Dear Eman Fahad Al-Nafjan
(A letter to a Saudi women’s right activist and blogger)
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
I follow with keen interest the developments taking place in the Arab world and especially in your country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I have seen and welcome the developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and what is going on in Syria. As a firm believer in personal liberty, I sincerely feel that it is time for the Arab world to breathe the air of freedom. It should come out from the patrimonial system of dictatorships and monarchies – no matter how benevolent they may be - and entrust the full ownership of state affairs in the hands of its citizens.
At least three tyrannical dictators – Bin Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi - have been forced out of office through popular protests and rebellion. Asad, if at all he survives his, will come out a weaker leader. Morocco and other monarchies in the region are implementing reforms that grant more powers to their citizens. It is, however, just a question of time before they are swept away to the margins as constitutional monarchies or uprooted completely. The impact of information in the 21st Century is turning out to be more than what we ever thought. The changes it promises are more profound and faster than we envisaged.
Yet, of all the developments, it is the ongoing reforms in your country that will be most keenly monitored across the globe. Saudi Arabia is the spiritual heart of the Muslim world. A change there will surely ripple across the Muslim world. And given its Wahhabi jurisprudence, any detour from its puritanical rulings will ease the debate over personal liberty in the rest of the Muslim world where Wahhabi and Salafi movements have increasingly made their presence felt in past three decades.
The two significant events that took place within the last three days are very important in gauging the future of reforms in the Kingdom. The first was the King Abdullah’s permission to women to participate – both as nominees and candidates – in forthcoming municipal elections and also to become members of the Majlis al-Shura, the consultative council that I see as a precursor to your future parliament. The second development is his revocation of the ten lashes punishment on the woman caught driving in the port city of Jeddah.
I think your country is about reaching the tipping point in its political and social reforms agenda beyond which events would become self-propelling. The significance of women membership of the Shura does not lie in giving them a voice there alone. More significantly, it goes further to remove the notorious conception in traditional Muslim jurisprudence that prohibits the participation of women in running the affairs of state. Their second class status cannot be defended in light of the current evidence of their equal cognitive capacity and social bearing. In addition to their roles as mothers, modern realities require them to partake in nation-building endeavours as they demand from men despite their role as fathers. This is the indisputable evidence which, as John Stuart Mill would argue, belief must match before wisdom could be attained. Working against such evidence is like standing on the path of a moving train.
The revocation of the lashes indicates the King’s vision regarding the freedom of movement for women in the Kingdom. It can easily be seen that the end of the Minster of Interior’s ban on women’s driving has come. No woman will be canned anymore for driving herself to her relatives or driving her children to and from school. She may, in the interim, only be charged some few riyals in substitute. However, soon the entire rule will be abrogated because the determining step has already been taken. Having read the signal from the King correctly, more women will challenge the ban by taking to driving on the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh, giving the King the necessary pressure he needs to lift the ban completely. Major-General Mansour Al-Turki, the Minister of Interior, will go home that day with one headache less in his mind.
The conservatives among the clerics who are behind most of the discriminations will put up a fight against the reforms, psychologically, as they do now, and, possibly, physically. To them, the Saudi woman must be kept where she was in the early centuries, as a property or an imbecile that needs the custody. Happily, the King seems determined to introduce changes, albeit subtly, against their wishes in consonance with the wind of change that is blowing in the region. We pray for his long life and increased resolve to transform the Kingdom into a modern state.
To be fair to the King though, the desire to change may not be coming only from the surrounding stress. When I met him in Riyadh in 2003 he appeared simple, sounded really desirous for reform towards greater social justice in the Kingdom. I remember how he ordered the prompt arrest of the Governor of Makkah who attempted to flee the Kingdom after a scandal with the wife of a servant that year. Abdullah is undoubtedly popular and the most competent candidate to be remembered as Saudi’s Gorbachev. Admittedly, there are many changes to make before discrimination against women can be eradicated in the Kingdom.
I will recount here our conversation in Berlin in the summer of 2010. As you expressed your pessimism in witnessing any change in your lifetime, I asked you to continue with the struggle for the sake of future generations. You immediately shouted at Mahmoud, the Egyptian blogger that was walking just ahead of us, to wait and listen to my “joke”. Both of you affirmed that you prefer to see change happen now.
Unknown to all of us then, the Arab uprising was just few months away. Egypt is now, hopefully, on its way to a freer society. In Saudi Arabia, you will soon start breathing some air of freedom as you drive in the streets of Riyadh, visiting your retired father, going to work, taking your children to school or going to shop in one of its plazas. More than that, you will soon see yourself standing in a queue at the polling station to vote or be voted for in parliamentary or municipal elections. You may no longer need to wait until after death.
In my country Nigeria our struggle is not for freedom of movement or for permission to vote. We drive and vote with liberty. However, our personal liberty is in vain as it is sucked by the pervasive corruption and incompetence that has drifted the country to a failed state. It is against these two evils that our struggle for a better society is pitched.
Surely, as God puts it in the Qur’an, “Man is created (to remain perpetually) in a struggle”, for himself, surely, and, more importantly, for generations to come. So let us not get tired. Beyond your blog – Saudiwoman.wordpress.com – I look forward to seeing you sitting either as a member of your municipal council or representing your constituency in the Majlis al-Shura.
Eman! The chance of freedom is here. Please take it.