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Lessons from Saudi Arabia

  • Published at 06:19 pm April 30th, 2018
  • Last updated at 01:34 pm May 3rd, 2018
Lessons from Saudi Arabia

A changing Saudi Arabia is becoming inevitable under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is now the time to not only further strengthen our ties with the desert kingdom, but also take lessons and highlight the religious liberalization that is giving a new meaning to conservatism.

I was delighted to read about the changes taking place in many areas of Saudi society with women leading the way.

That is the best news, as mothers -- the symbol of women to me -- can guide the nation towards the right path, as has been the case for Bangladesh with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The Saudi authorities announced in September 2017 that the ban on women driving has been lifted, and they would be free to drive vehicles from June 2018.

The Royal decree said the decision would also boost the country’s economy, as more women would be encouraged to work.

That would also, I believe, change the mindset, in a male-dominated society, about women, as they would be able to see more of their at work.

It gives the country a more humane look, as it has been the only country in the world that had such a ban.

Protests against the ban on driving started in 1990, and it is a memorable victory for women, because the country is finally unchaining itself from the state’s male hegemony and religious conservatism.

Then came the call for all-gender stadiums. Now, women are allowed to watch football or any other games from the stands of stadiums like their male compatriots.

Saudi Arabia continued to see further change when a member of the Council of Senior Scholars said that women need not wear the ‘abaya’

A sea of change

Saudi Arabia continued to see further change, when Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said that women need not wear the “abaya,” or what we call a burqa.

“Muslim women should dress modestly, but this does not mean they need to wear religious clothing,” could very well be the best statement in a changing world, where religious conservatism has become an obstacle of progress towards a new era.

“More than 90% of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Mutlaq was quoted as saying by the Saudi media recently.

The abaya is a loose-fitting, full-length robe, which women have been required to wear under the country’s “garment law.”

Although the statements made do not change the law immediately, observers say that “it is the first of its kind from a senior religious figure, and may be in line with the ongoing changes under the crown prince.”

In early 2017, activists won their first significant victory when King Salman issued an order saying that women “did not need permission from their male guardian for some activities, including entering university, taking a job, and undergoing surgery.”

Holding on to our roots

At a time when Saudi Arabia is moving towards liberalization from conservatism, particularly those linked to religion, we see a dismal picture in Bangladesh. We are moving backwards from our very progressive, liberal, and secular society.

Every day we are seeing more and more women wearing hijabs or burqas.

It seems odd to me that when this country was a part of Pakistan, we held on to our rich traditions. Having lived most of my life until 1970 in Pakistan, I can only remember such burqas in remote areas. Pakistani women rather copied our dressing style, and were mostly seen in saris like my mother.

Our women are beautiful, our sari is elegant, and our jewellery, extraordinarily unique. Why are we hesitant to show off all that Allah has given us? Why have we started denying our natural right to be ourselves?

Interestingly, gay relationships (and even marriages) have been ignored in recent days, signalling a lift on interfering in one’s private life.

Coming to the international front, Saudi Arabia and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations, but behind the scenes, improvements in their ties have reportedly accelerated in recent years.

The crown prince has said that the Jews have a “right” to a homeland. In an interview with an American magazine, the prince recently said: “I believe that people, anywhere, have a right to live in their peaceful nation ... I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.

“But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”

This move -- being more practical in relation with Israel -- will bring economic benefits for the desert kingdom, as well as give it more power both regionally and internationally, as the move would bring the US and the Western world closer to Saudi Arabia.

Let us reap the benefits now and not wait for later.

The most important thing now is to confiscate the source of funds of fanatics and terrorist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and mushrooming madrasas, and divert them to facilitate modern education to ensure the success of a Digital Bangladesh.

Let us get going now. Later might be too late.

Last, but not the least -- a salute Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Nadeem Qadir is a UN Dag Hammarskjold Fellow in journalism.