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Saudi Arabia: The Next Capital of Islamic Feminism?

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Posted on March 5 2011 3:03 pm
Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. For extended biography visit The Phyllis Chesler Organization.

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Originally published at FrontPage Magazine on February 28, 2011.

In the midst of a Middle East meltdown, in the midst of the most dangerous mayhem and madness, can a feminist and human rights revolution really be brewing in…Saudi Arabia? We know that Saudi Arabia is exceptionally barbaric towards its women and to all progressive thought. Women are not allowed to drive, and they cannot travel, accept employment, or open a bank account without the approval of a male relative. In addition, Saudi women must be fully veiled from head to toe and from front to back, and they must submit to arranged child marriage and to polygamy.

Sharia law rules. Thus, adultery, choosing a husband of one’s own, or refusing to marry, might be privately punished by solitary confinement, beatings, or being honor murdered. Adultery or failure to veil might lead to execution by the religious police or by the state.

Given the extraordinary and fast-paced events taking place in the Middle East, the Saudi King just promised some concessions. They are only economic concessions: He has offered to share more of his bounty with his people in terms of pay raises, affordable family housing, and unemployment benefits. In short, he is offering his long-suffering people a 37 billion dollar bribe.

Why has he done so? What does King Abdullah fear? A number of things: First, a possible Shi’ite takeover of the region.

About 40 years after Mohammed’s death, a huge religious war, a violent split, took place between what are now the two main branches of Islam: Sunni and Shi’a.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Bahrain are the only Muslim countries with a Shi’ite majority; the more than 50 other Muslim countries (except for Oman, which is Ibadi) have Sunni majorities.

Syria is ruled by a Shi’ite family but has a Sunni majority, and southern Lebanon and eastern Saudi Arabia have Shi’ite majorities.

The protesters in Bahrain are mostly members of its Shi’ite majority, who “demand more say in the Sunni-ruled island. Riyadh would be worried if unrest in Bahrain, where seven people were killed and hundreds wounded last week, spread to its own disgruntled Shi’ite minority in the oil-rich east.”

What else might King Abdullah fear?  His people chanting: “Down with the Dictator” and calling for his exile or his death.

But, believe it or not, King Abdullah might actually have an honest-to-goodness homegrown reformation-revolution on his hands, one that is not Islamist, and one that is not only seeking economic rights. Saudis have begun to demand political, human, and women’s rights as well.

Egyptian, Libyan, and Bahraini protestors have not been calling for the kinds of rights that the Facebook website Saudi Women Revolution (which I have previously written about here and here) are demanding. Apparently, another Saudi group which calls itself “Saudi Youth for Justice” is demanding additional legal and political rights. Two days ago, I received an email which reads:

“We (The youth of the Saudi Arabia) hope this letter finds its way to the public. We are going to protest and carry on demonstrations like our brothers in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia. We are demanding political and economical reform. Our first priority is to fight corruption and to transfer the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and commonwealth realm. We have no intention of causing trouble in the region or any kind of economic damage to any nation or country. If the Saudi government tries to stop us by using force we might wind up in civil war which will lead to high gas prices. We don’t want this to happen. Please spread our letter to the world, and urge all the world’s governments and especially the Saudi government to let us protest and carry on political reform peacefully. We are responsible people.”

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