Saudi Arabia: Women Use Koran to Advance Equality

These are days of agitation in the desert kingdom, and perhaps no group is more determined to push the boundaries of change than the kingdom's well-educated and articulate women.
The question for these women is how to alter the ingrained tradition that men must have the last word in how they dress, where they go, what they study -- in short, virtually every aspect of their lives.
Women tried to bring change very publicly once before, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Some 40 women took to Riyadh's freeways, protesting the unwritten law preventing women from driving. They figured that the pending threat of war would trump the traditionalists' alarm that women behind the wheel would lead to encounters with male strangers. They were wrong.

Conservative theologians denounced the protesters from the pulpit as fallen women, and the ban on driving became law. Now, some women have decided they have a better chance of succeeding if they adopt the methods of their natural opponents, the ultraconservative religious fundamentalists. These women -- a cross section of doctors, businesswomen, professors, artists, homemakers and social workers -- want to reach back to the ancient roots of Islamic law, viewing the Prophet Mohammed's era as the golden age of women's rights. Before Mohammed, women on the Arabian Peninsula were considered chattel, inherited along with land or livestock. After his death, his favorite wife, Aisha, led men in battle during the succession wars.

Historian Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a professor at King Saud University, argues that the prophet responded directly to women's grievances with revolutionary changes in property ownership and other laws. After women believers started to protest that too many Koranic verses focused exclusively on male believers, more verses began to refer to women. The scholars have started to comb through Islamic texts to muster all the religious arguments that support greater rights for women, believing their strongest argument, perhaps, to be that women often petitioned Mohammed directly during his lifetime. They believe their efforts could serve as the basis for new laws, laws clearly not derived from the West, and more important, to cleave away what has developed as tradition over centuries of desert life.

"Traditions are not sacred," says Abukhalid, a small, intense, 44-year- old woman wearing jeans and tennis shoes under her flowing black robes. "Only the Koran and the Sunnah are sacred." The women expect a long battle. Mention women's rights to any gathering of religiously conservative males, even those demanding a greater public voice for men, and they immediately voice suspicions that Saudi women are agitating to live like their Western counterparts. "Why is everyone so obsessed with giving a woman any kind of job?" said Abdel Malik al-Turaiki, a 27-year-old physiotherapist. "She has a job keeping house. This is a great job for women -- to clean, to care for her children and to prepare herself for her husband."

Any radical change in Saudi Arabia invariably emanates from the top. When King Faisal wanted to open girls' schools in the 1960s, for example, he warned those opposed not to attack the schools. If they did not want to educate their daughters, then he would not force them, he said, but he would not tolerate violence. Crown Prince Abdullah has promised municipal elections for next year, but there has been no word on whether women will be allowed to vote, much less run.

Source: New York Times, 28.12.03, via Abigail's Rebels. Website: