Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Saudi women find a new ally: Mohammed's wife

Campaigners are saying the Prophet's era was a golden age of women's rights

By Neil Macfarquhar  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- When the religious police spy a woman on the streets of Saudi Arabia whom they consider insufficiently covered, or suspect of mingling with men who are not relatives, they are quick with a terse reprimand. "Ya mutabaraja!" many will yell, using an Arabic word that translates as a woman who "displays, shows or plays up her charms, adorns herself." It is, needless to say, the kind of encounter that Saudi women, especially those in its ever increasing class of highly educated professionals, would rather not face.

These are days of agitation in the desert kingdom, and perhaps no group is more determined to push the boundaries of change than the kingdom's well-educated and articulate women. The question for these women is how to alter the ingrained tradition that men must have the last word in how they dress, where they go, what they study -- in short, virtually every aspect of their lives.

"We are treated as daughters of a tribe, not as citizens," said Fowziyah Abukhalid, a sociologist at King Saud University. "We want to be recognized as full-fledged citizens."

Women tried to bring change very publicly once before, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Some 40 women took to Riyadh's freeways, protesting the unwritten law preventing women from driving. They figured that the pending threat of war would trump the traditionalists' alarm that women behind the wheel would lead to encounters with male strangers.

They were wrong. Conservative theologians denounced the protesters from the pulpit as fallen women, and the ban on driving became law.

Now, some women have decided they have a better chance of succeeding if they adopt the methods of their natural opponents, the ultraconservative religious fundamentalists. These women -- a cross section of doctors, businesswomen, professors, artists, homemakers and social workers -- want to reach back to the ancient roots of Islamic law, viewing the Prophet Muhammad's era as the golden age of women's rights.

Before Muhammad, women on the Arabian Peninsula were considered chattel, inherited along with land or livestock. Some historians who are women believe now that the prophet was initially opposed within his own tribe for elevating their status. After his death, his favorite wife, Aisha, even led men in battle during the succession wars.

"It was as if she had absorbed all the principles of Islam that women should not sit back and do nothing if they see something that is unjust," said one of those historians, Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a professor at King Saud University. "At the time of the prophet, laws were simple, direct and were more accurate in terms of the spirit of Islam, freeing women from being demeaned."

She argues that the prophet responded directly to women's grievances with revolutionary changes in property ownership and other laws. After women believers started to protest that too many Koranic verses focused exclusively on male believers, more verses began to refer to women.

The scholars have started to comb through Islamic texts to muster all the religious arguments that support greater rights for women, believing their strongest argument, perhaps, to be that women often petitioned the prophet Muhammad directly during his lifetime. They believe their efforts could serve as the basis for new laws, laws clearly not derived from the West, and more important, to cleave away what has developed as tradition over centuries of desert life.

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