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Saudi Arabia: From Bras in Bondage to Reform

By February 26, 2009

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My colleague Linda Lowen at Women’s Issues, whose affinity for lingerie issues is vastly more developed than mine, reminds us this morning of the persistence of pre-historic conditions for women in Saudi Arabia (I don't say Medieval conditions, which tends to be the favored way of describing Islam's regressive societies, because, in fact, Islam in its medieval period was at its most enlightened, women's pre-Victorian secrets included).

Anyway, Linda writes of "how maddening it is for women shopping for lingerie in Saudi Arabia." Viz.,

Although there's a law on the books that says women should be able to staff shops that sell items to women, traditional attitudes discourage females from working at these places. An administrative clerk at a women's college told the BBC that she doesn't buy lingerie in Saudi Arabia anymore. How frustrating is that to have to leave the country just to be able to purchase a bra and panties?
There is hope, however, that Saudi Arabia may be moving closer to, say, the 5th century BC (when women, though still treated as slaves in most Middle Eastern societies, could at least shop).

Linda's post reminded me of Saudi King Abdullah's reformist Valentine to his country, decreed on Feb. 14. The king is 86 years old, but his sudden burst of reformist zeal was anything but doddering. For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia (the House of Saud, let's keep in mind, is only slightly older than the United States, and the modern Saudi state barely older than John McCain), a woman was appointed deputy minister. Note the deputy: Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez, who got her Master's in education from Utah State University in 1982 (no surprise there: Utah, where buffalo roams more freely than alcohol, is America's closest approximation of Saudi Arabia), is in charge only of the girls' section of the Ministry of Education. Until then, the section was administered by Wahhabi clerics, who tend to distinguish not at all between women, girls and livestock. Maybe it's asking too much for a single full minister to be a woman, even if the woman happens to be kin to the king. The "bint Abdullah" in Al_Fayez's name, incidentally, means "daughter of Abdullah": She's part of the royal family.

Reformists cheered when King Abdullah took the throne four years ago. He was known as a reformist despite his age (as old as Liz Smith, he was born when Lenin was still alive, stroke-ridden though he was). Reforms have been slow in coming. But Feb. 14 was a good day. Abdullah also fired Sheikh Saleh Luhaydan, who had been head of the supreme judicial council. That's the nut who wanted Muslims to take up armed jihad against the United States in Iraq in 2005, and who, more recently, as I wrote here, called for certain television executives to be killed (for broadcasting Oprah and other salacious programming by satellite). Maybe the Sheikh will have more time to devote to his correspondence with Antonin Scalia.

The king also got rid of the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. That's the committee whose goons walk around looking for "infractions" against the faith (like women driving or hanging out with men other than their husband, or couples acting like couples). The Taliban is famous for its similarly named committee.

Why not go the full monty and abolish the horror altogether? Because in Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud is still ultimately beholden to the clerics it pays off. Gradualism is the mother of survival for that monarchy of sclerosis, though mother is probably too noble a word to corrupt with that association.

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