Being a Muslim who's lived in both the East and West I know that different cultures exist, not only within societies but also in the way Islam is practiced. In a South East Asian Muslim country like Malaysia, we do have the Shariah law which only applies to Muslims but there is a lot of leniency in the way our government allows Muslims to practice their religion. I'm not even sure if leniency is the most appropriate word for it. Maybe it's more accurate if I say that there are less restrictions and regulations, especially for women.
I don't know if it's due to the fact that I've enjoyed my freedom as a Muslim woman or because I didn't spend adequate time to know what it truly feels like to live in Saudi Arabia but as a woman I felt really close to being a second class citizen while I was there. And I was born and raised Muslim in a Muslim country! I can't imagine how amplified that feeling must be for an American woman, for example, to live in Saudi Arabia.
I was Googling photos of Jeddah a few days ago and I came across Susie's blog. So let me tell you a little bit about Susie. Her husband is a Saudi who fell in love with her in the United States and they lived there for 30 years before he decided to uproot his family to Saudi in 2007. She now lives in Jeddah with her husband and their 16 year old teenage son. There are many women like Susie in Saudi, Western women who fell in love with a Saudi man, got married and followed their husbands back to their husband's homeland. Suddenly they are faced with the reality of living in a country that is of the extreme opposite of what they are used to all their life. While I do see some of the wisdom behind the prohibitions they have placed on women (e.g. covering up, wearing hijab, less intermingling between men and women), Muslim or non-Muslim, I can't help but feel that many of it is just the plain manipulation of Islam by men.
While Islam calls for the protection of women and encourages them to travel with a mahram (male guardian, preferably a family member) for their own safety, there's no where in the Holy Qur'an that says women aren't allowed to be independent, obtain education, work and do simple things like grocery shopping on their own. Believe it or not, a woman in Saudi Arabia isn't even allowed to pick up her children after school without a mahram because she isn't allowed to drive (but 10 year old boys are, apparently!). The Saudi legal system has left many of their women completely dependent on men and not just any ordinary men, but chauvinistic, biased and self-righteous men.
They say they don't want to objectify women as sexual objects but why is it that when a woman wants a divorce she has to repay the full amount of dowry that she and her family was given as part of the marriage? A woman is a human being whose value is incalculable and whose life is filled with precious moments, she is not an item you can ask for an exchange or refund.
They say they want to protect women but why do they make it nearly impossible for a woman to divorce a husband who has wronged her but give such prerogative to men and justify it by saying women are generally irrational and emotionally out of control? Why do they view rape victims as being guilty for being foolish and deserving of such an humiliating crime? Why do some of them still believe in the honour killings of young, innocent girls? To restore honour that is lost by speaking to men over Facebook and sitting with their colleagues in public spaces? How does this equal to the protection of women and the restoration of their family's honour? It infuriates me that the very people who have the heart to do this to them are their own flesh and blood - their fathers and brothers. Isn't this what Islam tried to stop during the time of Jahiliyyah? Yet today it's still a part of their culture and it's being camouflaged under religion of Islam. I'm sure there are Muslim women in Saudi who disagree to honour killings but as Susie said it's the lack of reaction that perplexes and upsets me.
If Saudi Arabia is the land where Islam is practiced to a T, what happened to equality? Let's leave the public areas of Saudi for a moment. Why are women given limited time and space to visit the Ar-Raudhah (Prophet Muhammad's p.b.u.h. grave) in Masjid Al Nabawi while men enjoy 24/7 access, unlimited time and a spacious area? I cannot believe how masochistic Saudis can be and how some of their women just accept it like it's fair and that's how it's supposed to be and always will be.
During my visit to the Ar-Raudhah, we had to wait about 1 and a half hours before we could enter. Some women even started running towards it like caged animals who have been waiting for their moment of freedom because to be honest, we were treated like caged hens, perhaps due to the high numbers of women who were there they had to control the situation in such a manner. To top it all off, when we finally had our chance to pray and make du'a inside the Ar-Raudhah we had less than 5 minutes before one of the female mosque guards started yelling and telling us to stop praying, get up and leave so we can make space for the next group of women. Because the other women observed how these female guards treated them, they too became aggressive and started pushing and poking the women who were still praying in front of the Ar-Raudhah. How incredibly rude is that? Even the Prophet p.b.u.h. didn't practice such harshness when he and his companions found a Bedouin man urinating inside the mosque.
When a person is praying and making du'a he or she is having a private moment while worshipping God. The same God you praise and worship too. You don't interrupt them and you most definitely don't start physically disrupting them! Oh the things I wish I could've said if I knew how to speak Arabic. The experience at the Raudhah left me feeling quite disgusted when I should've been exhilarated to have visited the Prophet's p.b.u.h. grave and performed an important ibadah.
It's not Islamic when women aren't treated as respectable, intelligent human beings who can think for themselves. It's not Islamic when men are allowed to misinterpret and take advantage of Islamic law to control women the way they want to. As a Muslim I don't blame Islam for the suppression, abuse and mistreatment of women in this world. As Tariq Ramadhan said in his speech during a recent visit to Malaysia, "Islam has no problems with women, but Muslims have," (credit goes to Sara for blogging about it). I blame the people in this patriarchal society who have created and spread this notion that men always know better and women are only here for their benefit. It's a vicious cycle because they pass on this belief to their children and grandchildren and so on. It exists in every society out there not just the Muslim society.
I know Saudis and Muslims aren't the only ones who mistreat, abuse, rape and kill women but when a Muslim does it, it really strikes a nerve in me because Islam is about giving women dignity, honour, protection, equality and the freedom to practice their rights. Maybe Saudi Arabia does need its own Rosa Parks. A Muslim version of course. Someone who will make them realise that the marginalisation of women and their abilities is unacceptable and has dire consequences on society.
Please don't get me wrong as I miss Madinah and Makkah with all my heart. Even when I last visited Saudi Arabia 10 years ago I had an instant connection with the people and its culture and I still do. A part of me felt very at home when I was there but another part of me was unhappy. If Saudi Arabia's leaders are concerned about the safety of women, why didn't I feel very safe when I was there? Honestly, I've felt less anxious walking down a street filled with drunk guys at 10 p.m. in New Zealand (thank you Campus Watch!). Well I guess that's proof that there's no one perfect place to live in this world. There are always going to be pros and cons wherever we go, even in the Holy Land because nothing on this Earth was created for perfection. In this life perfection only exists in our minds.
I hope that as you read this you don't take it as an attack on all Saudis and all parts of Saudi Arabia because I did enjoy most of my time there and there are many, many wonderful people to meet and things to experience as you can see from the pictures I've posted in a previous post. Plus I do have nice Saudi friends who are lovely, well-mannered people - the girls I know are educated and treated well by their families and the boys would never dream of harming a girl. I've seen the beauty of Saudi culture and I hope others will too. Perhaps there are things that I've misportrayed and people I've offended in this post and I apologise if I have, as that is never my intention. I am merely expressing my honest thoughts because I believe in the goodness of people and our ability to change for the better. I also believe that in every country there are always 2 sides - the beautiful and the ugly - and I do hope to visit Saudi again someday.