Being ‘moral’ in Saudi Arabia: a crown of thorns?

By Fahad Faruqui A glittering crown on her head, Alexandria Mills stood at the center stage, in Sanya, China, celebrating … Continued

By Fahad Faruqui

A glittering crown on her head, Alexandria Mills stood at the center stage, in Sanya, China, celebrating her win as Miss World. Several thousand miles away, in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, another woman was also crowned but not for the way she sang, danced, or filled out a burkini (bikini is certainly off limits). We do not know if she could do any of these things and we don’t really know what she looks like– she was wearing a burqa. The winner Zainab Al-Khatam was crowned Queen of Beautiful Morals.

Here, the contestants are judged by their moral piety. I can’t help but ask if the kingdom has found a litmus test to measure one’s moral standing? If so, most Greek philosophers, who spent a lifetime deducing the essence of moral laws and ethics, would like to know the principle set for judging the competition. The 24-year-old sightless woman became the “morality queen” for devoting herself to the family after completing her schooling.

I recall a saying of a great Sufi master Ibn Ata’illah: “If you are aware of your humility, then you are arrogant.” How grounded is moral piety if it is honored with an award? Before we even pause to answer this philosophical question, it might be worthwhile to peak into the lives of those women who are condemned for not living up to the moral laws set by the society–dubious enough to stun both Immanuel Kant and David Hume.

A Saudi woman, now 42, filed a petition for permission to marry a man against her father and brother’s will five years ago. She has been living in a shelter for two years because of frequent battering–including beating with “hard tools” and being locked up in a bathroom–that sometimes results in her hospitalization. Despite the brutality and abuse, the court held that she was being “disobedient” to her father in July and her plea to revise the decision was rejected for the second time just recently. She was ordered to return to her family.

Earlier this year, a Saudi woman left the kingdom, after losing all hopes to live in Jeddah with her non-Saudi husband. She managed to work her way into marriage through express permission from her father, but had to run from one government office to another for a year to obtain a marriage permit. While marrying non-Saudi Muslims is discouraged as a policy (read my article on Saudi Arabia’s cruel marriage laws), wanting to marry by choice (or against a guardian’s will) is labeled “disobedient.” The doctor’s violent father and brother, both greedy of her monthly salary, disapproved of her marrying a colleague, because he is not from the same tribe as hers–a notion at odds with Islamic scripture.

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” Quran, Surat al-Hujarat (or The Rooms), verse 13.

If you’ve been following Saudi news, you’ve probably come across articles about spinsterhood in Saudi Arabia, suggesting misyar (marriage of convenience) and polygamy as solutions to the growing numbers of single and divorced women in Saudi Arabia. But the news is drastically different when it comes to Saudi men. Recently, Arab News boldly reported on misfar (a controversial travel marriage), in which a woman is in a lose-lose situation–she is used as a temporary “wife”, anywhere from a week to a month, and then discarded. Almost 900 children from such marriages have been relinquished in Egypt, where they live a life of obscurity, concealing their Saudi father’s fling.

As a Muslim man, I abhor this practice. Wedlock for sex and only sex for a set duration is anything but marriage. Clerics who sanctioned sugar daddy-sugar baby union under the umbrella of misfar were probably inspired by Julia Roberts-Richard Gere romance in “Pretty Woman,” but, sadly, they missed out the closing scenes.

Islam gives women the right to choose her spouse, unlike in the case of the 42-year-old woman who has been trying to get married for nearly a decade. “I will turn 43 in a few months. I don’t have many years left to build a family and have children,” said the doctor to an Arabic language daily Al Watan. (She has declined to speak to foreign press.) Qu’ran commands the believers to be dutiful to parents and care for them in old age, but nowhere is there a mention of blind submission.

A woman may willfully work to please her family, but it is no criteria for moral piety. Cordelia, in “King Lear,” is a morally sound character, but a terrible daughter as per Lear, who is only happy with his “pelican daughters,” until they ousted him. The only difference is that the foolish King is blinded by arrogance while the doctor’s father is blinded by greed and.

Moral piety is based on being virtuous and righteous at all times. A woman wanting to choose a partner cannot be labeled “disobedient” by any known facets of moral laws. Not many women have the will to challenge their legal guardians in a court–especially in light of justice miscarried in such cases–which makes me wonder how many women cave in to patriarchal pressure and strangle their dreams early on? For how many women would a crown of beautiful morals be a crown of thorns?

Fahad Faruqui is a writer and a TV/radio presenter. He read Philosophy of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies as an undergraduate at Columbia University and then pursued an M.S. in Journalism from its Graduate School of Journalism. He also studied classical Arabic in Jordan. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/fahadfaruqui. He can be reached via email: mff11@columbia.edu.

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