By: Maria Jakobsen
Saudi Arabia is probably one of the world’s most male-dominant countries. While the other Gulf monarchies apparently have made progress towards more democratic values, Saudi Arabia seems to maintain its conservative view on women. For example, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Gulf where women still are not allowed to drive. According to The Guardian, Saudi Arabian women have also experienced problems with the emergency services. Some have even died because male relatives prevented them being taken to the hospital by a male ambulance crew. Despite obstacles, Saudi Arabian women have made progress both in employment and education. In recent years, many women have gained a foothold in business affairs―nearly 10% of private businesses are run by women. Even though progress is happening in a slow pace, women in Saudi are becoming more visible. Also, you may have seen one of them raging towards conservative clerics on a live television show? I will tell you more about that later, but first; do it exists “well rooted perversity” in Saudi Arabian television?
As Saudi Arabian women are making progress, the conservatives want to keep them in their place where they belong, which supposedly is in the home. Therefore, in 2009 a group of Saudi clerics urged the Kingdom’s new Information Minister to ban women from appearing on TV or in newspapers and magazines. The statement issued said: “No Saudi women should appear on TV, no matter what the reason. No images of women should appear in Saudi newspapers and magazines.” According to the conservatives, it exist a so called “well rooted perversity” in the Saudi Ministry of Information and Culture due to the many female presenters on television. Sabria S. Jawhar, a Jeddah-based journalist, writes in her blog “Sabria’s out of the box” that Saudi female television presenters wear the hijab and are dressed appropriately as they would at any shopping mall or restaurant. Yet, according to some people, it is different when women appear on television. Sabria says: “I suppose if a man is not permitted to gaze at women on the street, he can do it in the privacy of his own home.” That must be the perversity the opponents of female presenters are thinking (…).
It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the conservatives must have been shocked when Hissa Hilal, a mother of four from Saudi Arabia, entered the stage in the last round of Abu Dhabi’s live poetry talent contest, The Million’s Poet. The show is by many considered to be an Arabic version of “American Idol” with a slightly different content: the contestants compete not in singing but in traditional Arabic poetry. In a 15-verse work, Hissa Hilal railed against the preachers who frighten people with their religious edicts. “I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden”, she said in one of the verses. It was a bold message and not to forget a highly controversial one. But, when she was finished, the ranks of both men and women erupted into cheers and the judges sent her into the final.
The global mass media took great interest in the bold message from the Saudi Arabian woman. In an interview with The Associate Press she told: “It’s a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion.” Her poem was seen as a response to Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia who recently issued a fatwa saying those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, punishable by death.
Hissa Hilal’s poem got loud cheers from the audience. It also brought her death threats, posted on several Islamic militant web sites. However, the voice of Saudi Arabian women is as necessary as it is important when it creates upheavals in the conservative Kingdom. Furthermore, only Saudi Arabian women can make progress for themselves. Journalist Jawhar is tired of Western human rights organizations that protect “poor” Saudi Arabian women and that will grant them the freedom they deserve. “Without the help of Americans and Europeans my life would have no future. Ok. I’m lying, if Western do-gooders minded their own business I’d be a pretty happy girl,” she states in her blog.
So; even though they apparently are silent, Saudi women are speaking up for themselves. And, here is a little tip from Jawhar to all of us who complain about submissive Saudi Arabian women: “Saudi women are doing just fine and making progress on their own. Find someone else to rescue!”