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Category: Women Date: 16 Feb 04


"Isn't it shameful that all of us, with our multiple intellectual endeavours, our various social experiences and our vast geographical richness, have become copies of the same odourless, colourless and flavourless mould? How did our outlook towards women become imprisoned in the ignorance of a handful of proto Islamists?"

- Lecturer and columnist Sulaiman al-Hattlan writing in the Saudi newspaper Al Watan.


The correspondent from Riyadh, Mouna Naim, writing in Le Monde, paints a tableau of women living in slavery- a strait-jacket imposed on them by religious police-the mutawaa'in-whose job is "to prevent vice and promote virtue".


The constraints of the headscarf (hijab) are taken to "grotesque" lengths in the central province of Nejd. There is "the requirement that the slightest patch of flesh must remain covered, reducing women to formless, uniform shadows."


The situation in King Saud University in Riyadh, a pioneer of openness in the 60's that in the past did what universities are meant to do - encourage free spirits, push known boundaries, question norms, rigorously explore the intellect, has now regressed into confinement and constraint now that religious extremists have dug their talons in and taken over.


Mouna Naim writes of the undergraduates: "Rigorous religious precepts have been imposed on every aspect of women students' lives. They are not allowed to leave the campus if they have spare time... In an environment from which men are totally absent, the students are instructed how to dress: they must wear black, brown or grey.


Their skirts must run down to the ankles and their blouses have long sleeves. Those who break the rules are forced to buy the 'correct' dress from the guardians and sign a statement admitting to the error of their ways.


Women who dare to get their eyebrows fixed or to put on nail varnish or makeup are even more severely rapped over the knuckles."


It gets worse: "Women students are not allowed to laugh loudly. Using a mobile phone or chatting with another woman student is regarded as suspicious."


Even Valentine's Day is considered a vice and the "guardians" seize anything that might remotely signify festivity."


The official reasoning behind this oppressive behaviour by the religious police is that it's all aimed at protecting women. But the evidence points elsewhere. At control. At hypocrisy. At being threatened by the full potential of these women.


Naim quotes an academic who observes: "It is strange that the same people who propose separate facilities are the very ones who have never noticed that lingerie shops are staffed by men - surely an instance where there should be a women-only environment. Men are entitled to anything. They are taught their rights, but not their duties. As for women, they have virtually no rights, and nothing but duties that they must observe."


So what exactly is the core of this issue of oppressing women?


"The core of the problem is that most men have real problems in treating women with respect. Men have simply got to be taught to respect women."


Yet, why have these words set off clanging bells, a niggling discomfort in my head that there are connections? Yes, there are lines where the experiences of women in Saudi and those of our women in Trinidad and Tobago intersect.


Ridiculous you may say. I agree that ostensibly it is not so.


In fact, the position of women in Riyadh may appear to our women so far from our own experiences that it is irrelevant.


After all, don't we have the freedom to wear what we wish, speak as we do, study what we want, work, travel, party freely and for two days each year isn't an entire festival a nemesis of the Arab experience? After all, don't we walk in groups, dressed in similar bits of cloth and feathers? Don't we jump, gyrate? And obscene gestures are not restricted hypocritically to the men. In fact, women can outwine men any time.


So what's the similarity? A tiny, fundamental one which brings me back to my first quote. And I remind you of my opening quote:


"Isn't it shameful that all of us, with our multiple intellectual endeavours, our various social experiences and our vast geographical richness, have become copies of the same odourless, colourless and flavourless mould?"




Does anything ever get so left wing, so liberal, it moves back to the right?


Consider this again. Can this quote not apply to our bikini and tinsel mass? Can it not apply to infantile and obscene shouting in chutney, in soca, that passes off as culture?


And isn't the mediocrity which we feel obliged to applaud because it is "we ting" a form of oppression? I have said this before. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


Our governments are similar to the religious mullahs. Each year they "promote" a "culture" that still doesn't have a home as in an institute of arts where talent is cultivated, where there is an exchange of knowledge between experts, where young artistes can be taught a discipline, a tradition. That is oppression.


Each year, for decades, our governments, our Ministry of Culture, laud mediocrity and minds that shut off entirely, that stop gauging excellence.


Whereas women in Saudi Arabia are being reduced to "uniform formless shadows", women in our beloved country are being reduced to uniform, bands of bikini and tinsel.


I'm all for celebration. But in the midst of that I want to say, don't pass off profanity for culture, don't excuse the lack of intellectual investment in our natural talent, don't mindlessly fall for the infantile, the verbal vomit. Don't jump just because someone says so.


We've achieved our basic rights as women. Now as a people we must be careful not to neglect our intellect, our creativity, and ultimately, our humanity, which is tied up with the former. In other words, even if you're having fun remember that allowing someone else to do your thinking for you can be a fatal error as the women in Saudi know.


Hold on tight to your brain. Somebody - it may be mullahs, it may be mindless men, it may be politicians, or a crappy education system - is always waiting to take it from you.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur