MOST PEOPLE, both inside the Saudi kingdom and outside it, would agree that it will be a cold, cold day before the rulers of Riyadh grant rights to women. Nevertheless, on a crisp, cold, and clear Saturday, November 13, a protest materialized in front of the fortress-like Saudi embassy in Washington, demanding freedom for women as well as the liberation of anti-extremist dissidents locked up by the world's most rigid Islamist regime.
The embassy, which squats across from the Watergate complex, could best be described as "Mussolini modern" in its architectural style. It closely resembles a prison. The group of some 20 marchers, most of them Western human rights activists, appeared in response to a call by the recently-founded Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.
The Center is headed by Dr. Ali Alyami, an Ismaili Shia Muslim from Najran on the Saudi-Yemeni border. Najran has been a hotbed of dissent for some time, as Shia Muslims there have been subjected to ideological aggression by the Wahhabi sect that is the official religion in the kingdom. Even more than Christians, Jews, and Hindus, Wahhabis despise Shias.
But women's rights were the main theme for the demonstration, which came on the eve of Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. The Saudi royals have announced "partial" municipal elections in the kingdom, to be held next February. The balloting will elect half of municipal representatives, but without the participation of women--as candidates or voters. Earlier, the House of Saud indicated that women would be granted limited involvement, and five women declared their candidacies. But permission for women to enter the system was declared impossible by electoral authorities in September, a decision ratified the following month by Interior Minister prince Nayef ibn Abd al-Aziz--the same Nayef known for blaming the September 11th atrocities on "Zionism."
Signs carried at the Washington protest included: "Yes to Women's Suffrage," "Give Women a Voice," "Empower Women, Defeat Terrorism," and "Freedom, Transparency, Accountability." In a prepared statement, Dr. Alyami said "Together we can move towards a democratic and free society in Saudi Arabia and the elimination of a political system that has bred only discrimination, extremism, religious intolerance, and terrorism."
Demonstrators also called for the release of three Saudi reformers imprisoned since March 16: Dr. Abdallah al-Hamed, Dr. Matrook al-Faleh, and the poet Ali al-Doumani. On November 9, the Saudi authorities arrested the three prisoners' attorney, Abdurrahman al-Lahim, after he made public a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding a fair and public trial for them. So far, it appears that their trial will be held in secret.
While reformers and their legal counsel are jailed in the kingdom, royal officialdom continues to treat al Qaeda members and supporters leniently. The Saudi Institute, another Saudi human rights monitoring group in Washington, announced last week that crippled sheikh Khalid al-Harbi, who was videotaped in a conversation with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan soon after September 11, 2001, and who surrendered to Saudi authorities in July of this year, has been released.
At the same time, 30 other al Qaeda militants were granted amnesty by the Saudis. Official Saudi sources said no charges had been entered against any of the accused terrorists, and the regime assured its subjects and the world that the "deviants" had "rectified their methodology."
Given that the amnesty coincided with a declaration by 26 prominent Wahhabi clerics calling on Saudis to go to Iraq and reinforce the jihadist defense of Falluja, "rectification" may have a new definition. A Saudi dissident who requested anonymity said, "rectifying their methodology means they promise to kill Iraqis and Americans outside the kingdom, and to refrain from bombings inside its borders."
ANTI-EXTREMIST discontent with the Wahhabi dictatorship in the kingdom is visibly increasing. Women in Saudi Arabia live under conditions unknown anywhere else in the Muslim world. They are forbidden to drive automobiles, which is defined by the Wahhabi clerics as a form of sexual advertisement or prostitution; they are compelled to accept the so-called "guardianship" of a male relative, known as a mahram, whose permission in writing is necessary for them to leave the country. As noted by the woman dissident Mody al-Khalaf, the latter rule was enforced even in the case of Thoraya Obaid, a Saudi representative to the United Nations.
Women are banned even from leaving their houses without consent of their "guardian," who can compel public agencies to dismiss them from employment, and can appropriate a woman's name for financial purposes. The "guardian" can even "loan" the woman's name to another person. Saudi men can divorce and remarry without informing their wives of such facts, and while Saudi women have the right to divorce their husbands, they automatically forfeit custody of all children above the age of six if they do so. As al-Khalaf writes, "Requiring permission from a male guardian is not Islamic law. It is Saudi law."
Saturday's protest may have been the first baby step towards increasing U.S. pressure on the House of Saud to change.
Stephen Schwartz is the author of The Two Faces of Islam.