A Veiled Tweet: Saudi Arabia

Posted: December 18, 2014 in Discussion

A Tweet On Women’s Veils, Followed By Raging Debate In Saudi Arabia

DECEMBER 17, 201411:11 AM ET
Saudi Arabian women wear their traditional face covering, the niqab, at a coffee and chocolate exhibition in the capital Riyadh on Monday. A prominent religious figure said on Twitter that the face veil is not mandatory, sparking a heated national debate.

The man at the eye of the storm in Saudi Arabia is Ahmad Aziz Al Ghamdi. He’s a religious scholar, the former head of the religious police in Mecca, a group officially known as the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

He has the pedigree of an ultra-conservative. Yet he stunned Saudis with a religious ruling, known as a fatwa, that is very liberal by Saudi standards. He declared that the niqab, the black face veil that is ubiquitous among women in Saudi society, is not obligatory.

His answer came in a Twitter response to a tweet he receive from a Saudi woman who had turned to him for religious guidance. She asked: Does Islam allow her to post a picture of her face on social media?

His affirmative answer went viral within hours, with more than 10,000 comments on his Twitter feed that ranged from congratulations to death threats.

When Twitter commentators asked, “What about his own wife?” Al Ghamdi promptly stepped up the controversy another notch.

He appeared Saturday on the most popular TV talk show in Saudi Arabia. The Badriaprogram is broadcast each week from Dubai in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, where the traditional rules for women’s dress are less restrictive. Ghamdi went on air with his wife, Jawahir Bint Shekh Ali, who appeared without a face veil.

She spoke to the program host, Badria al-Bishr, about her decision to show her face, not just among close family and friends, but in a broadcast that could be seen across Saudi Arabia. She covered her hair, but was wearing makeup, another point that enraged conservatives. Her husband specifically approved of makeup in his religious ruling.

Ahmad Aziz Al Ghamdi, a prominent religious figure in Saudi Arabia, said that the face veil for women is not mandatory. He then appeared on a popular talk show with his wife, who was not wearing the veil, known as the niqab.

The reaction on Saudi Twitter feeds was immediate and furious.

Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative society, the only country in the world that effectively prohibits women from driving. Girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardian.

Gender segregation is mandatory in schools, hospitals and restaurants. Even banks have separate tellers for women. The names of mothers and sisters are not shared with others outside the family, even with best friends at school.

But norms are changing as global culture is beamed into the kingdom through social media and satellite television. Education is changing expectations in a country where the majority of the population is younger than 35. Twitter usage in Saudi is booming, considered the fastest-growing market in the world, despite regular crackdowns by the religious police.

Ghamdi has stirred a public debate over the face veil that is unlikely to end with the television appearance. The controversy reflects a wider debate in many Saudi households as urban, college-educated, professional women abandon the face veil as impractical in a work environment.

The reaction from the top religious authorities was predictable.

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Al Aziz Al Shaikh, has called on Ghamdi to repent and declared that Muslim women have a duty to cover their faces.

“Some brothers even took the step to show their wives in public. This is a very dangerous thing,” he said in comments posted on a local news site.

But the Twitter debate then erupted again, challenging the interpretation of the highest religious authority in the kingdom.

  1. eunsoljun15 says:

    I found Ahmad Aziz Al Ghamdi to be very interesting in that himself is also a religious scholar and was previously a religious police in Mecca. I think the response he got from the viewers in Saudi was expected since we all know that Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world. What is it that powered Ghamdi up to appear in the media all of a sudden and say that the face veil is not mandatory? Can this one man really bring about a modern change in Saudi?

    • Marah Tarawneh says:

      The responses he got from the viewers are expected yes, and even the grand mufti’s reaction is expected. However, what I found frustrating is what his wife in the video said about teachers in a way bullying their children because of his perspectives. Because, as mentioned, the majority of the population is younger than 35, so change in educational institutions is necessary to bring change in Saudi.

    • This is one of the most interesting articles I have read in a long time, and I was also asking that question: can change really happen in Saudi Arabia now that the young population is so exposed to the rest of the world, their cultures and ideas? I always thought it was interesting how this extreme conservatism could prolong for such a long time in Saudi Arabia, something not so frequently (or ever) seen in the rest of the world.

      I was especially excited when I read the last line of the article above: “But the Twitter debate then erupted again, challenging the interpretation of the highest religious authority in the kingdom.” This seems to show that something COULD really happen now, with the internet. How far can the government suppress people’s freedom of expression and diversions in beliefs?

  2. nizar qadadeh says:

    Ahmad Aziz Al Ghamdi’s theory is an interesting one. I like the fact that he published it in such a “closed” society however I think he should be more clear in explaining what exactly he meant. After reading, i found out that there is a difference between “jilbab” “hijab” and “khimar” and most people like me do not. His idea’s might be right however he should be more specific when publishing and sharing them.

  3. salehqadi says:

    In case of Islam, it is stated clearly that covering the face is NOT a muslim thing, it is just an old tradition that people linked to Arabs, this point should be clear but Saudis are not getting this. Their societies are based on Islam, and their decision making is based on Halal or Haram not right or wrong, so you can just confuse a whole society by giving out a false fatwa which I found ridiculous. Sheikhs around the world gave the fatwa that covering the face is not a must, some of them went a little further and said the whole hijab is unnecessary, Dr. Wafa is an example, he certainly believes that Hijab itself (the hair cover) is not mandatory as well. They could be debating over this, but the face cover is obvious after several fatwas.

