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.