Mary Dejevsky: Women's rights cannot be forced on Arab societies

It's over-optimistic to believe prosperity will bring a complete change in outlook
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The Independent Online

In a tentative lifting of the mystical curtain it has drawn around itself, Saudi Arabia recently permitted the estimable campaign group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), to conduct a survey inside the country. Its findings – reported in yesterday's Independent – are pretty much as you would expect.

The country's "male guardianship of women and policies of sex segregation stop women from enjoying their basic rights". Women are treated like "legal minors" who are not entitled to authority over their own lives or those of their children. They must "often" – note, though, that this is "often", not "always" – receive permission from a man to work, travel, study, marry or consult a doctor.

Now I am sure that all this is true. I have no illusions about the status of the fair sex in the Saudi kingdom, or indeed in many other Muslim countries. By and large, women there do not enjoy the rights and opportunities their Western sisters take for granted.

Where I diverge from Human Rights Watch – and the Western liberal consensus it represents – is in its rallying cry of a conclusion. "Saudi women," says HRW's researcher, with the admirable urgency of the committed, "won't make any progress until the government ends the abuses that stem from these misguided policies."

I am sure that HRW thinks it is being moderate and pragmatic in calling for an end only to the "abuses" rather than the sum of "misguided policies" this country pursues.

In so saying, however, the campaigners are not only judging Saudi Arabia by standards it would consider alien, but demanding that it forsake the whole philosophical, cultural and social system on which it is built. That is, to put it mildly, unrealistic.

We Westerners might not like it, but there are only two ways that change of such profundity is going to come about. One is by the same small, gradual stages that ended the ducking stool in Europe and eventually brought us property rights and the vote. The other is by revolution, with all the chaos and upheaval that would entail.

Neither eventuality should be excluded. But it would be overoptimistic to believe that prosperity, Western-style development and education will necessarily bring about the complete change in outlook that the adoption of Western-style gender equality would require. Even if, which I doubt, we were to witness mass burnings of chadors or burqas in Riyadh, many social norms of Islam are likely to endure.

I say this after a short visit to Qatar, one of the most liberal and fast-developing of the Gulf states. In Qatar, as in Bahrain and more recently Kuwait, women may vote and stand for office. Women completely covered from head to toe mingle, apparently without noticing, with others in Western dress. Women work outside the home; they are high-powered professionals, as well as lowly manual workers.

The pace of new building in the capital, Doha, is breathtaking. Vast tracts of land have been reclaimed; high-rise and low-rise developments jostle for space; hotels, offices and housing – everything is shiny and new. Even the old souk has been demolished and rebuilt to make it more ordered and hygienic. The big complaint from residents is about night-time drilling: business responds that it is too hot to work many hours by day.

What is most striking, however, is that all this frenetic development has not displaced certain basic principles of social and religious life. Major – mostly Western chain – hotels are built with separate chapels for men and women. Guest rooms are equipped with prayer mats and a discreetly placed arrow, showing the direction to Mecca. Meat is Halal; drinks are soft; al-Jazeera presents the regional take on world news.

What Qatar shows is that it is quite possible to have prosperity, development and education while retaining principles that might be thought incompatible. New technology – computers, mobile phones, satellite communications – is ubiquious. But it can be harnessed as effectively to someone else's priorities and worldview, as it can be to ours. To operate an iPod does not require a Western outlook. Your ringtone might be the Muslim call to prayer.

The view that women in a Muslim society necessarily enjoy fewer rights than we do may or may not be true. I am repeatedly told by British Muslim women that the Koran is highly protective of women – interpretation, of course, is all. But when campaigners demand an end to such "misguided" policies as segregation by sex, what they are actually saying is that Western ways rule. One look at the newly prosperous Gulf states should call that assumption into question.