What’s so incredibly amazing about the above photograph? It’s a picture of the Saudi King and his brother (who is tagged to be Abdullah’s successor) posing with some 40 abaya-clad women, most of whom miraculously have their faces revealed. Not only is it amazing that we are privy to these women’s smiling faces, the fact that they are actually in the same room together with unrelated men is huge. Huge for a country that can get you a whipping and jail time for mingling with someone of the opposite sex, even if you happen to be an 80-year-old woman and the male is, say, 25.
The photograph, showing King Abdullah and his brother and heir apparent, Crown Prince Sultan, alongside 40 women dressed in abayas appeared with little explanation in several newspapers with close ties to the royal family.
The women were described as participants in a “National Dialogue Forum on Society and Health Services”.
Interesting things are happening in the kingdom. There appears to be a battle royale taking place between the hardline, religious factions in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s royal family that seem to be a tad more open to changing some of the prehistoric, oppressive dictates regarding social rules of conduct. Recently, they have become more open to allowing women to drive, and apparently (with the publishing of the photo) are now leaning towards being more accepting of the mingling of sexes in public, and it’s about time.
Although the photo might seem as if it came out of left field, apparently there is conjecture that the royals might have had some say in the reinstatement of Saudi cleric and chief of the Mecca religious police, Al-Ghamdi, who was fired after he claimed there is nothing in Islam that advocates separation of the sexes. The photo is a very promising sign for women and the Saudi public at-large.
The photograph of the king “mixing” unabashedly with a group of smiling professional women is all the more important because of two extra pieces of symbolism.
The presence of the crown prince suggests that the king’s promotion of the rights of women has the backing of the royal family and is likely to continue after his death.
The king, who is 85, last year opened a science university in his name where mixing is specifically permitted, and appointed the country’s first woman minister.
Of course, the women who participated in this trail-blazing meeting were elated. In one of the newspapers one of the participants, Dr. Samia al-Amoudi had high praise and gratitude for the king for
“..the appreciation he expressed towards the role of Saudi women, and for his political realisation of the importance of the role women play in pushing forward the wheel of development”.
She added: “The world realises that the leaders are writing history through the dialogue in which women took part.”
Thanks to a forward-looking royal family, Saudi Arabia seems to be inching towards a more modern, less oppressive society, although we’re talking centimeters, not feet. But it’s a start. And they’ll still have to deal with the ultra-religious elite who will probably have to b dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Hopefully with a more modern, progressive attitude some of their other major faults will fall by the wayside.