“I found my identity in this dress and I encouraged women and girls from Hijaz and Najd to wear their traditional clothes. I wanted us to be free from the siege of western clothes” said Dr. Hatoon Ajwad Al- Fassi, the historian, author, women rights advocate and mother. In an exclusive interview, she talked to 7Dnews about Islamic reform, the history of women in Eastern Arabia, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and the price of standing up for her ideals
The deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman has promised to transform Saudi Arabia into a modern Islamic state, why do you think this is important and how do you think religious reform can be achieved?
Islamic reform is very important. We need to be open to review religious texts, interpretations and make a serious effort to recognise and advance women’s status in Islam. Women’s interpretations of Quran and Islamic texts should be introduced in Saudi Arabia as there are lots of efforts by Muslim women compiled and presented by Musawah 1. I am hoping to host one of Musawah’s meetings in Riyadh someday. I have a lot of hope in giving Muslim feminists the chance to contribute to modernising Islam.
As a historian, specialising in the history of women in Eastern Arabia, why do you think it is important for the societies in the Gulf to learn about their ancestors?
It is very important for us to know our roots and to understand ourselves and where we come from. We are not a society that emerged with the discovery of oil that can easily be uprooted. It gives us a glimpse into our history in which women used to have different roles in society. We need to look even before Islamic history because Islam was not sent to a primitive and ignorant nation, but it came to a nation that has history and heritage. Allah has chosen this nation to be the first receiver of Islam for a reason.
How do you see the future of Saudi women?
I am seeing a bright future for womens’ rights in Saudi Arabia. We are witnessing reforms that grant women their rights, it began in 2011 when King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and to run for municipal councils’ elections where women have won seats. In 2013 King Abdullah appointed 30 women to Shura council. The reforms in the past six months were huge including lifting the ban on women driving. Currently deconstructing guardianship is being discussed. There are campaigns started by women and girls demanding to annul guardianship. I see our efforts and struggles yielding results. People are realizing the importance of women’s participation in public life. The leadership is aware of the importance of women’s participation and we are on the right path to empower women.
Women in Saudi Arabia got the right to vote and compete for municipal councils, the ban on driving was lifted, and guardianship is being discussed. What else do you think could be changed to advance the status of women in Saudi Arabia?
The recent reforms are very advanced and impressively took place in 6 months . We have seen the King ordering all the ministries and government agencies to provide services to women without asking about their male guardians. They were also instructed to justify why they needed women to have male guardians. Even for education inside Saudi Arabia, male guardian consent is no longer needed.
There are also some judicial reforms, we learned recently that the obedience rule “Bait Altaa” 2 was abolished.
Women’s sports are also allowed now in schools and in public spaces. Sport and Physical Education colleges are enrolling women in Saudi Arabia. Competitions and marathons are being organized and women’s sports teams are being formed. Women are gaining the ownership of their bodies through sports.
Public spaces are becoming safer for women especially after getting rid of the religious police commission. The leisure and entertainment industry is flourishing, and it is available for both men and women, gender segregation is fading out and families go out together.
However, abolishing male guardianship over women is the most urgent demand, followed by releasing women from prisons, setting an age of majority for women on penalties as well as on rights and granting nationality to children from Saudi mothers and foreign fathers.
We gained our freedom of movement, but it is partially restricted by the guardianship. Women need their male guardian’s consent to travel and get a scholarship. Sometimes women marry anyone to get scholarship and be able to travel abroad.
2017 was the best year for Saudi women reform wise, are you hoping that much more will be done soon or the work will be carried on with those changes.
I do not have a say in those changes, but activists keep pushing for changes as much as they can. We do not have advisory roles to the government, but I use my pen to express my views in the newspapers and let our voice be heard. Those reforms need to be institutionalized. Women got the right to drive, but their male guardians can ban them from driving. There is a need for developing an anti-harassment bill that is currently in the works.
How do politics and culture in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf affect womens’ lives?
There was a time when those in authority dealt with women as their chinaware, to be taken out and shown to guests. Mohamed bin Salman is trying to improve the image of Saudi Arabia abroad not by showing off the set of his chinaware but through making real reforms that will benefit the women of Saudi Arabia.
We have cultural issues that impact women’s lives negatively and are reflected in laws. Women who do not return home for any reason are considered criminals. Some of them are escaping domestic violence from their families.
There is also the practice of divorce of descent 3 , which is a practice from the pre -Islamic era which was abolished by prophet Mohammed who blessed the marriage of his cousin to a previously enslaved man (Maowla). Recently the court divorced a couple who did not want to be separated and had a daughter together after two years of marriage because their families discovered that the man had lied about his descent. This is sad and unfair.
Would those reforms impact on womens’ status in other Gulf countries?
