Chesler Chronicles

Veiled Saudi Women Launch A Freedom Campaign

A South Korean man watches a TV news program with a file footage about North Korea's rocket launch at Seoul Railway Station on Feb. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

On November 6, 1990, 40 brave Saudi women drove their cars in public in Riyadh, the capital city, to demand their right to drive. They were quickly detained, their passports were confiscated, and they were fired from their jobs.

On the 19th anniversary of this event, Saudi women activists, led by prominent Saudi activist and journalist Wajeha al Huwaider, are launching the Black Ribbons Campaign. They want to move about in the world freely, without a male minder.

Al Huwaider has called for the abolition of the mahram (“guardian”) law which requires women to obtain the approval of a male relative for nearly any move they make in their lives. She is also demanding that Saudi women be treated as a citizens, just like their male counterparts, and that they be allowed to travel, drive, gain custody of their children, work, study, etc., just like their male counterparts. The Saudi women will not “untie their ribbons until Saudi women enjoy their rights as adult citizens.”

But in only nineteen years, how the times have changed! Once, Muslim women chose not to wear hijab—in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, etc. Today, some Muslim women insist not only on shroud-veiling, but on having male babysitters as well!

For example, the fully-shrouded Saudi princess, Jawaher bint Jalawi, says she must have and cannot part with her male “guardian” who accompanies her wherever she goes. She insists that only he knows what’s best for her. In response to Al Huwaider, the (government-backed?) princess has launched a campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for me.”

I wonder if she is one of the princesses who immediately shed their shrouds once the plane clears The Kingdom. But the princess’s stand is also a perfect example of how a prisoner fears the light, an example of the way in which women internalize sexism and try to enforce the status quo by keeping other women in line. This is a phenomenon that I discuss at length in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.

But Saudi Arabia is a very strange place. For example, a new TV show that discusses issues concerning teenage girls and female university students was recently broadcast with Saudi presenters dressed in black from head to toe. The show, Asrar Al-Banat (The Secrets of Girls), is broadcast on Awtan TV, a Saudi religious channel. One broadcaster said: “Basically, this is my hijab and I don’t wear it because of the channel.”

On the one hand, we have Saudi princesses who insist upon male minders and Saudi broadcasters who do not mind reporting the news covered in black from head to toe. On the other hand, we have highly aggressive women who oppress other women hellishly—in Iran, for example, but now also in Indonesia, where there is a newly created female Shari’a police. These humorless and self-important ladies go around Bandeh Aceh reprimanding other women for wearing clothing that they view as “too tight”—but these women have no male minders and are, in fact, also allowed to reprimand men who are not praying at the proper time.

I totally support the Saudi feminists and yet, as I read their list of demands, I also feel sad that they cannot also demand the right to walk about without being “covered,” the right to feel the sun on their faces as they shop or visit a garden. Indeed, my assistant asked a perfectly sensible question: “Where exactly will the Saudi women wear the black ribbon? Who will be able to see it if they are totally covered up?” Probably on their wrists—where I shall wear mine.

Historically, many Muslim women have resisted the Veil. Some have even done so for religious reasons. Yes—for religious reasons. According to Algerian-American sociology professor Marnia Lazreg, the Veil is not mandated in the Qu’ran; “modesty” may be expressed in many ways—indeed, Muslim men might start behaving more “modestly” towards both veiled and unveiled women; reducing Islam to one visual symbol, especially one that highly restricts, suffocates, and compromises only women, not men, is outrageous and tragic. Lazreg makes these arguments and more in her excellent, elegant book Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women.

According to Lazreg, Muslim girls and women once walked freely in their cities. They were not often harassed by men. That time is over. Ironically, as more women comply, give in, embrace wearing the Veil, this does not mean that either veiled or unveiled women are safer. On the contrary. Today, the Islamic Veil does not keep harassers away.

Let me note: Lazreg views the state, the family, and the culture which force women to veil as no different from the European secular state which forces Muslim women not to veil. She believes that women’s bodies are their own and that each woman should have the right to choose what clothing she will wear for herself. Her argument is a powerful one and I shall return to it in a future column. Lazreg does conclude by imploring Muslim women not to wear the veil.

I will start wearing a black ribbon on November 6th. I will keep doing so until Saudi women are free. Please join me. This black ribbon can become quite a conversation-opener and consciousness-raiser. Remember: We are not really free when others are still in chains, especially if we refuse to hear their cries, and refuse to support and honor their brave, potential liberators.