Historically, social activists have often been branded by governing authorities as rebels and mischief-makers. While some of the causes were indeed frivolous, others defined a change in the world order.
The suffragette movement that began in the early part of the last century in Britain was one such act of the so-called ‘rebels’ that eventually led to women being granted the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony, an American who began pushing for the cause of more rights for women in the 19th century was another pivotal figure who was deemed a rebel in her quest.
Such activism is not necessarily an ‘apply all’ formula to all parts of the world. One has to study the social nature and dynamics of the environment for any change to succeed. In Saudi Arabia, the 1980s and 1990s shaped generations that grew up under some very fundamental learning. Religious edicts flowed in uncontrolled torrents, often rejecting one progressive thought after another. Women soon disappeared from the media. Women’s businesses were conducted behind closed doors. Paperwork at the ministries had to be done by a male guardian. Banks would not open accounts for women unless the consent of the male guardian came along. And the intensity of such acts kept increasing, with vociferous debates on what constituted a proper veil, why women couldn’t drive and which professions were appropriate (and noble) for them.
Most of these restrictive declarations came from men — who paraded around pushing their own repressive interpretations of Islam. Grudgingly, women found solace either in teaching at all-girls schools or retreated into their shells, waiting to get married.
Saudi Arabia’s educational institutions were not far behind in promoting this new wave of oppressive thinking. End-of-the-year celebrations were frowned upon in certain schools, deemed by some teachers as a wasteful sin. Some schools even went as far as banning any show put up by students to celebrate Mother’s Day. Recreational sports between girls’ schools were abruptly stopped and the prospect of physical education for girls was quickly buried under a morass of indigestible edicts. Dress code for women became more restrictive, as did the thought process of those who administered such schools.
And thus, a new generation was shaped: One that lived a life in fear of sinning. Everything was either deemed black or white. Creativity and queries were replaced with strict obedience, or else the sword of utter damnation hovering above their heads could come heavily down. They were expected to conform to this school of thought and soon knew no other. Many fathers and husbands used the prevailing atmosphere with moral authority in repressing the female members of their families to their own advantage.
But the new century brought in dramatic changes, changes that made the world sit up and take note. The government began introducing gradual changes in the social structure. Saudi Arabia was moving ahead and nothing was going to hold it back. Through a series of powerful decrees, the government made it clear once and for all that women were no longer subservient and had equal rights and opportunities as their male counterparts.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been credited for much of the recent changes as he publicly derided the oppressive atmosphere created in the previous decades under the cloak of religious conformity. Allowing women to drive was one of the last major barriers to fall. Even on the issue of the black abaya that had been forced upon women, Mohammad said: “The laws are very clear and stipulated in Sharia: That women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left to women to decide what type of decent attire they choose to wear.”
Plain and simple. Wear what you want but be modest — a stipulation that you will find in any Gulf Cooperation Council country.
It, therefore, came as a surprise to me when I heard that a group of Saudi women had begun a recent campaign against wearing abaya. And to show their displeasure, they were wearing it inside out. The women protesting said that they still felt they were required to wear the black garment, which is why the “inside-out abaya” movement came about.
But who is demanding that they do so? The government’s position is very clear, as outlined by the crown prince himself. Is it peer pressure? Is it the whims of a domineering male head of the household? Are they doing it to generate headlines?
Whatever it is, it is a personal matter and not one for social activism. They are just being rebels without a cause.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him on Twitter: @talmaeena.