Clinging to a Medieval World

In case the origins of Wadjda were found to be inspiring a little too much liberal wish-wash about the present situation in Saudi Arabia, here’s a brief reminder of how its authorities deal with actual dissent:

A Saudi court sentenced on Monday a rights activist to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up a “liberal” network and alleged insults to Islam, activists said.

“Raef Badawi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes,” lawyer Waleed Abualkhair wrote on his Twitter account, adding that the judge ordered the closure of the website of the Saudi Liberal Network.

He said Badawi, a co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, was charged with criticizing the religious police, as well as calling for “religious liberalization.”

Change in Saudi Arabia is going to require more courageous activists – and international support for them – like Badawi if they are to succeed in remolding their society, as Al-Mansour implied in the post linked above. Although the process at the grassroots will take longer, an object of protest can very easily be found in the clerics and officials surrounding the monarchy.

Take Salwa al Mutairi, an ex-politician whose abhorrent obsequiousness to the Medieval traditions is fortunately anomalous in Kuwait; her call for men to be free to “purchase” female sex slaves – if necessary, from refugee camps – was, she says, verified by a number of Saudi clerics:

Mutairi said that during a recent visit to Mecca, she asked Saudi muftis – Muslim religious scholars – what the Islamic ruling was on owning sex slaves. They are said to have told her that it is not haram.

The ruling was confirmed by ‘specialized people of the faith’ in Kuwait, she claimed.

‘They said, that’s right, the only solution for a decent man who has the means, who is overpowered by desire and who does not want to commit fornication, is to acquire jawari.’ Jawari is the plural of the Arabic term jariya, meaning ‘concubine’ or ‘sex slave’.

One Saudi mufti supposedly told Mutairi: ‘The context must be that of a Muslim nation conquering a non-Muslim nation, so these jawari have to be prisoners of war.’

Concubines, she argued, would suit Muslim men who fear being ‘seduced or tempted into immoral behaviour by the beauty of their female servants’.

The most hideous evils are, to better eyes, as ludicrous as they are sterile.

Someone should invite King Abdullah in on the joke.

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“They are afraid of art.”

If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:

I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:

Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?

It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:

The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.

But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.