Listen to this story: A Saudi Arabian man marries a German woman. The husband owns a store which he personally runs with his wife’s help, however slowly over a period of time the wife becomes more and more involved in running the store allowing her husband to focus on his other business interests. This German woman would sit behind her desk at work and conduct business all day long, whilst her store’s clients came from all walks of life and social background; men, women, and children. This woman ran her business for a long period of time without anybody interfering, whether this is members of society or other bodies. The surprising thing here is not that this is a true story or that it took place in the Saudi Arabian city of Khobar, but rather that this happened around 40 years ago. Imagine!
Perhaps the strangest thing about the story of this working European woman is that she was not condemned or criticized by anybody for running a business, even though she did this whilst not garbed in the traditional abaya. Everybody accepted a business woman running her own store and interacting with customers. Imagine if people in Saudi Arabia woke up tomorrow to the news that there was a saleswoman working at a store, and dealing with customers in this manner. What would happen? Things would not go as smoothly as they did 40 years ago, when the people of Saudi Arabia woke to find a European woman performing the kind of work that until then was only done by men in Saudi Arabia Why was this accepted by Saudi Arabia than, but not today?
This week Saudi Arabia witnessed the issuance of a number of historic decrees by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. Perhaps the most prominent decree was to restrict employment in lingerie stores to female employees. This decree will allow around half a million Saudi women to enter the labour market over the coming five years. Who could believe that Saudi women would be deprived of around half a million jobs – which would most likely go to male foreign labour – were it not for the decisive intervention by the highest authority in the country. Saudi women could have lost this opportunity on account of those who exert pressure on banning this idea, frightening society and installing an authority above that of the state.
The greatest threat that Saudi Arabian society is facing today is its transformation into a society that fears exclusion. This happens when the role of the majority retreats in the face of a minority that rejects any intervention from any party that opposes it, particularly when this rejection is without reason or logic. In order to illustrate this contradiction, let us look at the story reported by Asharq Al-Awsat in January of this year. This story dealt with women working in Saudi Arabia’s Ha’il province as saleswoman at commercial outlets. This story focused upon professional Saudi women working as sales agents, away from the controversy surrounding the issue of Saudi women working and the fatwa banning Saudi men and women working alongside each other. How did the women in Ha’il manage to do this whilst others have failed elsewhere in Saudi cities? It is society that [either] supports something or just stands idly by.
The issue today is not about banning or not banning women from the workplace. This is a matter which society itself, sooner or later, must decide. The real problem is the transformation of marginal issues into crises, religious fatwas intruding into primarily social issues, the non-acceptance of the other, and the imposition of a single viewpoint that nobody is permitted to disagree with. This is not what Saudi society was like in the past, but this is what some people want it to be like. Rather than developing in the same manner as other societies, we have seen things move in the opposite direction, with the culture of society taking a step backwards. Most of the controversial issues can be traced back to a single problem, namely the prevalence of tradition over religious teachings. As a result of this, we have seen the appearance of those who base their decisions not just upon religious juristic views, but also upon the accumulation of customs and traditions that now influence people’s opinions and viewpoints.
[Arab historian] Ibn Khaldoun wrote: “Following traditions does not mean that the dead are living, but rather that the living are dead.” This rule is something that could be applied to many of the social phenomenon that are sweeping our societies, including the rejection of some members of society to the idea of women in the workplace, even in stores that cater specifically to women. Whenever a voice of reason is heard, several opposing voices launch an attack against this under the cloak of [preserving] customs and traditions, or religion.