Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabist state. It has made some advances in relaxing rules for women, such as allowing them to drive, but it has a long way to go, as full modernization would not align with texts of the Quran and Hadith. Its male guardianship program persists as part of its overall commitment to the Sharia, as does its ongoing crackdown on women’s rights activists. Last April, Saudi women were reported to be using pseudonyms on Twitter “to share their experiences of sexual harassment, the reasons behind their hesitance to report these abuses to the authorities, and demands for the abolition of the discriminatory male guardianship system.”
The Sharia is clear that women are inferiors and must remain under the control of men. Since women are inferiors, they must be told when and what to say. This poses a particular dilemma to the Saudi kingdom, now confronting a “cultural and social clash that the opening up of Saudi Arabia from an austere and deeply conservative society to one that now hosts mass entertainment events has engendered.”
The rules and regulations in Saudi Arabia — as in many other Islamic states — are inspired or instructed by the Sharia. Take for example, female coverings, which many Muslims still insist are not a religious requirement. Full coverings are a degradation to women, yet are required in the Quran.
(Quran 24:31) And tell the believing women to reduce of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.
(Quran 33:59) O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused.
Women’s status is also clearly evident from the Hadiths:
“Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.” Sahih Bukhari 88: 219
Rifa`a divorced his wife whereupon `AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. `Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complained to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating). It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Messenger came, `Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!” Sahih Bukhari 72: 715
The Prophet said to his wives, “You are allowed to go out to answer the call of nature. “Sahih Bukhari 4:149
The Prophet said, “Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” The women said, “Yes.” He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”Sahih Bukhari 48:826
When ‘Abdur-Rahman bin ‘Auf came to us, Allah’s Apostle made a bond of fraternity between him and Sad bin Ar-Rabi’ who was a rich man, Sad said, “The Ansar know that I am the richest of all of them, so I will divide my property into two parts between me and you, and I have two wives; see which of the two you like so that I may divorce her and you can marry her after she becomes lawful to you by her passing the prescribed period (i.e. ‘Idda) of divorce. ‘Abdur Rahman said, “May Allah bless you your family (i.e. wives) for you.” Sahih Bukhari 58:125
The Prophet said: “The stipulations most entitled to be abided by are those with which you are given the right to enjoy the (women’s) private parts (i.e. the stipulations of the marriage contract).” Sahih Bukhari 62:81
“When Allah’s Messenger was asked which woman was best he replied, ‘The one who pleases (her husband) when he looks at her, obeys him when he gives a command, and does not go against his wishes regarding her person or property by doing anything of which he disapproves’.” Sunan an-Nasa’i 3233
In Saudi Arabia, anyone posting on social media about being sexually harassed “puts themselves at risk – the women speaking to the BBC keep their identities hidden and use voice disguise devices when appearing on public forums like Spaces on Twitter.” The reason for this is that Saudi Arabia tells the world that it is reforming and aims to attract new business. The option for women who advocate for women’s rights and balk at the “social norms of the Kingdom” is to be called liars and face arrest and jail time. Saudi Arabia seeks economic development and partnerships with the West. So it is tasked with trying to balance its global image while trying to remain faithful as an Islamic theocracy.
“Saudis warned of jail time for posting rumours after harassment claims,” by Sebastian Usher, BBC, January 20, 2022:
Saudi authorities have warned that anyone spreading “baseless” rumours on social media could face up to five years in prison and a huge fine.
It comes after a cancelled concert in Riyadh led to reports online that young women were being sexually harassed as they tried to make their way home.
Some of the women have told the BBC of their fears over posting about what happened after the event.
The Saudi entertainment chief appeared to mock their claims in several tweets.
This is the latest development in the cultural and social clash that the opening up of Saudi Arabia from an austere and deeply conservative society to one that now hosts mass entertainment events has engendered.
The much anticipated concert, headlined by the K-Pop band Stray Kids, on the evening of 14 January was called off at the last moment due to high winds. Disappointed fans struggled to find their way home from the venue on the outskirts of the Saudi capital.
Reports began appearing on social media saying that girls had gone missing, as well as warnings of sexual harassment. Online at least, there appeared to be panic. Hashtags proliferated, amplifying the sense of jeopardy.
The reality is still unclear.
Many people who say they were there have since stated that no such incidents occurred and that the organisers did a good job in difficult circumstances.
Their case is perhaps strengthened by the fact that as the evening progressed, pictures were posted of men who were supposedly harassing women – but some of these were randomly taken from social media accounts or simply those of celebrities. This trolling undermined the assertions by a number of women that such incidents had taken place.
The head of the Saudi Entertainment Authority, Turki al-Sheikh, subsequently posted a number of tweets that appeared to mock the reports of harassment as entirely made up.
Memes swiftly sprang up, ridiculing the reports of harassment or of girls who had gone missing by a host of online accounts that accused those who had posted or reposted them of lying in order to discredit and embarrass Saudi Arabia.
But several women who have spoken to the BBC previously about their concerns over harassment of women at entertainment events in the kingdom insist that some of what was reported was genuine. They concede that this is hard to prove – as there don’t appear to be videos or photos to back up the claims.
This is a perennial issue in Saudi Arabia where anyone posting such material puts themselves at risk – the women speaking to the BBC keep their identities hidden and use voice disguise devices when appearing on public forums like Spaces on Twitter.
They say that some of those who posted reports on social media or hosted discussions online about what they believed was happening have received threats and closed down their accounts. They believe that the official reaction is aimed at silencing those who might tarnish the new image of Saudi Arabia as an open, welcoming hub of entertainment in the region.
They fear that it will inhibit women in future from going public with experiences of sexual harassment – which they say is already constrained by the traditional social norms of the Kingdom.
This latest furore over an entertainment event comes weeks after the four-day MDL Beast music festival – also in Riyadh – attracted not only hundreds of thousands of people, but also something of a backlash from conservative elements in Saudi Arabia.