In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Adbulrahman Al-Rashed comments on the recent flurry surrounding Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamidi’s appearance on TV with his unveiled wife and declaration that Islam does not require women to be veiled in order to protect their modesty. In addition to receiving a negative reaction — and threats — from some, the Grand Mufti also jumped in to state that he was in error.
Al-Rashed points out that by going on TV in this way, the sheikh has opened new ground for discourse in Saudi Arabia. Instead of private conversations undertaken in homes, issues of modernization and reform are now finding public fora, including social media. This, he says, can only be for the good.
Why did Saudi Arabia’s Sheikh Ghamidi succeed?
The enormity of stock market losses, the drop in oil prices for the first time in years, ISIS massacres, terrorists’ attacks in Riyadh and its suburbs and the football fever have all faded in Saudi Arabia this week in the shadow of one single story. Sheikh Ahmad Qassem al-Ghamidi appeared with his unveiled wife on television. According to Saudi local standards, this is tantamount to a nuclear bomb and the story soon developed into a controversy that hasn’t settled yet on all platforms and levels.
This may seem like a silly issue in any other Muslim country but in Saudi Arabia it has shocked and angered many and become an amazing surprise to those in support of Ghamidi’s move. The event thus confirms a severe division within Saudi society which consists of movements that express its diversity. Some threatened to sue Al-Ghamidi, though I don’t know over what! While other considered him a modernizing pioneer whom history will immortalize. The certain truth is that Sheikh Ghamidi has shocked Saudi public opinion and reshuffled views once again – although many before him have made such a move, he’s actually the first cleric to do so. Ghamidi has assumed influential religious posts and has accepted to be challenged by his rivals who accused him of hypocrisy and advising others of what he cannot do. It’s on colleague Badria al-Bishr’s show on MBC television that Ghamidi appeared with his unveiled wife in defiance of others, and Saudi media arenas became gripped in this controversy ever since.
Arab News reports that a number of Saudis are planning to sue Sheikh al-Ghamdi. As al-Rashed notes in his piece, however, what grounds they might find for suing is a pretty big question.
A couple of days ago, the former head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Mecca said that there’s no religious obligation for Muslim women to cover their faces. Today, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti says that’s mistaken. He points to two verses from the Quran which he says do require covering.
Retract remarks and repent, Grand Mufti advises Al-Ghamdi
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH – Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Aal Alsheikh has asked Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, former Makkah chief of Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia), to repent for his recent comments on niqab (face veil) which have created a lot of controversy in the country.
During a local program presented by Dr. Badriya Al-Bishr, a prominent Saudi media personality, Al-Ghamdi said women were not required to wear niqab (face veil). Al-Ghamdi was accompanied by his wife without a niqab.
Grand Mufti said there are Quranic verses that say hijab (head cover) is obligatory for each and every Muslim woman and that women should cover their faces, MBC.net reported. Alsheikh cited the following Quranic verses:
Al Arabiya TV reports on the storm of social media following the appearance of a Saudi cleric — formerly head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Mecca — in which he stated that the wearing of the veil is not obligatory for Muslim women. While Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi received abuse and threats from some, he also received support from others on Twitter.
Al-Ghamdi has raised the ire of conservatives in Saudi Arabia on earlier occasions, as when he stated that music was not forbidden by Islam and that men and women working together was entirely fine in principle.
A Saudi cleric caused massive controversy this week when he said on a prominent television program that contrary to what some Muslims believe, women are NOT required to wear the niqab (face veil) and are allowed to use make-up and other beauty products.
To further strengthen his argument, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamidi brought his wife UNVEILED to last Saturday’s “Badria,” a talk show hosted by the renowned Saudi media personality Badria al-Bishr on Al Arabiya’s sister channel, MBC. (Episode can be watched here).
Ghamdi, who is a former head of the Holy City of Makkah’s branch of the Saudi Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (commonly known as the Religious Police), was discussing a fatwa (religious edict) which he had issued previously, permitting women to show their faces and wear make-up.
