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  A Virtual Revolution in Saudi Arabia

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Posted on February 20 2011 1:00 pm

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The site’s slogans include: 1) “We are demanding the rights granted to us by Islam”; 2) “In the era of the Prophet women straddled horses and participated in wars”; 3) “Yes to granting my rights in accordance with the Islamic Sharia”; 4) and “We insist that our rights be granted but not that they be forced on anyone…Whoever says ‘We’re OK, we don’t need [these rights], we’re honored queens, etc.’…[to each her own, just] don’t get in the way of [our] legitimate interests.”

In other words: I don’t want to force my mother to unveil against her will or to drive by herself if this is not her desire.

Trust me: I understand that it is absolutely essential to couch such western-sounding demands in Islamic terms. Perhaps, that is the only way that Muslim women in the Kingdom will be able to gain a hearing, a following, and achieve some kind of reform without being placed under permanent house arrest, divorced against their will, or beheaded in the public square.

And, it is true: Christian and Jewish women have made certain gains within their respective religions; many denominations have women ministers and rabbis. However, such gains have also been sharply limited by fundamentalist misogyny among both men and women in these denominations. In addition: Catholic women cannot become priests; thus, a woman can never become Pope. Orthodox Jewish women have gained enormous religious knowledge and can pray in women-only prayer groups. They still cannot become orthodox rabbis or the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Mainly, women’s rights—as the Saudi Facebook site has enunciated them—have only been gained, worldwide, by using existing secular laws to argue for such rights. Indeed, many have viewed religion as one of the chief enforcers of gender oppression.

However, there is no concept of secular law in the Kingdom and in many other Muslim-majority countries. Separation of religion and state is a uniquely Western concept.

Asra Q. Nomani, a religious Muslim-American woman who was born in India, did try to achieve gender dignity and some gender parity in the mosque founded by her own father in West Virginia, but the combination of increasing jihadic-era, Arab male immigrant misogyny coupled with aggressive female submission to such authority made her task impossible. She wrote a very moving book: Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She was also featured in a documentary about her struggle.

Nomani also organized a first-ever woman-led and women-only Islamic prayer service. It was led by Dr. Amina Wadud in NYC—but not in a mosque. No mosque would have them, nor would an art gallery which backed out due to a bomb threat. The prayer service was held in a church and filled with media. The worshippers were moved, transformed—but the service was still condemned.

I hope and pray that the Saudi women who are behind this website study the attempts of Muslim feminists, both religious and anti-religious, to bring about women’s rights. And I hope they draw clear conclusions, clear but canny battle plans, and demonstrate the patience for which their people are well known.

This is a 500 year struggle.

Unless, of course, the internet can speed matters up.

I wish to acknowledge Nathan Bloom for his translations from the Arabic for this piece.

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  • Don’t miss any of Dr. Chesler’s articles. Subscribe to The Phyllis Chesler Organization mailing list.
  • Nathan Bloom is an assistant to Phyllis Chesler. He majored in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago and studied Arabic at the International Language Institute in Cairo.
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