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February 7th, 2013, by Melody Moezzi

Melody Moezzi

Burkas, Babies and Warplanes

 

By calling on parents to dress their female babies in burqas in a television interview that ran on Islamic al-Majd TV last year (but only recently began to receive international media attention), Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdullah Daoud has garnered disgust and disdain from the civilized world. And by “civilized” here, I am referring to all sentient beings whose mental function exceeds that of sea anemone.

 

A burqa, for the record, generally refers to a cultural garment of debatable origin that covers a woman’s entire body, face and all—leaving only a slit or screen for sight. There is no mention of it in the Qur’an. In fact, it may not be worn during pilgrimage. Pilgrims, male and female, bare their faces to God as an ultimate metaphor for turning one’s mind, body and soul toward the Creator. Thus, given the fact that burqas are off limits within Islam’s holiest sites and during perhaps the most sacred of all Islamic rituals, it’s difficult to present a cogent argument in favor of the garb as a consequential expression of Islam.

 

Historically speaking, dressing in a burqa has always been a cultural practice, and to be clear, Islam is not a culture. It is a religion. (Muslims exist within myriad cultures; Arabs and North Africans combined comprise only about 20% of the world’s Muslim population.).  That said, I have no interest in learning more about any culture to which this cleric pledges allegiance.

 

Upon first reading about Sheikh Daoud and his vision for “protecting” all newborn girls, I couldn’t help but follow his modest proposal to it’s logical conclusion: Saudi Arabia must be in the midst of an epidemic of mass pedophilia, the likes of which the world has never seen.

 

Of course, I, like so many others, was outraged and sickened by this story. I was not, however, surprised.

 

Were the story about a cleric from any other country in the world, I would have immediately done a double take, just to confirm I wasn’t reading The Onion. But given it was about a cleric from Saudi Arabia, I didn’t blink. I shouldn’t have to explain why, but recent events demonstrate that the White House and Congress may need a refresher course on the Gulf nation.

The United States is on the verge of closing the largest arms deal in US history, slated to send up to 60-billion-dollars worth of warplanes to Saudi Arabia—with the option of a 30-billion-dollar bonus package aimed at beefing up the Kingdom’s naval forces. The American reasoning here? In a nutshell: A stronger Saudi Arabia equals a weaker Iran; Iran is bad, and human rights are irrelevant.

 

For one, the Iranians could interpret a move like this as a declaration of war. At the very least, it would likely provoke Iran to further strengthen its own military forces and sink its heels in even deeper on the nuclear issue.  I can’t envision a result that wouldn’t translate into a full-out Middle East arms race.

 

Furthermore, by closing this deal, the US promises to alienate its strongest ally in the fight for a free, secular, and democratic Iran: the people. If anyone is going to topple the regime in a positive, meaningful and sustainable way, it will be Iranians themselves—by themselves. The protests that followed the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 gave the world a glimpse of what Iranians are capable of.  Whether the people will rise up again this election season is anyone’s guess. But whatever the case, US intervention—through a CIA-sponsored coup, or a Shah whose gaud and excess puts Liberace to shame, or seemingly-endless new sanctions, or giant arms shipments meant to intimidate, or insults, or all-out war—hasn’t worked before, and it won’t work now. All this to say, no: A stronger Saudi Arabia does not ensure a weaker Iran by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it may well trigger the opposite.

 

Second, Iran may be bad, but compared to Saudi Arabia, it’s heavenly. Iran has never, for example, purchased 60-billion-dollars worth of arms from anyone. And whatever terrorists Iran has harbored, none has ever carried out an attack on American soil. Not one of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks was Iranian; fifteen of the nineteen, however, were Saudi citizens. I hate to bring this up, and I wouldn’t even think to do so, but it seems somewhat relevant when considering the shipment of tens of billions of dollars worth of arms to the Kingdom—particularly given the fact that American weapons have made it into the hands of Saudi terrorists before.

 

Third and most importantly, human rights matter. Continuing to support a regime that touts gender apartheid as official government policy not only makes American leaders look like hypocrites; it makes them hypocrites. If the US is going to ignore human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia just because turning a blind eye serves its economic interests, then it is in no position to criticize countries like Iran or claim any moral authority.

 

Simply put, Iranian society is far more open and less segregated than Saudi society. You don’t see the same kinds of “separate but equal” public facilities in Iran that you see in Saudi Arabia. No one is building women-only cities in Iran, and women can drive there—private vehicles, taxis and buses alike. On a related side note, Iranian racecar driver (and PhD student), Laleh Sedigh, beat male competitors to become Iran’s national rally champion in 2005, and enjoys celebrity status in the country, as well as throughout the racing community. Iranian women can be firefighters, as well as serve in certain branches of the military. They can work, study and own businesses without male approval. None of this is true for Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the US chums it up with the Saudis, while slapping ever-more sanctions on Iran—sanctions that are about as “targeted” as sunbeams off a prism, given how many innocent Iranians are now unable to feed their families or even obtain life-saving medicines as a result.

