May 15, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2354

Debate in Saudi Arabia over Women in Media

May 15, 2009
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 2354

In a recently issued communiqué, 35 Saudi clerics called on the country's newly appointed culture and information minister, 'Abd Al-'Aziz Khoja, to improve the moral standards of the Saudi media. The clerics' main complaint was that the visibility of women in the media contravened shari'a as well as Saudi law. They also complained that the media was contaminating Saudi society with secular and "perverted" ideas.

In response to the communiqué, Saudi columnist 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa published a satirical open letter to the minister, in which he parodied the clerics' appeal and condemned their religious extremism. Another response was published by liberal Saudi writer Sami Jassem Al-Khalifa, who called to increase women's visibility in the media, and to promote pluralism in Saudi society.


The Clerics' Communiqué: The Saudi Media Is Opening Its Gates to Women and to Liberal Ideas

The communiqué, which appeared in the Saudi press and websites, stated: "[Minister Khoja,] we have high hopes that you will reform the media in accordance with Allah's will. We have become aware of a deviant tendency that has taken root in the culture ministry, [and which is apparent] in TV, radio and the press, in literary conferences and at book fairs: The culture ministry is promoting a campaign of Westernizing the Saudi woman, [encouraging her] to remove her veil, wear jewelry, and mingle with men, and is [generally] opening the door to liberal ideas. [The ministry permits the airing of] music and songs and the publishing of images of women. It is also training women and female singers, and making an effort to allow men and women to mingle in the ministry building [itself]. In addition, it permits the circulation of licentious papers and magazines, which contain perverted ideas and [present] sensuous pictures of women on their pages and covers.

"These things are undoubtedly forbidden. They violate official Saudi laws and royal decrees pertaining to the media, from which nobody is exempt. Among the laws [and regulations] it violates are the following:

"1. The Basic Law of Governance, Section Two, Article Seven: 'The authority of the regime is derived from the Holy Koran and the Prophet's Sunna which rule over this and all other state laws.'

"2. Royal Decree No. 2/4185, issued Safar 14, 1400 [January 1, 1980], which stipulates that:

'a. No female dancer or singer may be shown on television, regardless of the type of performance.

'b. No women news anchors or show hosts may appear [on television,] in either Arabic or foreign-language [programs].

'c. No Saudi woman may appear on television, under any circumstances.

'd. No images of women, of any kind, may appear in Saudi newspapers and magazines.'

"3. Memorandum No. 8/759 issued Shawwal 5, 1421 [December 31, 2000] by the head of the Ministers' Council, which states: 'Any authority that employs women in professions unsuited to their nature or which [involve] mixing with men, must correct this error...'

"4. Saudi Arabia's media policy, as laid out in Decision No. 169 of the Ministers Council, issued Shawwal 20, 1402 [August 10, 1982], which states:

'a. Saudi media is committed to Islam and to everything that follows from it, and will respect the ancient religion of this nation, avoiding anything that contravenes Allah's law as revealed to Mankind.

'b. Saudi media will fight the [various] destructive movements, secularist trends, hostile philosophies and attempts to convert Saudis to religions [other than Islam]; it will work to expose their false nature and illuminate the dangers they pose to individuals and to society [as a whole]...'

"5. Article 9 and 18 of the Printing and Publishing Law. [The former] stipulates...: 'A permit for [publishing] printed materials will be granted only if [said materials] do not contravene the Islamic Shari'a...'"

The communiqué also called to "establish a religious supervisory committee [in the culture and information ministry, to operate] in coordination with the [Saudi] Fatwa Council [Dar Al-Afta]..." [1]

Saudi Columnist in Satirical Article: Cells of Secularists and Liberals Are Spreading Dangerous Notions - Such As Women's Rights and Dialogue with the Other

In the Saudi daily Al-Watan, columnist 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa wrote an appeal of his own to the culture and information minister: "Your Excellency, during your long absence from [the country], [2] developments took place in the Saudi cultural arena, the ultimate outcome of which is unforeseeable. Cells of secularists, liberals and Westernized [persons] took over the literary forums, and began to lecture on topics that were previously taboo - such as dialogue with the other, ideological strength, and concepts of citizenship. They even went so far as to talk about women's rights and criticize the prevalent local discourse. In your absence, these forums began to let in women through the back door, and today [women] are invited to attend lectures. So do not be surprised if you hear a woman's voice in one of these forums... This woman may even be one of the speakers, and she may [actually] be accorded the same status and [allotted] the same amount of speaking time [as the men].

"Mr. Minister, during your long absence, some [writers with] poisoned pens have made themselves conspicuous. [They] have crossed all the lines and started to criticize the [public] discourse [in Saudi Arabia] and the services [given to the citizens]... In your absence, women began to appear on television panels, and even to host programs on the radio. These [destructive] forces managed to coin [new] terms - 'citizen' and 'citizenship' - as a substitute for the notion of the [Islamic] nation...

"Mr. Minister, allow me to give you some of the names of these horrible people, so you can shut them up and break their pens, and thus return [the country] to the point [where it stood] when you left us a few decades ago [3]."

Saudi Liberal: We Want Women to be Prominent in the Media

Liberal Saudi writer Sami Jassem Al-Khalifa wrote a letter of his own to the minister, in which he enumerated the liberals' demands: "We want women to be prominent in the media. We want [to see] women news anchors alongside the men, and women news agency reporters. We want women to head communications departments [at the universities], and we want women to talk to men, and vice versa, without restriction, fear, or apprehension. We want male and female anchors to treat each other with respect, [as required by] Islamic [law] - and not to be separated by barriers of stone or wood. We want women to be editors of newspapers, magazines, and satellite channels, instead of having these [media outlets] monopolized by men... We want pluralism in the media... We want women in the media [in order to hear] their ideas, not [in order to] see their bodies, which is how the reactionary [forces] regard them. We want women whose ideas and civilized [nature] will bring pride [to Saudi Arabia] throughout the world.

"Mr. Minister... we want papers and [TV] channels that engage in dialogue with the other. We want religious and cultural dialogue. [We want] our media to open up to other [nations] - their cultures, customs, and beliefs - [for] media has no value unless it introduces [us] to new ideas and cultures and expands our knowledge..." [4]


[1] Al-Wiyam (Saudi Arabia), March 22, 2009.

[2] Prior to his appointment as culture and information minister, Khoja served abroad for many years, as ambassador to Russia, Morocco, and Lebanon.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 23, 2009.

[4], March 27, 2009.

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