A ‘big step’ for Saudi Arabia, a ‘tiny step’ for womankind

A ‘big step’ for Saudi Arabia, a ‘tiny step’ for womankind

Turkey was once looked on as the model for modernity in the Islamic world. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, it started to look over time more like the countries it was supposed to show the path to democracy and freedoms to.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reportedly told foreign reporters he met a few days ago that 2016 would be a year in which Turkey would leap forward in terms of reforms, since the AKP has a strong majority in parliament now. This claim has to be taken with a serious dose of doubt. 

After all, it was when the AKP enjoyed a strong parliamentary majority that the foot-dragging and back-peddling on reforms started. The AKP did not use its majority then to advance pluralistic democracy, but to promote its “majoritarian” understanding of democracy.
It also used its power to promote its Islamic worldview, and to secure President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s power. Turkey has a long way to go, therefore, before it can become a model for modernity in the Islamic world. 

It is evident, however, that the Arab world in particular is under increasing pressure from within, and from the West, to reform, especially after the spread of radical Islam. This is particularly the case for Saudi Arabia, which many Western analysts since 9/11 consider to be the main source of such radicalism because of the “Wahhabi” mentality that prevails there. 

It is this mentality that bans women from even driving, “because they could fraternize with men and engage in immorality,” as a Palestinian friend who worked in that country once explained to me. This, of course, is only a tiny example of what can be described as a primitive outlook in this day and age. 

Yet pressure have forced the U.S.-supported Saudi royal family to allow women to run in Saturday’s municipal elections for the first time, despite continuing objections from the “Ulama.” 

A number of women were elected to local councils, even though these councils are said to be largely insignificant, and the election of women symbolic. This is nevertheless being hailed by Western governments as a “step in the right direction.” 

In fact, what we have is a tiny step for womankind, even though it may seem to be a big step for Saudi Arabia. Given the urgent need for social reform in Islamic countries, these elections signify little, if anything at all. Many analysts say women were only allowed to contest the elections in order to appease outside critics, and to allay the rapidly spreading view in the non-Muslim world that backwardness is built into Islam.

History shows that backwardness can be injected into any religion in order to keep the infinitely endowed human mind from developing freely. Ironically, the Christian world started breaking out of its darkness at around the same time that the Islamic world, which enjoyed the most advanced civilization of the day, started moving into it.

Reactionary Ulama and Salafist preachers who, despite the centuries that have elapsed, still hold backward societies in their grips, will continue to ensure, to the best of their ability, that modernity as we know it, and all its trappings, is seen as “gross immorality,” especially when it comes to women’s rights. 

Even Turkey has moved in that direction up to a point under the AKP, given the statements that have emanated from key party members. It will be recalled that one such member said not so long ago that it was immoral for women to laugh in public, while “Islamic scholars” close to the AKP say it is immoral for pregnant women to be seen on the street, or for women to work, especially if men are present.

Until this primitive mindset is confronted, a tiny step which allows women – under strictly controlled and restricted rules at that – to run for insignificant elections will do little to provide the urgent reform Islam world needs today.

What we need is a real “Arab Spring,” but that is nowhere to be seen on the horizon.