cultural limitations. However, I didn’t expect my mobility to be so restricted. Although there are no laws prohibiting single females venturing out, it is going against cultural norms.
Even when in pairs, travelling in taxis didn’t prevent drivers from making untoward remarks and propositioning female passengers. On one occasion, a Saudi taxi driver persisted in asking my English companion which hotel she was staying in, showed her topless pictures of himself and asked for her number. As uncomfortable as this was, we had no other means of transport.
In 2015, construction began on a railway network causing most taxi drivers to not know their way around to most places. Maybe I was too optimistic in thinking that oil-rich Saudi Arabia would be ahead of its time with technology.
Another issue is the hijab, which dominates religious discourse within the country — or so I was told by one of our female hosts.
I vividly recall when I was walking through the grounds of the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, wearing an open-cut abaya and being chastised by a stranger, despite being modestly dressed beneath. Not only did I feel infantile, I felt I was losing control of my faculty to challenge and think for myself. In that moment I was compelled to conform to a male-dominated society where women have virtually no rights whatsoever.
The Quran clearly states “there is no compulsion in religion” and men should “lower their gaze,” but it appears men are exempt from reproach in the kingdom.
When it comes to shopping, a favorite girly pastime, Saudi Arabia has no female fitting rooms anywhere. This is due to previous problems with unscrupulous filming of women in dressing rooms. The service sector is overwhelmingly occupied by men, even in exclusively women’s stores.
When it comes to education, I was further astounded. I was studying at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where campuses are segregated. When starting classes, the first lesson consisted of an icebreaker session to learn about the group.
The teacher began by asking about our academic backgrounds. Upon discovering that I majored in politics, she told us that women are not allowed to study politics at the university. She further added how policy, as well as arts-based subjects, are off limits to women and that the university had only recently introduced law into the curriculum.
Flabbergasted, I decided to check what was available for women to study and, in comparison to men, the choice is very limited. Moreover, the female campus lacked facilities and was very basic for a prestigious university. Perhaps in my naivety, I expected a great deal of investment would be taking place in education.
I was later informed that the male campus was better resourced and far better equipped for career development. This is in spite of the fact that the Quran allows equal education between the sexes.
At times I felt that women were not even seen as human by men. I remember asking a male member of staff from the university a question on one of our extracurricular trips, only for him to ignore me and to add insult by turning his back to me.
Minorities routinely mistreated in Saudi Arabia
Our female cohorts included a non-Muslim, who was not allowed to accompany us on trips to Mecca and Medina. Even when the trip involved a visit to the kiswa factory, she was not allowed.
During a group a visit to Balad, the regular call to prayer prompted us to head to the mosque. Naturally, she wasn’t praying and on that occasion neither was I, so we decided to wait quietly behind the female congregation. But the formidable matron of the mosque didn’t like us standing there, and instead of politely asking us to leave, she impatiently clicked her fingers pointing us out. As a foreigner, I felt obliged to follow her orders and leave.
The non-Muslim companion followed me out and as she walked past, the woman felt it necessary to assert her authority by hitting her over the ankles with a stick. Reduced to tears, humiliated and terrified, we decided to rally around her and make a complaint to the tour guide, a senior member of the university.
His response was that she should consider her as bad woman and no action would be taken. This of course was no solace to our friend, who’d been given a negative impression of mosques and felt the hostility toward her.
As I mentioned my trip took me to Medina, where I stayed two nights and prayed at the mosque throughout the duration of my stay. I later learned that the imam of the mosque had been firing cannons into Yemen only a day or so prior. This dramatic move was apparently a PR stunt to gain popular Saudi support for the aggression carried out there, which contravenes Islamic law.
Furthermore, I learned that the workers come mainly from the Indian sub-continent. They work ridiculously long hours only receive 400 SAR a month, the equivalent of a weekly minimum wage salary in the United Kingdom. I was shocked at the extent of the injustice in a country that is governed under Shariah and is, in theory, meant to safeguard the most vulnerable and poorest in society.
No Islam in Wahhabism
The reality is that there is very little social justice in Saudi Arabia, where they pride themselves on Islam, yet there is a huge disparity between human rights in Islam and the rights of people under the skewed interpretation of Wahhabism.
I saw with my own eyes how women — non-Saudi — beg in the streets dressed in their Islamic garb. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t see male beggars. Saudi Arabia has no welfare system, despite their oil wealth, and the fact that the “bayt-ul-mal” (welfare state) is very much an Islamic creation.
I could not reconcile all that I had seen — the lack of accountability, the open discrimination and intolerance — with Islamic values. I had to keep reminding myself that the ruling family of Saudi Arabia has no mandate to rule and are no defenders of the faith.
Far from consulting the community on their coming to power, al-Saud and Wahhab conquered what was then the Hijaz through brute force and bloodshed, eventually normalizing Wahhabism as a means of social control by instituting it into the state apparatus.
Perhaps it’s for this reason why non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, or even practice their religion in public. Non-Muslims who once had a spiritual and cultural connection to Mecca and Medina are banned, in spite of the fact that the Prophet Muhammad had codified freedom of religion in the constitution of Medina.
In public, no other religious symbols are allowed, nor are other faiths permitted to practice their religion. There are no churches, Shiites are considered apostates and the state-backed clerics openly discriminate against them.
Those that fall short of Saudi laws are executed in public, some for merely criticizing the ruling family. Raif Badawi remains in prison for his so-called “cyber crimes” and the executions of Sheikh Nimr and Ali Al-Nimr are imminent.
The international community uses a double standard when rebuking countries such as Syria for human rights, yet courting Saudi Arabia, the most totalitarian, intolerant and socially repressive state in the Middle East.
Syria has long been a state that allows religious freedom, prides itself on religious plurality and tolerance of “the other.” Moreover, religious symbols and places of worship — churches and mosques — stand on equal footing in line with the “dhimmi” status that the Quran accords to non-Muslims. This is a far cry from Saudi Arabia.
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