The Battle Raging Within Saudi Arabia Over Women's Rights

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Conservative forces and modernizers are struggling over the role of women in Saudi society.

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A Saudi woman watches a Youtube video in Jeddah. (Reuters).

While I was visiting Saudi Arabia last week, King Abdullah fired one of the most popular Islamic leaders in the Kingdom from his government position. Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan was an advisor to the royal court until last week when, in a single line, the king ordered that the sheikh resign from his post. The reaction was swift. In newspapers, on Facebook, and on Twitter, Obeikan's supporters and detractors speculated, gloated over, and lamented the sheikh's inglorious fall. While it is still not clear what happened, it is safe to say that this is yet another episode in Saudi Arabia's internal struggle to define the role of women in society.

I met Sheikh Obeikan some years ago when my colleague Rachel Bronson and I interviewed him at his palatial home in Riyadh. (The Obeikan family owns an empire of printing, packaging, publishing, and education companies.) At one point during our interview, our translator stopped translating and embarked on an animated conversation with Obeikan. When we pulled him back to the task at hand, the translator apologized, saying he was just so excited to have an opportunity to speak with the great sheikh. At the time, Obeikan waxed eloquently about the need for gradual change in Saudi Arabia, but it seems he's been singing a different tune more recently. In the two weeks preceding his dismissal, Obeikan made several statements on his radio show "Fatawakum," or "Your Fatwas," about proposed reforms to the Saudi judicial system and specifically, the role of women. (The title of the radio show was "The Meaning of Women in the Courts.") He complained (Arabic) about plans to Westernize society and "the Saudi woman" and to replace Sharia courts with man-made laws. He stressed his opposition to women mixing with men during court proceedings and complained that neither the minister of justice nor the head of the court paid his objection any heed. During the hour long interview, he praised King Abdullah for founding Princess Nora University for women, the largest all-female university in the world with 50,000 students. But he inveighed against gender mixing of male and female students at other universities-calling it deviant. Although he didn't name names, he was likely objecting to gender mixing at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), one of the King's favored projects. When KAUST opened in September of 2009, another senior cleric, Sheikh Saad al-Shethry, also publicly criticized the new university for gender mixing, and King Abdullah fired him too.

On the topic of judicial reform, Sheikh Obeikan warned of a conspiracy by influential people to corrupt Muslim society by implementing man-made laws. The prominent newspaper Dar Al Hayat published a critical response (Arabic) to this claim, accusing Obeikan of resurrecting the incendiary term "man-made laws" to disgrace and distort discussions about potential judicial reforms. The article notes that the state issues many "man-made laws" such as traffic regulations, pointing out sensibly that "There is no Sharia text that requires people to stop at a red light or to wear a seat belt for example." After he was fired, Obeikan's supporters rallied to his cause. One post on his Facebook wall reads, "May God give you victory. Yes, it is urgent that the ulema take a firm stand to stop the corruption and destruction that are eating away at the unification of the country." A supporter on Twitter refers to "the arrogant liberal schemes in our country" and promised not to forget Sheikh Obeikan's warning about "their conspiracies for the judiciary and women."

Of course, this brouhaha is about much more than Sheikh Obeikan's fate, or even women mixing with men and Saudi's legal system. It's a skirmish in the larger battle over whether Saudi Arabia will cling to its medieval ways or gradually adopt a more modern perspective. In this instance, King Abdullah has come down on the side of modernity. But dissent over women's status in society will remain at the heart of competing visions for the country for a long time to come. As facts on the ground evolve-with women making up the majority of college graduates, young generations connected in an unprecedented fashion to the internet and social media, and the need for a more competitive economy to support its burgeoning population-it will become increasingly untenable for Saudi Arabia to straddle both the 7th century and the 21st century.

Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing the Arabic translations.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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