For many outsiders, I think the current debate over gender mixing in Saudi Arabia can either be seen as a) a fascinating change to a very conservative society, or b) a sign for a society that is stuck in the 19th century. Nevertheless, I think it is a good thing that we are having this debate, for I have always said that as long as they are not killing each other, people should be allowed to talk.
What is more interesting this time around is that the debate is playing out amongst conservatives in contrast to the usual conservatives vs liberals bickering. Ahmad al-Ghamdi is not just a shiekh; he is a senior official at the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a bastion of orthodox conservatism in the country, and the institution which seems to believe it has a duty from God to enforce their moral code on society, including segregation of men and women.
To have one of its loyal sons attacking some of the basis on which they operate daily is nothing short of astonishing. Al-Ghamdi has been working in the Commission for the past fifteen years. He said he has had these opinions for almost ten years but he never had the courage to publish them. Why now? Obviously because the atmosphere has changed. The opening of KAUST and its aftermath made the needed room for this debate to expand enough that even a shiekh like al-Ghamdi can now publicly speak out without fear.
Most conservatives were outraged. Many of them denounced al-Ghamdi and his ideas. Even the grand mufti, who typically stays out of similar debates, weighed in heavily to criticize al-Ghamdi in his sermons, though without naming him. Last week a group of young religious men stood at the door of al-Ghamdi’s house demanding to mix with his wife and daughters. It was a pathetic attempt to embarrass him. They were later arrested, but the disturbing thing is that some people who disagree with him, including a professor of Islamic studies in Makkah, saw nothing wrong in what these young men did.
When confronted that his opinions contradict the field work of subordinates in Hia’a, Ahmad al-Ghamdi prefers to avoid details. Instead, he says the Commission needs to be reformed, and that they have been working in that direction. But is this true? Is Hai’a reforming? Or should I ask, can it be reformed?
Reform is the promise that came with the new chief of CPVPV shiekh Abdulaziz al-Humain, who has been absolutely silent on this whole al-Ghamdi controversy. Where does he stand in all of this? What does he think about this saga?
The rumors of sacking al-Ghamdi made this all more fascinating, but provided little concrete conclusions. Earlier this week, the state news agency distributed a statement from the Commission about four new appointments in Hai’a, including a replacement for al-Ghamdi. But few hours later, SPA withdrew the item and asked newspapers not to run it. A spokesman for Hai’a told al-Hayat daily the news about new appointments were inaccurate.
So what happened here exactly? We can think of few theories. It could be that the old guard in Hai’a wanted to get back at al-Ghamdi for what he said about them, and did this without al-Humain’s knowledge. When al-Humain knew about this he cancelled it. Another theory is that it was al-Humain’s decision to get rid of al-Ghamdi who has become too hot to handle, but then someone high above reversed the decision. You can never underestimate the powers to be in Saudi Arabia, especially that al-Ghamdi is riding the new liberal wave in the country that Prince Saud al-Faisal talked about.
We probably will never know the truth. But what we know for sure is that Ahmad al-Ghamdi and his opinions are here to stay. At least for the time being. A picture is worth a thousand words, it is often said.
Another question: is this debate really changing how the general public feel about gender mixing? I would say: No. Socio-religious beliefs are very difficult to change. Even more difficult in a conformist society like ours. I think that people who are pro-mixing would feel validated as someone from the other side jumped the ship, while anti-mixing people would simply dismiss it as an individual case that can’t shake their long held convictions.
For examples, look at hospitals which have always been some of the few places in the country where men and women work side by side. I currently train at a hospital pharmacy in Hofuf. The pharmacy has separate windows to serve male and female patients, but from the inside pharmacists and technicians of both sexes work together without segregation. To reduce dispensing errors, a new policy has been recently implemented where some female pharmacists work on the male window while some male pharmacists work on the female window.
I asked a female colleague, let’s call her Zainab, what is it like to work on the male window. “Work is work,” she said, “it’s the same for me here or there.” A male colleague who was in earshot, let’s call him Basheer, turned to me and asked, “would you let your wife work in a place like this?” I was shocked by the question, but I calmly replied that I certainly would. I said it is a respectful and professional work environment, so what’s the problem? I glanced quickly at Zainab who was standing next to me, then asked him: do you find anything dishonorable or disgraceful about working here?
Basheer said that some guys are jealous and can’t let their wives mix freely with men. “I’m that kind of guy,” he added. I was struck by the hypocrisy of what he said. He finds it acceptable for him to be here and work with other women, but apparently the same rules don’t apply to his wife. This kind of hypocrisy, however, is nothing new. It is a typical symptom of the double standards many Saudis practice in their lives everyday.
It will take time for the general public’s perception of gender mixing to change, and nobody knows how long it will take. Probably a very long time. As with everything else in Saudi Arabia, I’m not holding my breath.