Behind The Veil: Muslim Women And Our Friends
Chances are you were unaware that Bahrain is engaged in an intense internal debate. There is a serious move to reinstate sex segregation in it's national University. The debate has westerners are rare look into the reality of life in what is greater Arabia. There have been the inevitable debates, lobbying and student demonstrations on either side of the issue. At the fore, is the amazing spectacle of a modern society, albeit religiously subjugated, facing off against desert and Bedouin Islam.
Desert Islam is neurotic about sex- and anything remotely suggestive of sex. They believe that men and women, if allowed to mingle freely for even the shortest time, will end up in a sexual embrace. That is why sexual segregation is a fact of life in Universities in the region. In Saudi Arabia, men and women aren't just segregated. They attend different institutions. Interestingly, male teachers are allowed to interact with female students- provided they are in a different room- equipped with a video camera. If a female student has a question, she must use a telephone. Really.
In 2002, 15 girls were burned to death when the doors that would lead to their escape were barred by the Muttawa- religious police. They were concerned that the girls were not properly dressed- and thus were allowed to burn to death. In a perverse case of art imitating life, the Saudi Education Ministry forbade the teaching of ballet. Apparently, female anatomy might become discernible. So much for a real interpretation of an arabesque.
Now here is where it gets interesting. As the world has been moving towards free and more modern societies, the Arab world has actually been bucking the trend and going backwards. That is what Islamicization means- Wahabbi beliefs and practices are becoming more embedded. Bulgaria and Albania, only recently exposed to daylight, are far more open and socially aware.
Islamicization is in reality, a regression. Fifty years ago, as oil was being drilled and sold to a hungry world market, the Gulf region was relatively progressive- basking in the new wealth oil provided. There was plenty of alcohol, women didn't dress like nuns in over sized habits and the 'Turkish model,' the seperation of Mosque and state was the dinner table debate of choice. Modernization, it was believed, was inevitable.
Of course, the Wahabbis could have none of that. They were tribal, vicious, intolerant and anti western- in other words, they are the same Wahabbis we know today. Oil and money gave them power- something they had never really known. It is important to understand that in one generation, the 'House of Saud' went from being goat herders- literally- and woman beaters- also, literally- to becoming the world's great power brokers. The world beyond a days camel ride was unknown to them- again, literally. They were illiterate and uneducated. After they killed their way to the top, they, like all first generation new money, attempted to rewrite history.
Besides legitimizing themselves, they were determined to recast the world in an image they would dominate. While they may not have been able to turn European aristocracy into Bedouins, they could turn their subjects into desert dwellers, no matter how educated or progressive some might have been. They had Mecca, Median and the Quran- and they would use them to their advantage. There are educated Arabs that today, in the shadows, will bemoan the fact that Mecca is under Wahabbi dominion. A bit down the road, the Omani version of Islam, Ibadhism, is a much gentler version of that religion, predicated on tolerance. The Omanis practice what they preach- they have had diplomatic relations with Israel of one sort or another for years.
Still, Saudi Arabia is where the oil was- and oil money flowed. The Bedouins spent their money on mosques and their brand of stark, cold Islam. Money buys a lot of refrigerant.
Where Islam once showcased Mosques of great architecture and art, that was replaced with cold stark and drab buildings of no warmth. That coldness was to become a trademark of modern Islam, and was exhibited in more ways than one. Money went a long way in in the region and beyond- in Africa and the far east. Whabbism was here to stay.
In what was an incongruous coincidence, 1952 was to prove a pivotal year for the House of Saud. One of King Abdullaziz's sons - Nasir - made an extended trip to America, and learned to appreciate wine, women and song. Upon his return to Saudi Arabia, his newly acquired tastes and skill in carousing continued with a series of orgies, famously involving men and women. The partying stopped abruptly one night, when the spirits consumed in vast amounts ended up killing seven, including women.
Nasier was imprisoned, of course but the consumption of alcohol remained legal. That was to remain the case until Nasir's libertine brother, Mishari, got himself drunk one night and went out and shot the British consul dead, and succeeded in seriously wounding his wife. From that date forward, Saudi Arabia went dry, preferring to ban alcohol than exercise self restraint. Excess, of course, is a Royal privilege. Women and whoring around were not to be excised from the menu of pleasures, of course. Orgies, rapes and pedophilia were in order, as long as they were exercised in a discreet manner. As the party went on, women were increasingly made a visible- and by design, showcased, as an example of Arab virtue. The Hijab (veil) and Abaya (long black dress/cloak) are modern expressions of Islam. There is no historical record of such dress.
Now, here is the punch line. Tyrannies are not sustained at their pinnacle, but rather, they are supported from the bottom, where a system of informants and surveillance is a way of life. Some are motivated by money and material acquisition, others are motivated by promise of the hereafter. In a region where a woman who is reluctant to wear a Hijab or Abaya, the threat of violence if often enough to get her to bend.
Some will tell you that the adoption of Hijab and Abaya are a reaction to the modernity of the West. That is a lie- the adoption of those outward trappings is no more than a capitulation to Saudi and Wahabbi Islam and an insurance policy of sorts. In France, for example, women who choose not to wear those trappings are often subject to gang rape and worse, by roving gangs of Muslim youth. In Some northern European countries, non Muslim women are told that if they wish to avoid rape, they ought to change the way they dress. Muslim men, apparently, have no self control.
Time will tell whether or not segregation comes to Bahrain. It is important to understand what we are witnessing an attack on liberal Islam by our 'partners'- even as they tell us we share the same values.
This post was originally published om Sepetember 22, 2005.