A YouTube video of a Saudi woman standing up and putting up a fight against some members of the religious police went viral recently. She is not visible in the video but from the subtitles it is evident that she has her head uncovered and the men are telling her to leave a mall because she is not decently covered and is wearing nail polish. She, however stands up against them and refuses to leave the mall. "I'm staying and I want to know what you're going to do about it," she challenges.
Muslim women, especially in the Arab world face a life that most women would not even comprehend. Covered from head to toe, they cannot drive and are not allowed to travel outside their countries without male guardians related to them either by blood or matrimony.
Things in Saudi Arabia are tougher than most of the other Arab countries where women have a bit of freedom, though not much. Saudi men have more rights than women in court, while women need the permission of a male guardian to work, open a bank account etc.
Though the recent Saudi government under King Abdullah has been very lenient and there has been a letting up on force previously used on women, things are far from what the women of the region would want, at least if not all of them than a very vocal number of them.
As the woman in the video mentioned above says, "The government has banned you from coming after us."
Another video recorded after the above incident shows the police interfering to end the matter.
In January 2012, Saudi King Abdullah appointed a moderate to head the religious police, giving rise to hopes that things will ease up a bit. In April he prohibited the religious police from "harassing people" and threatening decisive measures against violators of his orders.
King Abdullah has also announced that women would be allowed to vote in future municipal elections to be held in 2014.Soon after this a woman was arrested for driving a car and later sentenced to 10 lashes. The sentence was eventually dropped. The king’s religious advisers warned him that if women were permitted to drive, it would increase prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Is the only educational institute in the Kingdom that is not gender-segregated.
Things are changing for the Arab women, more so after the wave of revolutions in the region. Saudi Arabia may be the slowest in this transition but its well on the way there. An example of this is Dr. Maha Al Muneef, executive director of the National Family Safety Program, who is one of six women named for the Shura council, a 150-person advisory body appointed by the King. "The message is that women are coming," she says. "The King and political system are saying that the time has come. There are small steps now. There are giant steps coming."
On the other hand, the fate of the female athletes wishing to participate in the upcoming London Olympics 2012 is hanging in balance as well. Whether they will be allowed to attend and participate in the games or not remain to be seen but is highly unlikely.
However, it is the mindset of the people who do not want to change. It is apparent from the behavior of the religious police in the video that they are being very aggressive. Keeping in mind the King’s orders to behave otherwise, shows their rigidity in clinging to the old customs.
It is the way most of the people in restricted and conservative societies feel and behave. For that matter, the laws of a land in matters of socio-religious beliefs should give freedom to the people to follow them or not at will. It should be a matter of personal choice how a person wants to dress or whether they want to drive or not.
The thing to understand is that the Saudi government has predominantly been very conservative since the beginning. It’s not just the women even men have restrictions. They (whether men or women) have never had the right to elect their own government for one. Not just women, but even men cannot be in the company of women who are not either their wives or related to them directly by blood.
As for their women covering themselves completely, for most it is also by choice. Not all Saudi or Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab or abaya. A large number does it willingly. So for those women demanding the right to go without the traditional covering or being able to drive or travel abroad on their own, is a very valid thing. For others, not having those liberties is by no means a plight.