A writer from a distinguished Zaidi family has likened the treatment of Muslim women in Wahhabi Arabia, I mean, Saudi Arabia, to the way African Americans were treated 60 years ago, before they achieved their civil rights. After speaking directly to Saudi women about how they feel about being covered from head to toe and unable to participate freely in society, and inspired by the Zaidi principle of a just society, Abdullah Hamidaddin was moved to become a champion of their cause.
Abdullah Hamidaddin’s article includes the following quote from a Saudi sister fed up with being treated as an "irrational human being" by her male guardians:
"I am a "seduction". This sums up how I look into myself. I am in the eyes of everyone first and foremost a body that is desired. A body that must continuously be concealed so as to protect men from the evils of my beauty. My mind cannot be seen unless I hide my body. And to the degree that I reveal my body less is seen of my mind even if it was casual and modest. I don’t own myself. My life is a set of roles that I didn’t choose and have no right to question. My duties and "rights" are tailored for me by others, and I must be grateful for whatever comes. My feelings have no value. Few look at me as I am and consider what it is that I really want. Rarely am I looked upon as a rational being that has the right to be a full human, has the right to have a body, and has the right to act as she will without considering its impact on others. I have no decision. I am an all time minor. I pass from the guardianship of one to another. From my father, to my brother, my husband and then even my son. And if neither of those then to a judge who knows nothing of me or my needs. I am a tag. I am a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a wife but I am never simply a "me". Don’t believe those who tell you that they accept this with satisfaction. Whoever accepts this is either a woman afraid of the responsibility of independence individuality and humanity. Or a woman who has no more sense of her marginalized character while she is being treated as a minor. Any person is choked by this. Some of us reject silently. Some of us vocally. I cannot be silent. The situation chokes me. But I pay the price dearly. Look how people talk about me."
Commenting on this sister’s predicament, Hamidaddin writes:
“Feelings of frustration, anger, sadness of the way she is perceived manifest differently according to the woman's temperament. Some women rebel openly against norms and traditions. Some go further and reject religion silently or as the case of some openly and publicly such those who wrote against everything including religion. Some accept this subjugation unwillingly sometimes due to survival necessities. And then there is she who decides to wipe off herself to relieve herself from the inner struggle between her individuality and her restraints. I don’t blame those whose anger takes them far.....We may not be practicing racial segregation, but when we separate a woman from her humanness we are practicing segregation from humanity which in some ways may be lead to experiences worse than that those experienced by blacks."
To read more of Hamidaddin’s ground-breaking article, click on comments.
In neighbouring Yemen, not a Wahhabi state but a republic with a Zaidi and Sunni population, women are also under immense pressure to conform to the Wahhabi interpretation of women’s role (or lack of role to be more accurate).
We have already seen in my post “What is the Zaidi Position on the Burqa?” (in June section), that women’s groups in Yemen have blamed the Saudi funded Salafi/Wahhabi invasion of Yemen since the Afghan war, for the revival of the burqa in their country. It would appear that, when the salafi women wore it, the non-salafi husbands may have wanted to “keep up with the neighbours” in keeping their women-folk out of view.
The Qur’anic verses relating to hijab (which do not mention covering the face) are also quoted and discussed in the June post in this blog.
In response to that post, Imam Rassi society has confirmed that Zaidi fiqh, like 12 Imamer fiqh and moderate sunni fiqh, does not require women to cover their faces or stay out of public life. A scholar from Imam Rassi society writes:
“I do not know of any opinion that precludes women from public life! Indeed, the perfect model for women, Fatima az-Zahra, alayha as salaam, went out herself to demand her rights from the first caliph! The isolation and confinement that is practiced is probably more cultural than textual!
As far as the burqa, the Zaidi opinion is that only the khimar (head scarf) is obligatory for women. In a book of fiqh written by a contemporary scholar, he cited that the Zaydi opinion is that the only portion of a female body that can remain uncovered is the face and hands. There is even a minority opinion amongst the scholars that allow the feet to be uncovered. However, the general view is that only the face and hands. What's practised in Yemen may be more cultural than anything. A woman is free to wear niqab if she wants, but it would be incorrect to force it upon her as an obligation. As for child marriages, a precondition of marriage is that the person reaches the age of baligh (past puberty).”
The lack of female representation in the arenas of politics, religion, business, the Arts and the Sciences in Yemen, when compared with other Muslim countries such as Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia and Pakistan, raises questions about the whether Yemen’s Zaidi women are being treated according to the Zaidi principles of justice and social progress. This backwardness in the development of women’s role in society may be more to do with Yemen’s lack of education in general than with interpretations of Islam. Yemen has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the Muslim world, for males and females, and continues to struggle economically even more than the Muslim countries mentioned above.
It would be interesting to see how Zaidi ijtihad would respond to the need for reform regarding women’s rights and self determination if Zaidism flourished in a highly developed Muslim nation or a Western nation.