Opinion: What happens behind the black burqah in Saudi Arabia?

File photo. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Delhi, India Mar 01, 2018, 08.09 AM (IST) Written By: Maj. Gen. K.S. Sindhu (Retd.) VSM

It is unimaginable that the Saudi Arabian society with such strict Islamic tenets, and following the austere Wahhabi system, could be changed over in so short a time.  It is unthinkable that this is the same Saudi Arabia, where weekly beheadings and amputations of murderers, rapists and thieves, was announced on television, by the grace of the King and Protector of the Harmain and Sharifain, the grand mosques of Mecca and Medina. 

I have attended one such beheading near Ba’atha at the colloquially named chop-chop square and, as I look back, could not have imagined this turn-about for at least another hundred years. Is this the same country, where all you could see was black robed, burqa-clad, and fully veiled women, covered from head to toe, and white thobe clad men – gender separation was the rule. 

I recall having a meal at a pizza joint, as a family we were in a cubicle, separated from the next couple by a high wall. That was the norm – no mixing with strangers. Schools for girls were cordoned off by high walls – by a literal purdah -  and male teachers could only instruct through remote one-way cameras. Even elderly women could not leave their homes without a mahram – male escort. 

This rigid adherence to Wahabbi values, where even swallowing one’s spit during the month of Ramadan was considered a sacrilege, for over two centuries, cannot have come about without resistance from the religious order. Muttawas, falling under the control of the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (yes, it is true there was a Ministry by this name), must have been bludgeoned into submission. Could this be the same country where the Head Islamic authority, the blind Sheikh Abdullah bin Baaz, still proclaims the world is flat, and that the sun revolves around the Earth?

The change started sometime back in late 2017. Harbinger of these were two incidents: one, imprisonment of many Royals at the Carlton Hotel on grounds of corruption and two, an innocuous news item, “Belgium to appoint a woman, Dominique Mineur, as its ambassador to the Kingdom”. This was strange and unusual in a highly male-dominated bastion, where even our Sikh Foreign Service officers were unwelcome because they sported a beard, which the Saudis claimed to be the sole preserve of Muslims. 

This appointment reminded me of an incident in 1993 at the Saudi Trade Fair in Riyadh. My family and I had just parked our car and were heading for the entrance to the exhibition hall when we saw an altercation involving the Belgian ambassador. Apparently, while alighting from the car, the ambassador’s wife, being European and dressed in a skirt under her abaya – a black gown-like cloak worn by most foreigners - had unwittingly exposed her legs. 

The religious police, the Muttawa, pounced on her, slamming the car door and shouting abuses at her. The all-powerful religious police were an authority to themselves; they were crude and diplomatic courtesies mattered little to them. Far cry from that incident, a woman of the same country is now coming as its Ambassador - apt and fitting desserts! 

All this was followed in quick succession by women being allowed to drive, witness football matches, without the need of a male escort, and other reforms. And now, the most unthinkable has happened, the Rubicon has been crossed - “Saudi Arabia allows women to join the military”. This morning’s news has literally taken the breath out of me. I am at a total loss to understand as for how did all this happen – not even in my wildest dreams could one have imagined these far-reaching reforms? 

The next change is likely to be regarding consumption of alcohol, which is currently forbidden, except for members of the diplomatic community. Strange as it may sound, the Indian Rupee was the official legal tender in Saudi Arabia till 1954, and beer was not considered as alcohol and was available in Jeddah and Dammam till as late 1977. 

Even driving by women was largely ignored. In any case, only the royals and few rich Saudis could afford cars but all this changed when a Saudi Princess fell in love with a commoner, and eloped with him in a car from Riyadh to Jeddah, in a bid to leave the Kingdom. 

Mishaal bint Fahd bin Mohammed Al-Saud, was just 19 when she fell in love with Khaled al-Sha’er Mulhallal, nephew of the Saudi Ambassador in Beirut. This was unthinkable in the traditional society, and both were executed on 15 July 1977 by a firing squad in Jeddah. This incident of failed and unrequited love found expression in the movie, “Death of a Princess”. 

Ever since the segregation of sexes, and not being allowed to mingle with non-relatives, has been strictly enforced. Little wonder, that while driving around the city in the late 90s we would often see young women holding a placard with their phone numbers, while being driven around. Hopefully, this too may change, and young people allowed to meet and make their choice of life partner, rather than in the traditional way of an arranged marriage.

Somehow I feel nostalgic and yearn that the old conservative country is back – wish it had stayed the same, for nothing else if not amusement, in seeing such archaic practices in the modern age. This complete makeover will dramatically alter this traditional society – what remains to be seen is how this social change is managed, and whether it is for the good? 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Maj. Gen. K.S. Sindhu (Retd.) VSM

Gen. K.S. Sindhu was in command of an Infantry Brigade along the LoC and of a Strike division. He was India's Defence Attache to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen during the first Gulf War.