Those reforms are going to impact women in other Gulf countries for sure. Women in the Emirates are already demanding the abolition of male guardianship. A blogger in Kuwait said that the Saudi guardianship campaign made them rethink the things that they have taken for granted and their perceived position as having more rights than Saudi women. The impact of those reforms will be extended to all women in Muslim countries, especially when addressing issues of Islamic reform.
You are famous for your Hijazi dresses, could you please tell me about them?
This outfit was worn by urban women in Hijaz cities such as Mecca, Jeddah, Altaif, Almadina, Yunbou until the 1950’s. My grandmother used to wear it. After that era, women started to wear modern western clothes.
I started to wear it in 1983 in Al Riyadh on pretty much a daily basis at university, formal events, conferences. I would never be spotted in a public event not wearing it. That was a time when I was young and searching for my own identity, not a Western identity. I sometimes wear western casual clothes but not in the presence of foreign nationals. I also wanted to give publicity to the Hijazi identity and culture in contrast to the Najdi dominant culture.
In the beginning, I found practical difficulties in putting it on, but my aunt helped me and showed me how to wear it. The headpiece is composed of five scarves or pieces: Almodawara, Almihrama, the braids, the scarves to wrap the braids in. Almodawara is a rare piece. Then there is Alsideiria, which is a crop top with a high neck with two decorating buttons one in the neck and the other in the waist. I got those buttons from my late aunt may her soul rest in peace. It also includes trousers and an outer dress called kurta.
I found my identity in this dress and I encouraged women and girls from Hijaz and Najd to wear their traditional clothes. I wanted us to be freed from the siege of western clothes. Through these outfits, I am sending a message that we have our own costumes and dresses and Westerners are not the ones who invented fashion and clothes. My outfits became part of my personality, I appeared in Saudi television for the first time in 1994 wearing it.
We need to show the diversity of Saudi culture and not to define it only by Najdi culture. Recently there has been interest in this diversity, mainly because of the tourism industry and its economic benefits. This came after continuous demands to acknowledge diversity in Saudi Arabia simply through showing off different traditional dressing styles. For example, Asiri women do not have to replace their big hats and Toubes with scarves and Abaya. Now the leadership is conscious of the importance of diversity and they are investing in it.
The image of Saudi women on Western media does not reflect reality. Why is that and what could be done to change it?
It is mostly stereotypical. We are seeing a shift from the oppressed helpless figure to the open and progressive and revolutionary. Stereotypes are easier, this is why they are favored by the media. I try to give Saudi women a voice in the media, but I cannot represent them. There are millions of Saudi women with different lives and stories. Women in Saudi Arabia come from diverse geographical areas, from different classes and have different political views ranging from the far left to the far right. There should be an understanding that women are not a unified category. I think there is an improvement in the representation of Saudi women in the media as many women are traveling abroad for scholarships and some are political opponents. They are outspoken about their views and issues.
Tell me about your daily struggle caused by being a women rights activist in a conservative society
Cyberbullying does not stop. I make a lot of efforts to stay cool in the face of those campaigns. I try not to give the harasser the chance to win and ruin my mood. They are so useless, full of racism and hatred and they use bad language. I have hope because the Saudi authorities are responsive to my reports and they asked me to compile the records of harassment incidents and submit them. I think this is organized bullying because when I report those accounts to twitter I get the history of their abusive messages to me and other women activists.
I got attacked a lot because my family is Sufi. I got really upset when they insulted my family, my husband or my children. Those people have no fear of Allah. I am aware this is the price of my activism and for standing up for my ideals. I have no option other than being strong and showing solidarity with other women activists who go through the same.
However, this has impacted my career at the University of Qatar. The head of the University of Qatar was influenced by the campaign #ImwiththeExpulsionofHatoon 4. The university is facing trouble over academic freedom in this instance. The head of the university stopped my lectures and debates in response to the twitter campaign. It is unfortunate because a university ought to enlighten society not be swayed by the crowds. The university should have taken action in my defence and my academic status, but they did nothing in this regard.
Then the Saudi Qatari crisis happened, and it saved the university from justifying ending my contract or continuing with it. I was not given any lectures in the past term or this term. The university is weak and was unable to face up to a society which is very conservative. Some of the people who attended my lecture there went on to put things in my mouth that I did not say.
I will continue to do what I believe in and I will use my column and look for all the available platforms to share my views.
- Musawah is a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family
- It is a rule that allows husbands to get a court order against their wives who leave the house and refuse to obey them
- It is a custom that states women should only be married to men of the same descent or a higher class decent. If the man cheated in his descent to marry a woman of a higher class than him, he will be forced to divorce her.
- A campaign was launched on twitter calling for the expulsion of Dr. Hatoon Alfassi from University of Qatar in March 2017 after she talked about male guardianship laws in the gulf countries in an event organised by students.