As if we need anymore division amongst people of the same community, culture, language and religion let alone with other civilizations and cultures. This issue is difficult for the adherents of division themselves to grasp.
In the past few days I have read two news items that have come out of Saudi Arabia that have taken me by surprise. The first is regarding a recommendation presented to the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs, which called upon banning women from praying in the immediate vicinity of the Kaaba and for other areas to be designated for female worshippers to prevent “mixing” between the sexes (this obscure concept has no clear-cut jurisprudent roots in old sources). The second news item concerns the newly-announced decision by the Ministry of Education to separate boys and girls who attend foreign schools in Saudi Arabia that are owned by Saudi investors. These schools cater for non-Saudi students and non-Arabic speaking residents in the kingdom.
The first news article was met with much condemnation within the Saudi media and beyond. This reaction was quite natural considering the status and exclusivity of the Holy Mosque in Mecca and due to the oddness of such a recommendation that seeks to change a practice that has existed for over fourteen centuries.
However, the deputy head of Holy Mosque affairs, Mohammed bin Nasser al Khozayem asserted in the Saudi newspaper Okaz on 11 September 2006 that it is not true that women will be prohibited from praying near the Kaaba. Khozayem stated that women have as much right to attend prayers in the Holy Mosque as men and that there had been a misunderstanding. He elaborated stating that the entire issue was based on the proposal to increase the number of designated areas for women to pray in two locations that overlook the Kaaba, namely Baab al Fatah and Baab al Umrah. The proposal was a result of the steady increase of female worshippers and the need to assign more space for them to pray. He added that the administration had decided to extend the two locations to hold more female worshippers in addition to the existing prayer areas.
The second piece of news concerning gender segregation that was implemented at the beginning of the new academic year and will affect students from the first grade of primary education did not receive its share of “clarification” and correction like the first news item. Director General of foreign education at the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Hadi al Shelkhy asserted that the decision would affect 150 schools and that students, teachers and staff in foreign schools are obliged to adhere to the rules of Islamic conduct and comply with the regulations and teachings of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The official stated that there would be supervisors to observe the implementation of “segregation.”
Needless to say, the resolution, or proposal of preventing women from praying in the vicinity of the Kaaba would be extreme and would contradict the practices of the Prophetic era and the early years of Islam. At this time, women prayed, circumambulated the Kaaba and would walk in and out of the Holy Mosque without any caution of this kind. It is true, however that the administration of the Holy Mosque highlighted that the aforementioned proposal is only a suggestion and is yet to be put into effect, nevertheless such a proposal reflects the state of intolerance and narrow-mindedness from which some people suffer. It also reflects the undeniable fact that such people could play a role in and have influence on the decision-making process in some circles to the extent that some of them would have their suggestions put forward and in some cases reaching the administration of the Holy Mosque. This is an extreme mindset, which in some cases transforms into a rebellion against the constants of society, its history and ancient social traditions, which, in fact, this mindset claims to preserve. This stance could reach a level of audacity that enables it to change deep-rooted behavior from the early days of Islam and in the holiest place of the Islamic world.
It seems that this is the same standpoint as those who made the decision to separate boys and girls in foreign schools as such a decision could be justified at the secondary education stages because of the nature of adolescence, however, for such prevention to be taken amongst this age group makes me question what could a little boy in the first grade of primary school be thinking about the girl sitting next to him in class?
What has happened is the reliance of “some” officials upon the extremist frame of mind, and this is what may harm society. It is also a waste of time and effort of futile marginal battles due to the weakness of some decision makers to return the situation back to normal and curb extremist thinking, which if acknowledged, would still have closed the doors to female students in Saudi Arabia.
In each of our Arab societies, there are extremists or those who look at women suspiciously; however, the essence of the matter lies in the response of society to the endless suspicions. For example, if matters were left completely in the hands of such rigid individuals, nursing would never have been considered an acceptable profession for women due to the fact that it involves having to mix with the opposite sex. It is worth mentioning that this profession has come under attack from those who adopt the extremist position in Saudi Arabia but all professions require even the most minimum of communication with the public, which, of course, would include men!
It is true that some people want to change the “spontaneity” of the past when women would trade in the markets as well as on their “doorsteps,” and when some Bedouin women would take their cattle to the market and female farmers would see to their fields, take water to their homes and see to a range of errands whilst their husbands were taking care of other responsibilities. At that time, there was no concern about an ethical crisis due to the mixing of sexes or immorality. People lived an unprompted way of life including women. So as not to confuse matters, I do not speak here of “women’s rights,” as this concept only came about at a later stage and has its own intellectual and historical contexts. What I would like to underline is that there was a degree of spontaneity in life. It continued until the extremist mindset was introduced and dried out or sought to dry out the remaining droplets of innocence.
Those who were admonished for realizing such suspicions are not the ones who maintain or strengthen this stance, as we have said that such positions are present in every age. The problem here is that there are decision-makers who draft such apprehensions and put them into effect. These officials create facts on the ground, which subsequently become acquired rights, thus their withdrawal would appear to be a withdrawal from religion, the right path and guidance. Let us imagine that the proposal to ban women from praying in the immediate vicinity of the Kaaba was actually ratified, whilst at the same time there is another proposal that states that the first proposal could be harmful, religiously prohibited and damaging to the country’s image and culture. Would it then be possible to retreat? Would it be easy or costly to do so in light of corruption campaigns, the terrorism ideology and accusations of secularism and westernization? We would be faced with another scenario of organized deterrence such as that witnessed against the decision to merge the leadership of female education with the Ministry of Education, which Saudi Arabia will never forget.
To those who are afraid of being labeled as being against the morality and values of Islam, if they are tolerant and moderate, we say that such accusations are repeated, tedious and unfounded. Even a number of Islamists and preachers who have attempted to put forward their lenient ideas concerning women did not gain support from their students, including Sheikh Qaradawi himself! One of the best things that I have read in this regard was something that the late Egyptian Sheikh Mohammed al Ghazali had written in his book, ‘Fiqh Seerah’ (Understanding the Life of the Prophet), in which al Ghazali highlighted the ignorance shown by some of the prophetic tradition causing them to isolate women from public life. In his book, ‘Turathuna al Fikri’ (Our Ideological Heritage), al Ghazali expressed his fear of the domination of some Islamic movements if they were to obtain power, as these movements do not believe in educating women. Al Ghazali blamed a number of pious figures as they did not demonstrate Islam’s open-mindedness towards women issues, therefore, they became the reasons that some feminist movements were reluctant towards Islamic teachings.
In ‘Maqalaat Sheikh Mohammed al Ghazali’ (Sheikh Mohammed al Ghazali’s Articles), the Egyptian preacher referred to the problematic issue of female education in the 20th century when schools would not open their doors to women without a fight. He further stated that the idea of banning women from religion and society still exists in the minds of some “religious” people (The Upbringing of Women from Shiekh Mohammed al Ghazali’s Perspective by Latifa Hussien al Kandari and Badr Mohammed Malak, Institute of Education Studies Journal, University of Cairo, Issue 4, October 2003.)
We are in dire need of vitality, determination, clarity of vision and development. Individuals must bear the price of responsibility weather they are deputies or ministers as it is the individual who creates the post, not the post that makes the individual! We need to move towards the future and we need courage to reach it. Do not let anybody hinder the path of guidance…