In another small step toward diversifying the Saudi economy away from petroleum, Saudi Arabia will soon have its own chocolate factory. Saudi Gazette reports that the Mars company is opening its first chocolate factory in the Kingdom next week. The company says it will be focusing its attention on bringing women into the workplace, but does not yet have firm plans ready to be announced.
Mars treat for Saudis: A chocolate factory in Rabigh
Selma Roth | Saudi Gazette
JEDDAH — Following an initial investment of $60 million and allocation of an additional $150 million over the next decade, Mars Saudi Arabia will open on Tuesday its first chocolate factory in the Kingdom at King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) in Rabigh.
During a press conference on the occasion of the inauguration here on Monday, Sami Darouni, Mars, Inc. regional president of the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, said although Mars had been present in the Kingdom for over 30 years, he was very proud that the first chocolate factory in this country and the third in the region — following plants in Dubai and Egypt — is now up and running.
“We’re very proud to say that we have the Platinum status” at the Ministry of Labor’s Nitaqat program, as 60 percent of our associates are Saudi employees, Darouni said, using the word “associates” for the employees hired at the factory, a term Mars uses to reflect its culture of equality.
In Saudi Arabia, many believe they simply need domestic servants — maids, housekeepers, nannies, drivers. The problem is that many cannot actually afford them. The result is that servants go unpaid, sometimes for years.
Now, reports Arab News, the government is stepping in, in the name of transparency, with new regulations.
If a family has less than SR15,000 (US $4,000) monthly income, they’re going to be ineligible to hire servants. Domestic workers will be paid a minimum wage of SR2,000 (US $533) per month. Recruitment offices will be required to publish both the would-be servant’s nationality and professions. In this way, women qualified to serve as house-cleaners do not end up as nannies for newborns.
It’s an improvement. Restricting the number of those able to hire drivers, though, is going to negatively affect Saudi women. On the other hand, it will increase pressure to permit Saudi women to drive.
Salary below SR15,000 per month? Forget hiring housemaid or driver!
JEDDAH: IBRAHIM NAFFEE
In a major move to streamline the recruitment of domestic labor from foreign countries, a top official has said that Saudis and expatriates should be drawing salaries exceeding SR15,000 per month in order to be eligible to recruit housemaids or drivers.
The Head of the Recruitment Committee in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry Yehya Al-Maqboul pointed to the domestic labor exporting countries having laid down requirements for their nationals prior to sending them to work in the Kingdom.
“This condition will ensure the rights of domestic workers in light of rising rents and cost of living. It will also reduce the delays in paying domestics their monthly salaries which will exceed SR2000,” Al-Maqboul said.
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, is noted for having said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” It seems that the sentiment applies when it comes to Saudis and abayas, according to this report from Arab News.
Dammam University, in the Eastern Province city of that name, appears to have issues with non-black abayas. The claim is that colored abayas detract from the dignity of the university. M’kay… I guess it could be analogized to a ban on wearing shorts and flip-flops at an American university, not that any but a religiously-affiliated university would seek to impose such a ban. But all universities in Saudi Arabia are religiously-affiliated, in one way or another.
I do find it peculiar, though, that though “modesty” is being imposed by head-to-toe coverings, the actual color of the coverings matters. Does a blue or green abaya conceal less than a black one? This might be an interesting research project for one studying physics or optics or human psychology.
Dammam University has launched a campaign against colorful abayas after a number of girls were caught without the customary black outer covering mandatory in educational institutions.
Supervisors at Dammam University confirmed that the campaign against the wearing of colored abayas had begun in all their colleges. They pointed out that although colored abayas are easily available in the market, female students are required to abide by the rule of wearing black as a sign of respect to the educational environment.
