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Sheikh Ghamedi: The Controversial Cleric Who Is Bringing Welcome Changes To Islamic Jurisprudence

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By Abhishek Jha:
Last weekend another incident saw women demanding more freedom when Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamedi, a Saudi cleric, and the former the Head of Mecca’s Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Committee, brought his wife to a talk show unveiled and wearing make-up. His wife, Jawaher bint Ali spoke up about what they as a family go through psychologically because of the work he does, which often borders on the controversial in a society such as theirs.”Our children sometimes complain that their fellow students, and even their teachers, challenge them:’ Why did your father rule this way or the other?’…They ask our advice: ‘How should we respond to them?’… By now they share their father’s opinions.”

The video has sparked a controversy as Saudi women do not usually keep their face uncovered in public.  In fact in Saudi Arabia, such discriminatory norms often have the sanction of law. There is a ban on women driving and rape victims can end up getting flogged themselves. In this light, the appearance of the cleric’s wife on the show is a bold statement against the fundamentalism that is invoked to restrict women and sustain such patriarchal norms. The significance of this appearance is reiterated by the fact that this symbolic act was used by a cleric’s family – whom people refer to for religious guidance – in a place where misinterpretations and misquotations of religious texts are used to discriminate and torture women.

Sheikh Ahmed, as the Head of Mecca’s Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Committee, had in early 2013 also issued a fatwa that allowed women freedom to move ‘without a male guardian, uncover their faces, and eat alongside men’.

This is suggestive of a positive change that is gradually taking place all over the world, with women identifying patriarchal structures and breaking irrational and sexist norms. Closer home, a lot of women and men took to social media to campaign for mobility for women by “loitering” in public spaces and tweeting and posting about it with the hashtag #whyloiter to mark the second anniversary of the horrific Delhi gang rape. This is a fight against the censure of the moral police which uses every incident of sexual violence to vilify ‘short dresses’, ‘loitering’, and ‘free women’ in general.

But why do we need this symbolism? Wouldn’t it have sufficed to argue and debate? To answer this question one needs to understand that extant norms persist despite a huge number of women being oppressed by it precisely because they are norms. Even if they are arbitrary, they are standards and define ‘normal’. To defy it, due to the lack of a precedent, has become extraordinary. Even in ultra-conservative countries and regions, there are saner voices and women who would like to step across the line but fear the backlash and a lack of support. Under such circumstances, the symbolic move of the couple at least sets a precedent, which might lead to a discussion ending such discriminatory norms and laws.

Jawaher bint Ali, Malala Yousafzai, and the like will take heart in the fact that their move is likely to draw more dissident and rational voices together to create a more safe, equal, and just world for women.

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  1. Babar

    Yes, there is no freedom for girls to show their thighs and cleavage in public. Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, do not treat women like meat, unlike their Western counterparts. Semi-nude images of women are not plastered on walls, there is no sale of adult DVDs, no one devises cunning methods to sell provocative clothing in the name of fashion, advertisements don’t feature women in skimpy clothing, girls don’t have body image issues, there is no STD epidemic, drug and alcohol abuse is unheard of, and rape is the lowest in the world.

    And if Saudi Arabia is so bad, what are countless western expatriates doing there, where there are no taxes, petrol is cheaper than water, excellent salary packages, great food, where even in a modest job your company will provide housing, education for children, free airline tickets, among a host of other benefits which has seen westerners, including women, from all over the U.S. and U.K. leaving their so called freedom and settling in Saudi Arabia.

    Educated, independent Muslim girls in Europe, US, UK, and Canada choose to wear the burqa, and are not ‘forced by their husbands’, as the U.S. media would like people to believe. On the other hand, miniskirts and skimpy clothing are automatically seen as a choice, even though they are enforced through constant images in movies, magazines, music videos, advertisements, billboards, fashion industries, peer pressure, and a need to ‘fit in’, but if a woman wants to cover her body and save herself from lewd stares and wants to reserve her body for the gaze of her husband, it is immediately labelled oppression.

    Many girls are grateful to be born in the Middle-East, where they can roam freely in a burqa without being harassed and racially abused, where they feel human because they are not compelled to dress semi-nude to ‘fit in’. In Saudi Arabia, rape, molestation, and harassment of women is the lowest in the world. Furthermore, from banks to shopping malls to coffee shops to mosques, all have separate areas, spaces, and floors for women. The government spends the majority of its unemployment benefits on women. Shops selling female attire ban men from entering those shops unless accompanied by a female relative. In Saudi Arabia, women spend more in one day than most people earn in one month. Women are under no obligation to work, and even if they do, the husband still has to provide for them. Women do not have to contribute to the household. Compare this with girls all over the world working menial jobs, from BPOs to coffee shops to dishwashers to cashiers. Middle-Eastern countries are filthy rich, offering women a much more luxurious and healthy lifestyle than anywhere in the world.

    1. Fem

      Then please shift to middle east if you are not there already

    2. ItsJustMe

      Whats so provocative about a woman’s face. Does that mean you can’t keep it in your pants if you see a girls thigh. Thats all self control you have? You are a social being and you are supposed keep your emotions to yourself. But you also have the right to do what you want without obstructing others exercising theirs. So if a women wwant to wear a modern attire and the law is forbidding her from doing that, it is violation of basic human rights. Rape is not low in Saudi, but they dont classify most rapes as rapes but as consensual sex by their husbands. Why do you need seggregation so much? They are women, not sharks, they are not infected by air borne virus, they just have a vagina and a uterus, so why is there a need for seperate space. If you base laws of a modern country on some medieval document in which the rules are set out with medieval situations and perspective in mind its called retarded law making.

    3. B

      Casual sex, one night stands, affairs, pre-marital sex is resulting in paternity fraud, teen pregnancies, AIDS, abortions, infections, divorces, single parent families, broken homes, etc. Why is that so hard to understand?

    4. ItsJustMe

      Casual Sex – its none of your business what other ppl do if you don’t like it don’t do it
      AIDS – AIDS rate in India has gone down from earlier. Doesn’t that mean it has nothing to do with how girls dress.
      Abortion – lack of awareness about protection and other contraceptive options lead to abortion. In simple English wear a condom, because prevention is better than cure.
      Broken families – don’t know what that has to do with how girls dress

  2. Monica I.

    Thanks for writing this. . .
    It was indeed a great move, especially when such a move is coming from a scholar and his family. 🙂

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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