Saudi Arabia

Roses Are Banned, Violets Are Blue


Valentine's Day comes to Saudi Arabia in fits and starts. Stephen Schwartz and Irfan al-Alawi report:

This year's anti-Valentine offensive by the mutawwa was less draconian than usual. It included a stipulation: Non-Muslims in the kingdom–as much as 20 percent of the population (up to 6 million people) because of the immense influx of Western technicians and mostly Christian guest workers from east Asia–would not be molested by the mutawwa if they celebrated the holiday behind closed doors, although Muslims were cautioned against joining in foreign Valentine's Day events. The mutawwa are notorious for bursting into the residences of foreigners to check whether they are consuming liquor, so this Valentine's Day concession to foreigners was more significant than outsiders might think. The privacy of one's home is, after all, foundational to civilized societies.

And the less-than-brutal Valentine's crackdown–bans on the sale of roses notwithstanding–isn't the only optimistic sign:

On February 12, the same day the main warning against Valentines was issued, King Abdullah told foreign journalists that the issue of Saudi women driving cars–long banned, with the prohibition enforced by the mutawwa–is a social rather than a religious issue, to be determined as a matter of state policy instead of theology. If these words are followed up with action, and the matter of women driving is actually removed from clerical control, that will mark a turning point in the history of the kingdom.

Baby steps…

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  1. What is the religious justification for banning women from driving? In the time of Muhammad, there are many accounts, many of which are favorable, of women riding, and controlling, their own camels (the period equivalent).

    Why is what was good enough for Khadija, Fatima, and ‘Aisha not good enough for their modern descendants?

    OK OK, I know the answer is because 1400 years of practice and the Wahhabi sect have allowed misogynist elites to take over Islamic theology via regulatory creep. Take the above as a rhetorical question.

  2. The Saudi government’s reckless liberalism is getting out of control!

  3. Yeah, Max, the next thing you know, they will stop women from getting stoned after committing adultery, which is a shame.

    Nothing beats a joint after a good roll in the hay.

  4. Can’t they just pay for a hooker-wife, get a divorce a few days later and exit the scene with nothing but memories and a burning vas deferens?

  5. Where’s the post from Pat al-Buchanan, decrying the way that immigrants are destroying their way of life?

  6. Lamar: No, only Shiites can do this

  7. …and the matter of women driving is actually removed from clerical control…

    What happens if following that we see a group of folks seize the al-Masjid al-Haram and start an Islamic revolution in the kingdom?

  8. What happens if following that we see a group of folks seize the al-Masjid al-Haram and start an Islamic revolution in the kingdom?

    You mean just like what happened in 1980?

  9. anon,

    Since the legitimacy of the rulers of the Saudi kingdom seems to depend in part on their defense of religious orthodoxy, if a sizeable portion of the population thinks that its polices are in conflict with such, well, problems might arise in a situation like that.

  10. Until I see Juicy Couture burkhas, I’ll take this with a grain of salt.

  11. King Abdullah told foreign journalists . . .

    As always, now that we know what he said in English for foreign consumption, it would be interesting to know what he says in Arabic to the mutawwa.

    I submit the latter is far more important than the former.

  12. Since the legitimacy of the rulers of the Saudi kingdom seems to depend in part on their defense of religious orthodoxy, if a sizeable portion of the population thinks that its polices are in conflict with such, well, problems might arise in a situation like that.

    That is precisely what happened in 1980. A group of fanatics seized the grand mosque in 1980 and demanded that saudi become more strict. The governmen ended up killing them and imprisoning their supporters. But then, they adopted their demands. Most of the restrictions you see now are a direct result of that event.

  13. Their ambassador that just resigned ,Prince Turki Al-Faisal, was in my city a few months ago. A few questions were asked about the mutawwa and the high rate of executions for such offences as apostasy “witchcraft” drug offences “corruption on earth”. The guy dance like Fred Astaire and was just as good.
    The whole area’s messed up and we directly fund it. You can either go to Hugo Chaves’s CITGO or King Abdullah’s Shell Oil.