Female students also said that supervisors and security employees had begun implementing the campaign since last week and that any girl found in violation of the rule would be penalized. They also said that they had been warned that all violations would be documented and filed. They were also expected to abide by the instructions which authorities say promote modesty in dress and appearance.
While the need for women to work in Saudi Arabia is apparent, not all Saudis are comfortable with the idea, particularly if it involves women working outside the home or — gasp! — working with unrelated males.
Saudi Gazette reports that at least women’s working in hotels is becoming more acceptable. The broader society is no longer (or at least, not as much) jumping to conclusions about those women’s morality. Not only does this make it easier for women to take up the jobs, but hoteliers report that women make better employees, less likely to change jobs.
Stigma of Saudi women working in hotels gradually disappearing
Saudi Gazette report
AL-KHOBAR – A group of Saudi women who have been working in the hotel industry said the stigma attached to women in this field is disappearing, Al-Hayat daily reported.
Until a few years ago, women in such jobs were frowned upon by many members of society. As a result, few women worked in the hotel industry because of fears that they would find it difficult to get married as most men disapproved of marrying hotel employees, especially receptionists.
However, the past four years have seen a gradual shift in the negative views associated with hotel industry jobs, thanks to the Ministry of Labor’s laws requiring hotels to hire more women.
Foaz Al-Zahrani, director of marketing for a hotel in Dammam, said women working in the hospitality industry are viewed with more respect today as they have shown to the world they can be trustworthy and professional. “No doubt the ministry’s regulations have helped in changing the negative view on us,” Al-Zahrani said.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor has restated its ruling that women employed in the private sector are entitled to 10 weeks of maternity leave. Those women who have been with the company for three or more years get full pay for the period; those with less, get half-pay, but do not lose vacation pay.
The report in Saudi Gazette also notes that women now comprise 11.6% of the Saudi workforce, up from 2.7% in 2010-2011.
10-week paid maternity leave in private sector
Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — The Ministry of Labor has defended private sector employees’ right to maternity leave by saying any woman who works in the private sector should receive a maternity leave of four weeks prior to her due delivery date and six weeks following the delivery.
The entire period of maternity leave should be fully paid if the employee has been working with the same employer for three years.
An official source at the ministry told Al-Madina daily that employers are required to pay female employees half their salaries during the 10-week maternity leave if they have been employed for a minimum of 12 months. Salaries are due before employees take their maternity leave.
“Employers do not have to give their female employees paid annual vacation if an employee availed of maternity leave with full salary. Employees who only received half salaries during maternity leave should get the due half salaries during annual vacation,” he said.
Cinemas may see a renaissance in Saudi Arabia, Arab News reports. A committee of four government agencies — including the all-important Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — is said to have signed off on a decision to permit cinemas to reopen in the Kingdom.
Exactly how they will be regulated is not addressed in the article. The article does, however, credit the success of the Saudi film “Wadjda” as playing an important role in coming to the decision.
The green light has been given for establishing cinema houses in Saudi Arabia, following the reported agreement of four government entities.
A source said relevant authorities assigned to take this decision include the Ministry of Interior, the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia).
He said the SCTA and the audiovisual commission have a direct interest in the matter, while the other two are concerned with consultations and coordination.
The first people who introduced cinema to Saudi Arabia were foreigners working in Aramco (now Saudi Aramco), during the 1930s; in the 1990s they became available to Saudis at their sports clubs.
Saudi Gazette reports that the Associated Press release last week that suggested that Saudi Arabia was about to permit some women to drive was erroneous. The country’s Shoura Council — reported to have been discussing the issue — denies that it had recommended changes in the country’s prevailing practice.
The regulations the AP article reported are very much in line with what people expect to happen, but apparently the report is premature at best. The AP reporter, Ali Al-Shihri, has been reliable, but it seems he got burned by his source on this story. It’s entirely possible that his source was trying to create new facts on the ground. Or to make sure they never happened.
