Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Princess Basma's Priorities for Saudi Arabia: The Source vs The Substance

Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz, niece of King Abdullah. (Photo: Arabian Business)

Recently Princess Basma, the youngest daughter of Saudi's second king, King Saud, and the niece of the current king, King Abdullah, gave an interview to the program Outlook, on BBC World News, as printed below, with a link to the audio version, outlining 5 key changes she prioritizes to improve her country, Saudi Arabia.

I have seen a limited amount of commentary as yet about the piece, although it is beginning to draw attention on blogs and Twitter. So far the commentary has focused on Princess Basma's personal life, questioning whether someone of her status and privilege, who was raised and educated largely outside the Kingdom (in Lebanon, England, and Switzerland), and who lives in London, is an appropriate spokesperson for change in the Kingdom. As in the past, I have seen her both praised for her activism, and criticized for being a non-professional, living outside the Kingdom, yet often interviewed, quoted, and published by the Western, and especially the British press.

On reading her views in this piece, I was impressed that she was arguing for substantive changes, that would go a long way towards redressing social injustices within Saudi at an official level, and therefore giving legal backing to reforms that would limit abuses by those who prefer differential treatment of others based on gender, origin, social status. I wonder about the feasibility and timing of these types of institutional reforms, but it seems to me that it would be hard to argue against these items as key to reform, even if one were to include others, including governmental reform of a more substantive nature.

I was also interested in her view of the issue of Saudi women driving as being more of a Western interest, and how that seems born out by the headlines in the Western press about this interview. From all I have read on the topic of Saudi women driving, including from Saudi women proposing it, this is acknowledged as the kind of issue which interests the West in particular, and thus helps gain traction for international support and pressure for other reforms of women's status in Saudi Arabia. In saying this, I don't deny the arguments made about the concrete importance of driving to improve Saudi women's ability to access education, health care, work, and social functions independently of a web of transportation constraints. However, I do think that it is worth bearing in mind its place in the broader scheme of Saudi life for both genders, as well as for women, and its role in social activism.

The BBC article uses the following 3 images and captions in sidebars to situate Princess Basma, and context of the Kingdom.

Princess Basma is divorced and lives with her children in London

An insular kingdom

  • Established in 1932 by King Abd-al-Aziz
  • One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East
  • The royal family is 15,000 strong
  • The Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly of power; political parties are banned
  • Saudi women live a restricted life and are banned from driving
  • The country includes the Hijaz region - the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam
  • Saudi Arabia sits on more than 25% of the world's known oil reserves

Princess Basma

  • Youngest daughter of the country's second king and niece to its current ruler
  • Educated in Britain and Switzerland
  • Lives in Acton, London
  • Princess Basma, pictured above pointing to her place in the Saudi family tree, was interviewed by Outlook on the BBC World Service
After you read the article below (or in Arabic in BBC Arabic here), I would be interested in reading your comments and thoughts.

BBC News Magazine
Saudi princess: What I'd change about my country
8 April 2012 Last updated at 19:21 ET

Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz tells the BBC there are many changes she would like to see in Saudi Arabia - but that now is not the time for women to be allowed to drive.

I speak as the daughter of King Saud, the former ruler of Saudi Arabia. My father established the first women's university in the kingdom, abolished slavery and tried to establish a constitutional monarchy that separates the position of king from that of prime minister. But I am saddened to say that my beloved country today has not fulfilled that early promise.

Our ancient culture, of which I am very proud, is renowned for its nobility and generosity, but we lack, and urgently need, fundamental civil laws with which to govern our society.

As a daughter, sister, (former) wife, mother, businesswoman and a working journalist, these are the things that I would like to see changed in Saudi Arabia.

1. Constitution

I would like to see a proper constitution that treats all men and women on an equal footing before the law but that also serves as a guide to our civil laws and political culture.

For example, today in Saudi courts, all decisions are made according to the individual judge's interpretation of the holy Koran. This is entirely dependent on his own personal beliefs and upbringing rather than universally agreed principles or a written constitution as a guide.

I am not calling for a western system but an adaptation of that system to suit our needs and culture. Thus our constitution should be inspired by the philosophy of the Koran with principles that are set in stone and not open to the whims of individual judges as is the case now.

In particular, the constitution should protect every citizen's basic human rights regardless of their sex, status or sect. Everyone should be equal before the law.

2. Divorce laws

I strongly believe that current divorce laws are abusive.

Today in Saudi, a woman can ask for a divorce only if she files for what is called "Khali and Dhali". This means either she pays a big sum of money running into tens of thousands of dollars or she has to get someone to witness the reason why she is filing for a divorce - an impossible condition to fulfil given that such reasons usually are the kind that remain within the four walls of a marriage.

Another way to keep a woman in the marital home against her will is the automatic granting of custody of any children over the age of six to the father in any divorce settlements.

This state of affairs is in complete contradiction to the Koran, upon which our laws are supposed to be based. In it a woman is given full rights to divorce simply in the case of "irreconcilable differences".

3. Overhaul of the education system

The way women today are treated in Saudi Arabia is a direct result of the education our children, boys and girls, receive at school.

