As I did for the past several years, in this Valentine celebration, my thoughts go to youth, women and men who believe in gender equality and personal freedoms across the Middle East and for their fundamental right to give and receive, talk about and be free, in love. I have been arguing that freedom of love in all of its aspects, starting with personal relationships, is the single deepest power that can shatter the forces of suppression not only in social relationships, but also in society and hence in politics as well. In past pieces and in a book I am now writing, I am calling on the peoples of the region, at least those who are conscious of their oppression, not to wait, not to leave it to destiny alone. Millions in the Middle East had been using this celebration to protest oppressive powers. While in the West and Asia Valentine has gone too commercial in the Levant Valentine is becoming a force of change.
Iranian youth have been bold in practicing “Valentine guerilla,” holding hands in public wherever they can. “Kiss then run” from the Basij militia has become a sport practiced by daring boys and girls. Women have been challenging the “ethics police” who force them to wear the Chador. All that added fuel against the Khomeinist regime and somewhat emboldened those youth and women who took the streets in Tehran in June 2009. The killing of Neda unveiled even more resentment among youth who –as we started to learn from twitter, Facebook and Youtube, wants to live their lives in happiness, not as slaves to the Ayatollahs. In the Gulf, dating has been mutating towards daring methods, challenging the social restrictions. Stories of gadgets’ use abound while radical clerics are fuming about the “creeping depravation.” In Lebanon, the clash is ironically not on sectarian grounds but rather ideological: Either rebel youth practicing free relationships or Hezbollah’s Jihadists which keeps the regions it controls under Khomeinist medieval rule. But this year in particular I am dedicating my lines to Arabia’s women and their right to Valentine, thus to love and normal relationships.
Below the Taliban, Saudi Arabia has the most discriminatory legal system against women. Evidence is not hard to establish: women can’t drive, mix with men, have to be accompanied by authorized males when outside their homes, and girls can be married as early as the age of 10, to adult males, sometimes in their sixties. In such legal culture, forget about free dating, adult relationships, and obviously celebrating Valentine as free men and women. In the Wahabi Kingdom there is a “religious police” known as Mutawa. They keep an eye on women to make sure they are boxed in the gender apartheid designed for them by Salafi clerics. While Westerners are moved by the novel of a Princess executed for a love affair, they often forget that half the country is second class citizens, deprived of simple rights such as walking alone or having access to most jobs. This column is not about judging the Saudi system but about messaging Saudi women that many around the world believe their condition is unacceptable.
The Salafi “ethical” Code Beheading a woman “witch” Daily Mail February 14, 2008 To those Arabian women we tell them on this Valentine day that they too have a right to celebrate love and be free with their lives. The repressive rules imposed on them contradict not only their universal human rights but also the cycle of human evolution. It is not true that these draconian restrictions are designed to “protect them.” Fair laws, tribunals and a constitution are what protect all citizens not restrictions against the “protected.” Besides, why would Arabian women have to be protected from men? It is the latter that needs to be restrained from aggressing women. Women in these lands are subjected to discrimination at the will of few powerful men who claim theological and political infallibility, so that the elite can maintain its control over civil society via its female population. The discussion is long and will be irreversibly unavoidable. The alleged argument of “cultural relativism” doesn’t sell anymore. In short, more people than ever today believe that Arabian women, like any other women in the world are human beings with feelings and natural rights. And more women from these lands are sharing their feelings with the rest of the world as did Iranians with Twitter.
It is true that the current monarchy is attempting to move slowly to relax some restrictions on women and curb arranged (forced) marriage involving minors. Anything achieved via the enlightened men of the regime is a plus, but life is too short to bank on this solely. Arabian women must move towards their own emancipation with their own means. Valentine is only a reminder that thirteen million women have a right to happiness and freedom. While some among them support the Wahabi doctrine and most of them fear the system, there are many courageous mothers and daughters who can do their share. We’ll come back on this later.
Meanwhile to them we say don’t be afraid, you have friends around the world. We know that many among you celebrate Valentine in secret. We also know that wealthier couples travel outside the country to celebrate the forbidden event. But Arabia’s ancient history gave the world the most beautiful love poetry. Remember the unforgettable words of imaginary Antar and Abla in their saga to unite, centuries before the legend of Romeo and Juliet. The Jihadists, your oppressors, say they want you away from Jahiliyya the so-called era of “ignorance” that preceded the Caliphate. Your best response is to educate your children to grow up free from Jihadism. You can help saving the world by whispering these formidable words into the ears of these future men. You have a free right to celebrate Valentine or any equivalent and live your lives with all the love you can get and give.
Dr Walid Phares is the author of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is writing a comprehensive essay on Middle East liberation. Jihadists’ hatred for Valentine Women’s forthcoming defiance
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