Tue, 10/27/2009 - 16:39
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Saudi Arabia has surprisingly announced that women will be able to ride bicycles in certain designated areas throughout the country. The controversial decision appears to be a result of pressures from the international community to refrain from using the term "it" when referring to a female.
Women in the Gulf kingdom are prohibited from driving, voting, sneezing in public, and watching Egyptian satellite channels. However, gender segregation has all but diminished, thanks largely to the overwhelming employment opportunities, and the evermore liberal dress code. The days of subtle differences between the sexes are gone; now women can dress in colors (choice of green and black), use Arabic words not mentioned in the Qur'an, and, starting anytime within the next eight years, ride bicycles in certain areas.
Indeed, equality between the sexes has been compared to the likes of Sweden and Switzerland. One minor difference, however, is that Saudi Arabia has successfully progressed while conserving its cultural heritage, with quaint traditions such as lashing women with spiked whips for secretively shaving their legs still common place.
The senior spokesman for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Nifaq El Feil, expanded on the historical development: "We have reached a point where we are no longer fighting for gender equality - we have now become pioneers of feminism, a true role model for countries across the Arab world and beyond."
The process of cycling will be as simple and straightforward as starting an independent newspaper. Any woman desiring to embrace the privilege will only need to visit the local council's sheikh with a mehrem (husband, father, brother, etc.) and fill out an application to take the "piety test" to ensure that cycling will not lead to improper practices. Depending on the result, she will be granted a permit to ride her bicycle in designated areas. Permit renewal is only necessary on a bi-monthly basis.
The decision has of course had its detractors. The small minority of religious extremists in the country are concerned that granting women substantial freedom in such little time would inevitably lead to unethical behavior, possibly even free thinking. Pamphlets issued by the opposition include images such as the one shown here to prove that positions taken and motions involved in riding a bicycle are inherently seductive. Another serious worry is that the obligatory abaya (traditional clothing) could get caught in gears or wheels, harming the women, but more significantly, exposing their bodies to the general public.
Mr. El Feil added that he knew such an unprecedented transition into the future was never going to be a smooth ride, but is confident of the results nonetheless. "Do you think Gandhi achieved peace in Sri Lanka in one day, or one year?" he rhetorically questioned. "It takes years of constant hard work, faith in God, and oil money."
Saudi Arabia has come a long way from the "ignorance" era prior to the arrival of Islam. It seems like a case of the turtle beating the hare as the entire Arab world is left under immense pressure to improve gender equality, with its neighbours, indeed much of the world, struggling to catch up.