03/03/2009, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Lingerie as a weapon in the fight for Saudi reforms

A campaign underway to lift ban on women working in lingerie stores puts the spotlight on reforms in the kingdom. In February Saudi king made major changes to powerful institutions, replacing ultra-conservative figures. Some people dubbed the changes as a “bold reform”; others see them instead as a way to reassert the central role of the state. Ultraconservatives are mobilising against TV stations owned by members of the ruling family.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lingerie is becoming a reason for talking about reforms in Saudi Arabia. In fact covered from head to toes, unable to drive a car or going out without a male “guardian” (father, husband, brother, etc.), Saudi women even have to rely on men to buy their underwear because under Saudi law they cannot work in stores that sell lingerie. The situation is such that Saudi academic Reem As’ad is leading a Facebook campaign to boycott lingerie shops that employ men.

In today’s edition Arab News also highlighted the absurdity of the situation in which typically female apparel like lingerie can only be sold by men. The problem is that such stores are the only places where that happens because men and women can buy any other item in any other store and be served by male or female employees.

“As’ad’s campaign might end without a result,” said the paper, “as she is not fighting a concrete law or body. She and her supporters are up against a way of thinking that insists that women stay at home. But that way of thinking is being challenged every day, and the appointment of a woman as a deputy minister a few days ago gives us hope that change is on its way.”

The paper, which is closely aligned with Saudi King Abdullah, also focused on the king’s Valentine’s Day reform, dubbed the Saudi Spring in the West, which includes a shake-up of the kingdom’s cabinet and key religious institutions with the replacement of ultraconservative figures with more open-minded members.

Similarly, the appointment of education expert Noura al-Fayez as deputy minister of girls’ education is significant step in the same direction. She now holds the highest post ever occupied by a woman in Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah’s changes are profound: four new ministers, new top judiciary chiefs and new members of the Ulema Council, as well as a new chief of the religious police (the feared and infamous Muttawa). Gone is Supreme Judicial Council head Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan who blocked reforms for years.

And for the first time ever the Ulema Council will include representatives of all four Sunni schools of religious law. Previously only the ultra-conservative Hanbali School was represented on the council.

‘Bold reform,’ Al-Hayat newspaper said in its headline, while the Saudi Gazette heralded the shake-up as a ‘boost for reform.’

“It is a clear sign of a major transformation in the kingdom,” wrote Arab News in an editorial article.

“Everything is fantastic,” said Ibrahim Mugaiteeb, head of Human Rights First Society.

But not everyone agrees.

For Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and a Persian Gulf analyst, King Abdullah’s “reforms” are not designed to modernise the kingdom but rather to build up the power of the state at the expense of religious leaders who had acquired substantial autonomy over the years.

Even on women’s rights things have not really changed, considering that 2009 was supposed to be the year when Saudi women received the right to vote in the next round of elections for the country’s municipal councils. Instead, the kingdom has apparently scrapped the elections altogether.

Whatever the case may be, religious traditionalists are not giving up easily.

Just yesterday a Saudi religious scholar accused a royal tycoon and another Saudi businessman of being “as dangerous as drug dealers” because the TV channels they own broadcast movies.

Youssef al-Ahmed, a professor in the Islamic law department at the ultraconservative al-Imam University, issued an edict in Saturday chastising Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, nephew of King Abdullah, and Waleed al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the late King Fahd.

The edict comes about six months after the former head of the kingdom's highest tribunal said it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV stations that show content deemed “immoral.”

Reform, it would seem, has still a long way to go. (PD)

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