In Saudi Arabia, social norms begin to change

Eman Alhussein considers changes to the status of women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu performs during a concert in Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
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There was rapid change in the social life of Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Urbanisation led to modernisation. As a result, in 1979, a group of religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, arguing that the country did not follow the strict religious teachings they aspired to. The episode tested the traditional alliance between the government and the religious establishment for the first time. Subsequently, the Saudi government gave more power to the religious establishment.

The religious sahwa movement became a central force. Religion took centre stage once again. Schools hosted religious figures to give sermons. The culture of "religious cassettes" became a dominant trend. These tapes, which mostly dealt with issues relating to women, were handed out at weddings, gatherings and funerals and as gifts. Many Saudi Arabians gave in to this reality, but some sought entertainment overseas.

The influence and legitimacy of the religious authority was unquestionable, until recently.

For a long period, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as Haia, was able to stop and question people. They ordered women to cover their faces, called for shops to close at prayer time and patrolled the streets to prevent any “violations” of Islamic rules. In many cases, they would detain people, which would bring shame, not only to the person, but to the family as a whole.

In an unprecedented move last year, the Saudi government decided to reduce the role of the Haia. They can no longer question, detain or chase individuals. They can only report them to the police.

Parallel to this we have witnessed the establishment of the General Authority for Entertainment. For the past few months, this authority has been organising events for the first time in the kingdom. These events include music concerts, which many Saudis are considered prohibited under Islam.

Not surprisingly, the various entertainment events are causing a backlash on social media. Many religious clerics and citizens alike are voicing concern and disappointment in the entertainment authority. They consider these efforts as degrading the moral values of the Saudi people and promoting westernisation. The current changes also shed light on the different voices that are emerging within the conservative establishment. The official religious authority, headed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, remains silent about the new developments. Others criticised the entertainment authority. More than at any time before, conservatives in Saudi Arabia are divided among themselves.

It seems clear that the government is serious about opening up the country for entertainment, regardless of its previous stance. The cultural and social scene in Saudi Arabia is going through a massive transformation.

The entertainment experiment showed that, regardless of the religious establishment, the government is able to push a reform agenda. What was believed once to be an unbreakable alliance has proven to be otherwise.

Separately, Saudi women, inside the country and outside, are calling for the removal of the guardianship system that restricts their movements without the consent of their male guardians. Their demands have been trending on Twitter for more than 200 days now.

Reformist religious scholars and lawyers have both affirmed that the guardianship system has no basis in Islam and should be lifted. Yet the cultural and social conventions remain strong when it comes to the situation of women in Saudi Arabia.

Granting women more rights could be the next move in the reform process. Entertainment was a way to evaluate the reaction of the religious establishment and conservative Saudi society. Until now, there has been a strong sense of refusal and denial to the events hosted by the entertainment authority. This might demonstrate that many Saudis are still reluctant and unwilling to change. On the other hand, Saudi women argue that their issues are far greater than the need for entertainment, and should be dealt with immediately. A person can choose to go or not to go to a concert or an event. However, a Saudi woman cannot move freely without the consent of her male guardian.

The coming period will perhaps demonstrate the government’s vision regarding the situation of women. It might prove to be the most difficult issue the country has faced for some time.

Eman Alhussein is a researcher on Middle East affairs