Saudi women driving

Male guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia: A web of Wahhabi-style Islam and culture

Male guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia: A web of Wahhabi-style Islam and culture

The Guardian, a British newspaper, thankfully can still be read without a paywall, which is how I saw a recent piece on how Saudi women have taken to battling the country’s male guardianship system via Twitter.

Twitter, as you may remember, has become an extremely powerful social network in Saudi society, as its users can remain anonymous and push for social changes like women finally being allowed to drive. I wrote about that here.

In explaining the Twitter phenomenon, the Guardian leaves one thing untold; the origins of the country’s oppressive laws concerning the inability of women to do anything without a male accompanying her.

Turns out the reasons, in reality, have nothing to do with a clear teaching of Islam. But first we start here:

Women in Saudi Arabia are riding a “Twitter wave” of activism that they hope will lead to the abolition of a legal guardianship system that gives men authority over their lives.
There has been an “explosion of advocacy” on Twitter over the past two years, say the authors of a report – the first of its kind produced by Saudi women – documenting how women in the kingdom have been fighting for their rights since 1990.
The move to social media has been spearheaded by younger women who, emboldened by the Arab spring and the crown prince’s vision for the country, have embraced the medium as an increasingly important tool for change.

Some 40 percent of 6.3 million Saudi Twitter users are women, the piece says. Before social media, it was difficult to know what was happening in the country other than the official line. That changed as the populace embraced one of the highest per capita Twitter rates in the world. Then:

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Got news? Top Saudi religious leader says Sunni Muslims can pray in churches, synagogues and Shiite mosques

Got news? Top Saudi religious leader says Sunni Muslims can pray in churches, synagogues and Shiite mosques

Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman al-Manea of Saudi Arabia is one of the kingdom’s high-ranking religious scholars and a specialist in Islamic banking, as defined by sharia, or Islamic religious law. Given his many top-level finance industry positions, one has to assume he’s also close to the Saudi royal family, without whose blessing nothing of real consequence happens in the kingdom.

If you're not familiar with al-Manea, as I suspect most GetReligion readers are, take a moment to read his professional bio. It’s a dazzler.

Given his prominence, you’d think Western media -- or at least those that take international news seriously -- would have jumped on a fatwa, or religious ruling, he recently issued permitting Sunni Muslims to pray in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and even Shiite mosques.

That’s significant stuff for the Arab and Muslim world, where conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is often a given. Here’s a bit of how it was covered in a few Arab and Muslim English-language news publications.

This one’s from Arab News, one of the largest Arab-produced, English language-news sites around. I noticed that the piece also ran in Pakistan Defense, which focuses on security and military news.

Another version of the story was published by StepFeed. The news site bills itself as “devoted to shaping a modern Arab world” by appealing to “Arab millennials.”

Here’ the heart of the Arab News story:

Al-Manea gave a fatwa (religious advisory opinion), reported by Al-Anba’ Kuwaiti newspaper, stating that Muslims may pray in Shiite or Sufi mosques, churches or synagogues. He noted that all lands belong to God, and cited the Prophet’s words: “The earth has been made a place of prostration and a means of purification for me.”

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News media take heed: Tunisia, not Saudi Arabia, is where Arab Muslim women are truly advancing

News media take heed: Tunisia, not Saudi Arabia, is where Arab Muslim women are truly advancing

So the Saudi monarchy has indicated it will allow the kingdom’s women to drive. And the international media has mostly applauded (with notable exceptions) what elsewhere around the globe has long been a given.

As “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che joked on “Saturday Night Live,” Saudi Arabia’s announcement barely beat out allowing vehicles to drive themselves.

Understand that I'm not dismissing the Saudi decision as entirely meaningless, because it's not. For now, however, it amounts to little more than a Band-Aid. I'll say more about this below.

But first, let's take a look at what's been happening in Tunisia, where the news about Muslim women has received less coverage than the Saudi story — even though its of potentially far greater significance for women in the Arab Muslim world.

Events in Tunisia sparked the 2011 Arab Spring, which largely failed elsewhere — disastrously so in Syria and Yemen — but did succeed in Tunisia. What’s happening there now led one New York Times op-ed writer to wonder optimistically whether a second Arab Spring focused on women’s rights just might be in the wind.

If so, let’s hope it ends far better than the first one.

The latest bit of underplayed Tunisian news is the North African nation’s decision to allow its Muslim women to legally marry non-Muslim men without the grooms having to convert to Islam ahead of the wedding.

That's huge in the Arab world because it speaks to the core of Islam’s self-understanding, whereas the Saudi driving story is more about local cultural and political arrangements.

Here’s how the BBC covered the story. The following graphs get to the meat of the issue.

Many Tunisians see the removal of the marriage restriction as another landmark in guaranteeing women's freedom in the country.

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May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

Can anyone guess what was a major international religious event this past Tuesday?

Obviously, we're talking about Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive. Some of you may have heard a wave of applause around the world, as the Saudis were the international hold-outs on this issue.

Driving may not have a whole lot to do with religion, but Saudi Arabia's decision may say something about the lessening influence of Islamic radicals.

Ah, but here is the key for those who are concerned about religion-news coverage: I am not convinced that many scribes understood that. So let's see how some journalists explained this change. We start with BBC, the brand name in international news:

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time, to the joy of activists.
The Gulf kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Until now, only men were allowed licenses and women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined. ...
Campaigner Sahar Nassif told the BBC from Jeddah that she was "very, very excited -- jumping up and down and laughing".
"I'm going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang, and it's going to be black and yellow!"

CNN noted the ruling had nothing to do with religion -- other than a ruling cabal of Wahhabi Islamists have long placed curbs on women being in any public place, including a car. So no religion, other than a symbolic change long opposed by a powerful group of Islamic leaders.

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