  14. i spent the summer in saudi arabia (dahran north/al-khobar) in 1977. my dad was working as an architect’s rep overseeing electricals on a hospital, a dental clinic, various and sundry things like that.

    it is really depressing to see how us foreign policy has blighted the ability of americans to travel to foreign countries and experience other cultures.

    in the summer of 1977 saudi arabia, for me (20-year-old blonde american female) was a delight in every respect. sure, as a female, i couldn’t legally drive there but, hey, it is their country. slavery was not outlawed in saudi arabia until 1962. (you’ll still find way too many americans who think we should not have outlawed it here, so …) i heard distant rumors of but never saw any public-decency enforcers. americans complain that radical islamists have radicalized the country since 1980? until we take back the united states from the christo-taliban, we have no business condemning religion-based national governments in other countries. the situation is just as destructive to democracy here as it is there.

    during those three months in 1977 i was able to meet and hang out with saudis (mostly men). they were as interested in meeting and speaking with me as i them. i and a male american friend went on an expedition to a small village a short distance from al-khobar. it being the middle of the day, people were not out in the street but our path intersected with a saudi man who was thrilled to have us visit his town. he did us great honor bringing us to his home, a compound containing effectively an apartment building populated by his extended family, offered us “sadiki” (literally, “friend”; actually, home-brew “gin”) and introduced us to his wife sans bourqa. he was very proud to show himself to be progressive and, despite the otherwise complete absence of “modernity,” a modern man in his interactions with us. i also paid a quick visit to riyadh (with the same male friend), flying there, taking the train back to al-khobar through the desert. it was ramadan. the carful of saudis were most entertained by the americans. they were quite tolerant of our “differences,” even going so far as accepting my offer of some home-made chocolate chip cookies and having a taste (consensus being “too sweet”). the scenery out the window was mind-blowing, in a quiet, contemplative, make-you-feel-the-size-of-a-gnat way. we saw a small band of bedouin with their camels walking through the mildly blowing sand a couple miles from the train track, out in the middle of “nowhere.” it was a remarkable experience.

    overall, i found the saudis to be delightful, friendly people, but also not particularly inclined to tolerate foreigners coming ’round criticizing their sovereign nation (a trait i think americans, rightly, have in common with them and many others). sadly, thirty years of bad foreign policy , madly ramped up by bushco in the last 6+ years, has brought us to a time when my experiences are no longer possible. as tragic as it is that those people were murdered, the larger tragedy is the sea change in public thinking within saudi arabia, no longer looking to the west as a beacon of fair governance and civil rights, the trend to a more secular civil life (the whole royal family thing is another blessing brought to you by — drumroll, please — england and the united states) not only stopped but put in reverse. if i went back to that little town today, my guess is that there would be no friendly man eager to talk to the americans and show off his modest life with pride. it pains me to know that it is no longer possible for an american to stroll through the open market in al-khobar and window-shop the gold market — a glittering display of astonishing proportion (women buy/are given gifts of gold jewelry in bulk over their lifetime as “social security”).

    i am sad for the people killed, i am sad for their families but the largest piece of my sadness is for all the people who have been harmed in our name (a bloody bruise on my heart for the iraqis), over and above the harm we have done ourselves, in small ways and large, through the misbegotten belief systems of the people “in charge” of united states foreign policy.

  15. What a difference a border makes. Right now, in the UAE, Westerners can walk around in malls decorated for Valentines Day (and I mean REALLY decorated) and – wait for it – Christmas, complete with mall Santa and elves.

    Westerners can walk on the streets and meet people much as the previous poster described. Women are allowed to dress as their (family’s) level of faith dictates, not the State. Hell, it’s a fashion statement rather than a religious one in some circles to wear the fanciest black abaya. Same with the men’s dishdashas, should they even choose to wear one.

    Political effects over the years in the entire Peninsula seem to have been very divergent. What of Bahrain (where the Saudis from Dhahran famously go to be as bad as they wanna be)? What of Oman? What of Qatar? It makes one wonder whether there’s more to it than simply “the US and England royally fucked up for the past 3 decades”.

  16. It’s convenient to blame this all on U.S. foreign policy – not that I’m defending it mind you – but I think that’s over-simplistic.

    At the end of the day, ignorance and extremism will find an excuse in whatever happens to be there. Our foreign policy has, indeed, been quite lousy making us perfect boogeymen. But the impact of it leading up to 2001 was just one of many factors.

    Violent Islam has been in the making for some 90 years. And it wasn’t exactly peaceful and reasonable before then.

    The growth of violent, extremist Islam is just a new wrinkle in an already diverse, chaotic and bellicose region with dozens of other problems.

  17. Maybe I should just let madpad summarize what I tried to say all the time. How much do you charge?

  18. women riding, and controlling, their own camels (the period equivalent)

    Heh. Heh-heh.

  19. Don’t forget that, even if your St. Valentine’s Day efforts are as modest and discreet as possible, the very fact that Valentine was ostensibly a Christian saint is enough to get the Saudi beadles in an uproar.


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