The most recent misogynist fatwa prohibiting women to work as cashiers that was issued by Saudi Arabia's "wise" governing body of clerics, might be a blessing in disguise because it could, most ironically, help advance the cause of women's rights throughout the Saudi Kingdom.
The whirlwind of publicity surrounding the edict has severely accentuated the clerical council's base philistine degeneracy and ignorance while eroding the group's credibility in the eyes of the devout, which can hopefully lead to an undermining of its repressive authority. At least we can hope.
The ruling emanated from the Committee on Scholarly Work and Ifta under the Council of Senior Scholars early last week, to challenge a good-intentioned government jobs program for women. The underlying religious premise of the ruling was that women shouldn't work in a place where they could potentially mix with men in case they attract or become attracted to them. Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory put it best:
Way to give women options! According to my calculations, that leaves three choices: (1) Don't work, (2) Work from home or (3) Work at an all-female business.
Ms. Clark-Flory also wondered how woman could still be such a "threat" to men in Saudi society and what else could possibly be done to contain these seductresses:
Considering that Saudi women have been shrouded in black fabric, severely restricted from public life (so much so that some have taken to cross-dressing) and punished for their own rapes, you have to wonder what will be enough when it comes to protecting against womanly temptations.
Although a fatwa is not the same as a law passed by the government, what is frightening is that it can be upheld as such in Saudi Arabia which holds Islamic sharia law as its legal code. But many are hoping it goes the path of other prohibitions such as music and television, which are technically forbidden by Islam but remain de facto legal. (Then again, the women driving ban was originally unofficial but became law after an incident in 1990 when 47 women challenged authorities by taking their families' cars out for a drive.)
From a purely practical perspective - Saudi females need these jobs. According to figures reported in April, unemployment among Saudi women was 28% in 2009. Although they make up 70% of university enrollment, Saudi women make up just 5% of the workforce - the lowest proportion in the world.
Issuing a ridiculously ignorant fatwa is nothing new for Saudi religious leaders - take Abdul-Aziz Bin Baz, who later became the Grand Mufti in 1993 until his death in 1999, who issued a fatwa challenging the U.S. moon landing, entitled "On the Possibility of Going into Orbit". Bin Baz followed the edict by giving interviews in which he lent the impression that he also doubted the spherical nature of our planet, leading many to satirize the Wahhabi establishment as "members of the Flat Earth society".
Brutal anti-female regulations aren't such a shock either, given that laws are already on the books in the Kingdom dictating how Saudi women can't study, can't work, can't travel, can't even open a bank account without permission from their guardians - namely, their closest male relatives. As Katha Politt wrote earlier this year in The Nation:
Saudi women are legal children their whole lives, controlled by fathers, husbands, brothers--even sons. This outrageous system makes Saudi Arabia one of the world's biggest human rights violators. But because the victims are girls and women, and the rationale is religious, and Saudi Arabia has vast oil wealth, and sits in the middle of the Middle East, and is some kind of US ally, it doesn't get much attention.
Of course, Christian leaders have not been the best role models either, such as the Catholics' infallible Pope Benedict who faces charges based on daunting evidence that he protected child rapists throughout his career. However, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom's grand mufti, did the Pope one better when a year ago he gave his religious opinion that such an act was legal: "A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she's too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her."
The modern roots of this type of repression can be traced to the post-oil boom of the late 1970s, as a reactionary Islamic movement arose to oppose the liberalizing secular ways of the House of Saud. According to Robert Lacey in Inside the Kingdom, in 1979 Saudi rulers were panicked by an internal puritanical religious movement and Ayatollah Khomeini's feat in Iran:
Revolutions are disruptive by definition, but the Iranian upheaval had had an extra, unanticipated ingredient. In 1776 the American Revolution showed that colonialism could not last for ever; thirteen years later the French Revolution marked the end of the road for absolute monarchy, and Russia's 1917 Revolution echoed that - in the final analysis, folk want to be free. But Iran did not fit into this satisfying slide towards secular modernity - quite the contrary. An apparently impregnable, westernizing autocrat, smiled upon by America, with a huge army, an efficient secret police and burgeoning oil revenues, had been brought down almost overnight without a shot being fired. In western terms, the world was going backwards. The Shah had seemed a fixture, but all his money and modernization had proved helpless against the supposedly outmoded power of religion.
In addition to the Iranian Revolution, a Sunni religious fanatic led a shocking takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, as part of an ultra-conservative Muslim reform movement. The Saudi sheikhs believed that "the Shah had got on the wrong side of the mosque", and the House of Saud was not going to allow the same thing to happen to them, so the Saudis overcompensated by designing the most ultraorthodox Islamic society imaginable.
It began with the absurdity that photographs of Saudi women should no longer appear in newspapers. Zealots like Bin Baz had issued many a fatwa on the subject and the desecration of the Grand Mosque was the proof. One of the princesses was quoted as saying, according to Lacey:
"Those old men actually believed that the Mosque disaster was sent by God as a punishment to us because we were publishing women's photographs in the newspapers. The worrying thing is that the king probably believed that as well."
Thus began the legacy of ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabist dogma that ended up molding the mind of one Osama bin Laden with help from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, who were welcomed by the Saudi Monarch to preach their combination of salafism and jihad, which the Saudis themselves would later come to regret.
However, although the Saudis did rid their society of Al Qaeda by 2006 after suffering internal terrorist attacks beginning in 2003 after seeing the error of their ways in fanning pan-Islamic jihadism, they have failed to see any issues with the continual oppression of women. At this point, all one can rightly do is hope and pray and, most importantly - protest.