Saturday, January 25, 2014

Status quo ... but some winds of change ...

During my India vacations, I have been reading a bit about the social advancement of Saudi Arabia. Knowledge of how it was made by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud has enabled me to understand its tumultous origins; how the king went about uniting the various tribes that moved criss-cross across its surface, how the king finally established a Kingdom named after his family, how his descendants have carried the torch forward, not withstanding many set-backs such as the untimely death of one of the kings, the problems the Kingdom has faced with Shiite countries like Iran, the issues of illiteracy, superstition, backwardness, poverty (until oil was discovered in the middle of the 20th century) and so on.

The main issue is the contradiction between the royalty that wants moderation in normal society and the religious leaders which wants to maintain status quo with a very strict interpretation of Islam that forbids so many things that people from most other countries consider normal, such as driving by women, useful employment by women in the normal society, etc. 

At the same time, this interpretation also allows Saudi Arabia to maintain the holy shrines of Makkah and Medinah, and to allow the country to prosper as it is doing in the comity of nations. Human rights, which have been very bad until the last few decades, are improving. Women are educating, graduating, working in the "allowed" professions such as nursing, teaching, medicine, etc. and female children are now being accepted much more than they were in the past. No longer are men as chauvinistic or cruel to their women as they used to be in the past. The Kingdom has, through its "nitaqat" program, enabled many unemployed youth to get jobs in preference to expatriates. This has meant that many illegal expatriates were asked to leave. However, those expatriates who are legal continue to enjoy the same privileges that they used to earlier.

An I. T. university campus in Jeddah allows women within to avoid wearing the abaya as long as they dress modestly, even allows them to drive a car within the premises. It is not a big thing, but it is a beginning. There is a royal couple that follows the Western ethos completely in all its dealings (See these videos - 1 and 2). In their palace, women may dress as they please, and the Princess herself dresses in the modern Western attire and keeps her hair free. Both the Prince (Waleed) and the Princess (Ameerah) want to welcome modern customs of society in Saudi Arabia ... but lack support from the majority of the vocal Saudis. as they fear the "mutawwa"s or the "Religious Police".

As one travels from the bigger cities to the towns, and to the villages - strictures seem to be greater; most of the religious and social observances are routinely followed by the people on their own, without the presence of the mutawwas. This self-discipline is something that tells me that change will take generations to come ... I mean, it will take generations to percolate down to the masses.

That's it for now.

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