Shoura denies reports on women driving
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — Shoura Council spokesman Dr. Muhammad Al-Muhana denied reports published by foreign news agencies on Friday that the Council has approved women driving.
The Shoura Council has not issued any decisions regarding women driving, Al-Madina Arabic daily quoted Dr. Al-Muhana as saying on Saturday.
The Associated Press quoted a Shoura Council member without identifying him or her that the Council made the recommendations in a closed session held in the past month. Under the said recommendations, only women over 30 would be allowed to drive and they would need permission from a male relative — usually a husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son. They would be allowed to drive from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday through Wednesday and noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
The said conditions also require that a woman driver wear modestly and no make-up, the official was quoted as saying by the news agency. Within cities, they can drive without a male relative in the car, but outside of cities, a male is required to be present.
While a certain US political party tried, unsuccessfully, to make an issue of a supposed “war on women” during the last election, it’s clear that Saudi Arabia has a bigger problem. But we knew that.
Saudi Gazette provides some figures, though, that indicate Saudi women are earning only 56% of what men earn. And that’s the lowest ratio in the GCC. According to the paper’s figures, Saudi women, on average, earn in the area of US $1,000 per month, compared to a bit over US $1,500 for men.
Saudi women employees paid ‘almost half as men’
Saudi Gazette report
DAMMAM — The disparity in wages between men and women in the Gulf region is the largest in Saudi Arabia, Makkah daily reported.
According to statistics published by the World Economic Forum for 2014, Saudi women earn on average only 56 percent of the wages earned by men.
Qatari working women came first worldwide, earning on average 81 percent of the wages paid to men, followed by Emirati women with 79 percent, Omanis with 74 percent, Bahrainis with 71 percent and Kuwaitis with 63 percent. Saudi labor law prohibits salary differences based on gender, according to a ministerial decree.
Assistant Deputy Minister of Labor Fahd Al-Tekhaifi would not explain whether this directive applies to the private sector.
According to statistics issued by the Ministry of Labor for 2013, the average wages for men in the services sector was SR5,139 a month, compared to SR3,447 for women (67 percent).
Writing at Foreign Policy, Caryle Murphy — who has spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia — reports that the fundamentalist view of Islam promoted by the state and supported by large parts of the population, is coming under pressure.
On both social and political fronts, the most conservative aspects of the “authorized” Salafist interpretation of Islam is being questioned by Saud youth. They do not, of course, have the field to themselves. There are those who continue to see the government as too liberal, too inclined to “succumb to foreign influence.” The government itself has vested interests, of course. But increasingly, individual Saudis are willing to question the assertions that have been drilled into them since early school years. Some, indeed, are willing to acknowledge their agnosticism or atheism, knowing that they could be legally punished for expressing such views.
The article is worth reading in its entirety.
Questioning the Faith in the Cradle of Islam
In Saudi Arabia, a new generation is pushing back against the government’s embrace of fundamentalism. But is the kingdom ready for nonbelievers?
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghamdi’s long, bushy beard and red-checked headscarf are emblems of his conservative approach to Islam, which is no surprise for a man who once supervised the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Mecca.
But it was something surprising about Ghamdi that brought me to his apartment in a scruffy, low-income section of Jeddah in the sweltering summer of 2011. I wanted to know why he had announced that, after extensive research, he could find no Islamic basis for Saudi society’s most distinctive feature: its strict gender segregation.
As his wife, sister, and mother listened in with obvious pride, Ghamdi explained that he could no longer take “at face value” religious rulings that gender mixing is haram — that is, religiously prohibited. “I wanted to go to their underpinnings, so I began collecting all the texts relating to this matter from the Quran and the Sunna [examples from the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed],” he said. “My conclusion was that not a single text or verse in the Quran and Sunna specifically says that mixing is haram. The word ‘mixing’ is not even in the Quran.”
Instead, he said he found plenty of texts “that proved that mixing happened at the time of Prophet Mohammed” and that “it is just another part of normal life.”