Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Equal rights for Saudi women


Women want the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Prohibiting women from driving motor vehicles by law has no basis in the Koran or Islam. Instead, the ban has its roots in traditional Arab misogyny. Depriving women of the right to drive is part of the effort to control women, whom Arab conservatives view as objects to possess and therefore of temptation rather than as human beings.

Directly supporting the Saudi women who in recent weeks have flaunted the ban on their driving is difficult, generally impossible, for people in non-Arab countries. However, people of faith can keep Saudi women in our prayers, discourage our governments from uncritically supporting the Saudi regime, and encourage views of Arabs and Islam that consider factors other than oil.

Supporters of the full civil rights for Saudi women (the ban on driving is but one aspect of a complex legal code designed to keep women subjugated to men) can also act by reducing their dependence on petroleum. Western oil imports literally fuel the Saudi economy. The Saudi king is spending $150 billion in an attempt to buy peace in that dessert land, trying to prevent the “Arab spring” from spreading to his kingdom. The United States, for example, imports 13% of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Effecting energy independence from oil would undermine the short-term stability of the Saudi regime; in the long-term, growing demand for oil by China and India will more than compensate for any reduction in western imports.

Reducing Saudi oil revenues not only reduces the income of the Saudi royal family but also reduces funding to the Wahhabi sect of Islam with which the royal family has close ties and which teaches the subjugation of women as part of its understanding of Islam. That teaching reflects a dramatic revision in what Mohammed taught. His aim was to elevate women to be the equal of men. He himself worked for a woman, Khadija, whom he subsequently married. He also taught that women have the right to own property, to inherit property, and to divorce – all precepts the Wahhabis reject.

Advocating full civil rights for Saudi women can also be a constructive catalyst for western men and women to reconsider their behavior and attitude toward women:

·         Do both partners share equally in housework? Survey data consistently show that in mixed gender households in which both partners are employed, the woman shoulders a disproportionate share of the housework.

·         Are tasks in a mixed gender household or work situation shared/assigned based on gender stereotypes or individual interests/abilities?

·         Do comments and thoughts treat members of the gender to which one is attracted as objects or persons? Sex sells. The media is full of images that presume the consumer/viewer will respond affirmatively to messages that treat attractive people as sex objects.

·         If religious, does the religious organization to which you belong treat women as second-class people? Reasons for such policies variously include tradition, incorrect interpretation of scripture, and male dominance. Religious communities should set the standard for welcoming and incorporating all people, regardless of gender, as equally worthy of dignity and respect, equally worthy of filling all roles within the community.

Jesus warned that those who would judge should look for the mote within their own eye before judging another. Dehumanization of anyone is wrong. But as we campaign to end egregious treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, we do well to examine our treatment of women to eradicate any remaining vestiges of bias and prejudice.

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