I’m not saying Iran doesn’t have an abysmal human rights record. It does. What I am saying is that perhaps it’s worth reviewing some of Saudi Arabia’s “progress” before handing them some 60-billion-dollars worth of weaponry.

 

Breaking news out of Saudi Arabia this week: According to Labor Minister Adel Faqih, women will soon (no date as of yet) be permitted to work in pharmacies. Hooray! Break out the Champagne! Of course, they still won’t be able to drive themselves to work or even walk, bike, skip or ride a bus there, or anywhere, without the accompaniment of a sanctioned male relative—but that’s a given.

 

Then there are the recent reports that Saudi authorities have begun electronically tracking women’s movements via GPS on their smartphones. The idea is to prevent women from committing the crime of leaving the country sans the express, written permission of a male “guardian.” Should she do so, said guardian (likely her father or husband) receives a text to that effect courtesy of an electronic system at airports. Cool, right? Cooler still is the fact that this isn’t just another free app floating out there in the ether. It’s a government-sanctioned policy.

 

Now let’s reminisce back to 2002, when 15 innocent teenaged girls in Mecca met their untimely deaths because the Saudi religious police prevented them from exiting their burning school. Firefighters were suited-up, on the scene, and ready to go. But true to form, the Saudi authorities sunk to new lows, forbidding the firefighters from entering the blazing school. Why? The girls, all between the ages of 13 and 17, were not properly covered. Welcome to a country where a few extra yards of fabric can stand between life and death.

 

But this is old news. It’s now over a decade later. Things have changed. Starting in 2015, Saudi women will be able to vote in municipal elections without the consent of their male guardians.

 

And just last month, King Abdullah, great progressive that he is, issued a decree granting 30 women seats on the 150-person Shura Council, an appointed assembly with no legislative force, charged with the task of chatting about legislation and advising the King.

 

Furthermore, the deputy minister of education, Nora Al-Faiz, is a woman. Granted, despite being the deputy minister of education, her educational opportunities within Saudi Arabia are somewhat limited. While professional fields like law, pharmacy and engineering may appear to be opening up to a few select-women, don’t hold your breath. As is so often the case for Saudi women—when one door opens, another closes.

 

Female lawyers, for example, were finally granted the right to obtain law licenses last year. (In a stroke of genius, the government realized that its policy of allowing women to study law without granting them the right to ever practice it was unsustainable.) Nevertheless, women lawyers have reported delays and outright refusals on the part of the Justice Ministry to accept their legitimate law license applications.

 

Still, it’s true: Saudi Arabia is advancing. Let’s not forget that women in the Kingdom are still permitted to breathe, eat and brush their teeth without the written consent from their “guardians.” Silly things like leaving the house without a sanctioned male companion, or practicing law, or showing their faces in public, will come later. Maybe as soon as the 29th century, should global warming not kill us all first.

 

In light of such “advances,” I reiterate: no, I am not surprised that a Saudi cleric would promote wrapping all female newborns in burqas. Nor am I surprised that the largest arms deal in American history—a deal that will immensely fortify the military of a country that enforces modern-day slavery, prohibiting half of its citizenry from showing their faces in public (unless they’re on pilgrimage and in a few other rare cases) or voluntarily leaving the country, not to mention their homes, without some testosterone by their sides—doesn’t have more Americans up in arms. My hunch is that the vast majority of Americans simply isn’t aware of it. While some relatively obscure Saudi cleric with sexy babies on his mind has received considerable notoriety on Twitter, this deal is about as close to a trending topic as Amish bonnets.

 

Still, perhaps the Twitterverse is on to something. Perhaps there is a lesson in the burqas for babies story that surpasses its salaciousness. I, for one, see some fortuitous timing here. On its own, the story is laughable, but when viewed in light of the Saudi arms deal, a critical and timely reminder arises, one that the American political leadership ought to ponder before sending Saudi Arabia its first shipment of state-of-the-art warplanes: Consider who you’re dealing with.

 

We’re not talking rational actors here. We’re talking a country where a hitherto-respected cleric—one who has found a way to sexualize newborns and then punish them for it—goes on national television and shares this proposal doesn’t immediately arouse a domestic public and media uproar. We’re talking a gender apartheid that wouldn’t even fly in the seventh century. Just consider the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and the first convert to Islam, Khadija, a prominent businesswoman in Mecca (in fact the Prophet’s employer) who was considerably older than the he and in radical feminist style, was also the one who proposed to him. Khadija couldn’t exist, let alone survive, in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

 

Finally, even setting aside human rights concerns, we’re talking a “friend” who has a history of purchasing weapons from the Americans that later end up pointed at their own heads. It doesn’t take a Nobel-Prize-winning theoretical physicist reciting the words of a prominent American feminist to discern that this deal is a bad idea, but just in case: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.” So, again, I, an American citizen and taxpayer, beseech those in Washington who have any say in this matter: Please, for the love of all that is decent, consider who you’re dealing with.

 

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