The content of the syllabus is extremely dangerous. For one, our young are taught that a woman's position in society is inferior. Her role is strictly limited to serving her family and raising children. They are actually taught that if a woman has to worship anyone other than God it should be her husband; "that the angels will curse her if she is not submissive to her husband's needs". Girls are also strictly forbidden from taking part in any physical education. This is a result of a complete misinterpretation of the Koran. I consider these ideologies to be inherently abusive.

Aside from that, the focus in most of our educational system is on religious subjects such as hadith (sayings attributed to the prophet), Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), tafssir (interpretation of the Koran) and of course the Koran. The attitude is that "learning itself, anything other than religion won't get you into heaven so don't waste your time". I would like to see religious teaching limited to the Koran and the Sunna (the way the prophet lived), where the true ethics of Islam lie. The rest is blind rote learning of the most dangerous kind. It has left our youth vulnerable to fundamentalist ideologies that have led to terrorism and abuse of the true meaning of the Koran.

Instead of wasting our youths' intellect on memorising quotations whose origins is uncertain (such as those found in hadith, Fiqh and tafssir) we need to encourage them to think freely, innovate and use their initiative for the betterment of our society. Early Islam was a time of great creativity. Scholars excelled in sciences and literature. Our religion should not be a shield behind which we hide from the world but a driving force that inspires us to innovate and contribute to our surroundings. This is the true spirit of Islam.

4. A complete reform of social services

The ministry of social affairs is tolerating cruelty towards women rather than protecting them. The only refuge homes that abused women can turn to are state ones. In these, women are continuously told that by seeking refuge they have brought shame on their families.

If they come from powerful families then they will be sent straight back to their homes in fear of the wrath of a powerful patriarch. As a result we have seen many cases of suicide by educated women, doctors and scientists who were sent back to their abusers.

We need independent women's refuges where the rights of women are upheld and backed up by powerful laws that can override family traditions and protect women.

The ministry of social affairs not only abuses women's rights but is also one of the reasons poverty is rife in the kingdom. A corrupt system that lacks transparency has meant that more than 50% of our population is poor and needy even though we are one of the wealthiest countries on earth.

5. The role of the Mahram (chaperone)

Women in Saudi cannot get around or travel without a mahram (a kind of chaperone - usually a male relative).

At the time of the prophet, women used to have a man to accompany them but in those days Arabia was a desert literally full of pirates.

Today the only purpose of such a law is to curtail women's freedom of movement. This not only infantilises women but turns them unnecessarily into a burden on their men and on society.

Today women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive.

This one seems to concern western observers the most but there are more essential rights we need to obtain first.

I am definitely for women driving but I don't think this is the right time for a reversal of this law. In the current climate if a woman drives, she could be stopped, harassed beaten or worse to teach her a lesson.

This is why I am against women driving until we are educated enough and until we have the necessary laws to protect us from such madness. Otherwise we might as well hand out a licence to the extremists to abuse us further. If as drivers we get harassed, they will say to the Islamic world "see what happens when women drive, they get harassed they get beaten" and they will call for even more stringent laws to control women. This is something we can't afford. Fundamental changes in the law and its attitude to women are needed before we take this step.

On the whole it is the rights and freedoms of all citizens that are crucial in Saudi Arabia and from those the rights of women will emanate.

Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service.


Listen to Princess Basma's 20-minute interview for Outlook, BBC World News Service

Who has the right to argue for reform of a country?
What role do the privileged play in change?
Who counts as privileged?
What is the place of international pressure?
Do insiders and outsiders prioritize the same issues?
What opinion do you have of the substance of Princess Basma's interview?
If you are Saudi, please identify yourself as such (even if you use the anonymous option to comment).
If you are not, how do these questions relate to reform in your own country?
What would your priorities be for your own country?

Related Posts:
On Mother's Day 2012: Calling on Saudi Men to Advocate for Saudi Women's Rights
Saudi Women Driving: Public Naming and Shaming along with the Arresting, Fining, and Flogging
HH Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel Interview: On Saudi Women, Driving, Clinton, Obama, Allegations Against Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal
Who Says Saudi Women Don't Want to Work?
Saudi Women Driving Garners Attention; Saudi Women's Education Brings Substantive Change--Including to Driving
On Women Driving, in the West and Saudi; Other Parameters of Women's Quality of Life; Hope for Change

For additional and older posts: see the Category SaudiSocietyCultureLaw in the side bar; use the search function for all posts on Saudi women and driving, and other topic related keywords

See Also:
الأميرة بسمة بنت سعود: التغييرات التي أود تحقيقها في بلادي [Above interview in BBC Arabic]
‫مقالات الأميرة بسمة بنت سعود..
[Princess Basma's blog, most often in Arabic, BBC interview above in Arabic and English here]
Most powerful Saudi women: In pictures

Princess Basma on BBC's Hardtalk


Wendy said...

I read the BBC article when it came out April 8. Wouldn't it be lovely if the powers that be in KSA actually HEARD and understood what she is saying and start the processes needed.

I do understand what she says about women driving. Makes sense and I imagine not many have even considered her reasons for not pushing it. It is unfortunate that there is no public transit available in KSA.

Chiara said...

Wendy-Thanks for your comment. It would be good if her words and those of others with cogent proposals were taken seriously forward toward action plans. Probably a long time coming unfortunately.

I also found her reasoning about women driving compelling, even though there are both activist and practical benefits to the driving campaign.

Thanks again for your comment.


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