  4. Zaid Khalaf says:

    . I think the response he got from the viewers in Saudi was expected since we all know that Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world. heir societies are based on Islam, and their decision making is based on Halal or Haram so you can just confuse a whole society by giving out a false statement which I found ignorant.

  5. Daniel Leal says:

    What does the Quran have to say on how one should dress exactly?

    Saudi Arabia more than anything in this moment needs debate or else far more violent and volatile change may come. According to the article around half of Saudi’s population is under 35. I am guessing most of these people have access to social networking and thus see the rest of the world. Half the population is young and seeing progressive ideas and the older generation is mostly conservative, or at least represented as such. These are the conditions for possible ethical clashes within a society as the young question the world they inherit, if there is no dialogue on issues in Saudi Arabia at the very minimum.

  6. From what I know, The Islamic dress requires a Muslim woman to wear any costume that does not describe the charms of her body and should cover the whole body except the face and hands , and Islam also does not mind a Muslim women to wear colorful clothes as long as they are not eye-catching, or provoke men, if these conditions are met on any costume then a Muslim woman can wear it . The response AlGhamdi got from Saudi viewers was expected,but what I fond strange is the response he got from Sheikh Abdul Al Aziz Al Shaikh (The Mufti of Saudi Arabia) where he claimed that Muslim women women have a duty to cover their faces where the holy Qura’an says ” And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear ” Sorat ElNour,Ayah 31. It’s interpreted by the majority of Muslim scholars that the must ordinarily appear is the face,and the hands.

  7. farah sinokrot says:

    This is one of the times what we see a man standing up for how woman should dress, but the fact that woman got mad at what he said is not expected. Saudi woman should not blame oppression or the way they dress on religion, in Saudi Arabia it is tradition rather than religion. the fact that he went on live television next to his wife with her not wearing a full nikab and make up on to prove his point is amazing.

  8. The response Al Ghamdi got was expected, but the response the Mufti was the interesting one. In class we talked about the only way we get religious law is through people, through human beings that interpret the Quran and Sunna and debate over what the laws should be. I’m not seeing much debate here. It seems, from what I understand, that a select few make the rules, and one shouldn’t disagree. Shouldn’t Al Ghamdi at least be given a chance to prove his point or at least be given a reason as to why he’s wrong? Because, as Majd said, the ‘duty’ of covering a woman’s face does seem a tad excessive. Could there at least be more open discussion as to what should be mandatory and what shouldn’t?

  9. yasminemalas says:

    I agree with Daniel and others that the fact that half of Saudi’s population being 35 helps in leading a more progressive future for Saudi as a whole. Being exposed to how things are on the outside and understanding the difference between religious expectations and tradition is something that could truly help enlighten the younger generation of Saudi.

    It is, of course, also expected of many of them to grow angry. Farah wondered why women got upset about the claim that the niqab is not mandatory and I think it’s because of fear. Similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, being exposed to the light and the “truth” sometimes results in people running in the opposite direction, back into the dark or what they’ve been used to for so long. To be told that the way you’ve lived your life and the reasons why you did so are invalid or don’t give you any religious credit could be a very scary concept to many of the people who’ve been practicing such traditions.

  10. Marah Tarawneh says:

    “Before, removing the veil, women had to be educated, since ignorant women would not be able to understand the social implications. Any misuse of freedom would expose women to shame and to a consequent loss of rights, and would be a barrier to positive change.” – Casting off the veils (Huda Sharawi)
    I came across this quote and found it related to this topic. Huda Sharawi made sure before she removed her veil that she is ready to face everything else. She made sure she was aware of all the rights she wanted to ask for, all the movements she wanted to make, and exactly how to achieve all of them. Her idea was that women should be ready to face the society strongly before removing the veil.
    After thinking about it, I think it’s the same with Saudi, maybe they need to be mentally ready for it first! Maybe before removing the physical veils of their faces they should remove the veils that are blocking both men and women minds from seeing the importance of having equal rights and education. Maybe then it will be easier for the community to see a woman unveiled and be fine with it. However, it was neither easy nor fast in Egypt, so it absolutely won’t be in Saudi.

  11. Marah brings an extremely valid point that I agree with 100%. Before physically removing a veil there should be removal of whatever mental veil is impeding them from this ideology of women’s rights. It is really important for a society to act in unison and know where they stand in terms of all their people and what everyone is entitled to within that society. For women to start ripping off their veils while both men and women remain offended and confused is not the way to go. It must all start with education, with a mental preparation. Get on the same page. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.

  12. Ramy El Baghir says:

    I think this event is incredibly interesting. When this type of event happens, it brings the whole ideology into question because somebody at the top starts to challenge it. This reminds me a little bit of Pope Francis, and how he has said many things that could be considered as challenges to the traditions of the Catholic church. To me, this means that many conservative Muslims are having more and more progressive views on Islam, and that Ahmad Aziz Al Ghamdi is saying what many people already feel.

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