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Debate Room: 'Saudi Arabia's dress codes are an affront to individual freedoms'

Khulood’s video renewed the debate on modesty, Muslim dress codes, and gender equality.

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

Police in Saudi Arabia arrested a woman yesterday who supposedly appeared in a video wearing a miniskirt and crop top, exposing her legs and midriff, in violation of the country’s very strict female dress code.

The video of the woman, identified online only as Khulood, prompted a debate on social media soon after it was uploaded to Snapchat.

We asked two commentators to give us their take on the online debate the video inspired.

‘Saudi Arabia’s dress codes are an affront to individual freedoms’

THERE IS A difference between adhering to and respecting laws. You can act in accordance with a law out of fear of the consequences of breaking it, while internally you hold that law in contempt. That is why it takes an extremely brave person like the Saudi woman Khulood for actively challenging Saudi’s illiberal Islamic dress codes.

Now, some people will argue that if France can force Muslim women not to wear the full face veil in public then we should support Saudi Arabia in enforcing its own laws. The accusation is that not to do so is a double standard.

However, if you believe in liberal values such as gender equality, individual rights and the separation of the State from religious institutions, then you can not respect laws that are inconsistent with these values. The French ban on face veils is to defend the values of a liberal democracy, whereas full face coverings are symbolic of a wider Islamist agenda to subvert those values.

‘Saudi is not deserving of our respect’

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s dress codes are an affront to individual freedoms. You can’t claim to support individual rights and at the same time respect Saudi Arabia’s illiberal dress codes, unless of course you believe that individual rights are only for westerners. Isn’t it racist to believe that one group of people are deserving of individual rights while individuals in other parts of the world should just have to put up with a lack of these rights because it’s their culture?

Another reason that Saudi Arabia is not deserving of our respect is that it has been funding the spread of Wahabbi and Salafist Islamic extremism throughout the west. These versions of Islam are often part of the process that eventually lead to violent radicalisation. The Manchester bomber attended a Salafi mosque.

If you believe that every human being in the world is equally deserving of the individual rights, then Khulood is a champion of those rights who deserves our unequivocal support.

AR Devine is a writer and published author. He won the Orwell Prize in 2010 for his book, “Working with the Underclass,” written under the nom de plume of Winston Smith. 

‘We need to be very careful about reinforcing reductive, western perceptions of Muslims as innately barbaric’

THE BURQA/ VEIL debate too often ends up a proxy for all sorts of different agendas: misplaced feminist solidarity, Muslims asserting an identity they feel is under assault, and some good old-fashioned prejudice. The argument over whether or not to force women to cover or uncover is one of those questions that brings out the worst in everyone. The problem is that, in a way, both sides are wrong.

Those who defend the right of women to wear the niqab or burqa under the banner of religious freedom gloss over the fact that this “freedom” is often dictated by social pressure. Those who oppose it under the banner of secularism and the oppressive nature of covering up are making their own assumptions about Muslim women’s motivations.

We need to be very careful about reinforcing reductive, western perceptions of Muslims as particularly and innately barbaric. This is just enhancing a stereotype full of overwhelming generalisations that contributes to the widening cultural rift between our society and other societies, and the increase of racism towards us.

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The fact that feminism is broadly (and I admit wrongly) considered a western idea makes it problematic in the Middle East. After centuries of western colonialism, bombings, invasions, and occupation, Arab men can dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Arab culture does it differently. The louder our calls for gender equality in the Arab world get, the easier they are to wave away as yet more western imperialism.

‘The voices shouting about how barbaric the Saudis are, are not voices I hear calling for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed’

It’s all too easy to dismiss Khulood’s video as a Muslim problem, an issue of what Muslim societies and people are doing wrong. The truth is that nearly every society in history has struggled with sexism, and most still are.

Take Ireland. Married women weren’t allowed work here until the 1970s, our Constitution still mandates that a woman’s place is in the home and women still don’t have access to basic reproductive health care. We don’t generally think about these as issues of Irish men, white men, or Christian men innately, irreducibly hating and oppressing women. Why, then, are we always so ready to believe it about Muslims?

And the voices shouting the loudest about how unfair and barbaric the Saudis are over the past few days, are not voices I hear calling for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed or the Irish gender pay gap to be closed. I smell some hypocrisy.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist.

What do you think? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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