When Saudi model Khulood allegedly took the decision to walk along an empty street in a fort at Ushayqir some 96 miles north of the Saudi Arabian capital of capital Riyadh, she must have known what she was letting herself in for. Dressed in a miniskirt and crop top she was openly flouting modesty laws that require women to wear loose-fitting robes known as “abayas” in public.
It’s easy to feel smug about such things.
About how enlightened we are. About how ‘backward’ they seem to be.
When a woman walking through the streets of a 21st-century city is not only flouting convention but is actually breaking the law. How messed up is that? How very offensive?
The reality of modern-day political discourse in America is that there are only two possible positions, left and right. It’s a human fallacy of course; there are rarely two sides to any given argument. Indeed there are — more often than not — usually thousands.
Take the topic of Islam for example. Those on the right who express a distaste for all things Muslim are immediately labeled Islamophobic. Those on the left who step forward to defend Islam and its traditions are dismissed as apologists. There is a truth to be found, somewhere between and as is so often the case, answers to seemingly simple questions are deceptively complex.
You need to know the context. You need to know the history.
500 Years Gone By
There’s a common misconception that the Renaissance was a purely European affair. The surge of interest in classical thoughts and values might have been of European origin but it was part of a wave of innovation that affected the entirety of Eurasia. Few people welcomed the changes it wrought. Nowhere was it truly benign.
In China, a rising sense of unease began to gain momentum as the first hints of globalization began to take form. By the late 15th century they retreated into themselves, scuttled the navy and refused to interact with the rest of the world in any meaningful way. In Japan, the Samurai — an elite group of warriors who followed a chivalry-like code of honor called Bushido — also grew uncomfortable with an encroaching modernity. Their martial prowess with the sword came under threat from the increasing relevance, accuracy, and power of guns. They banned their production and entered a period of Sakoku or ‘national isolation.’
It lasted over 200 years.
Meanwhile, the Christian world and the Muslim world faced literal crises of faith. The explosion of ideas that the Renaissance generated created controversy after controversy. Art, philosophy, and the beginnings of the scientific method locked horns with the two great Abrahamic religions. It was just a question of who would blink first.
A Blink Of An Eye
In the Islamic world, the clergy held their gaze the longest.
The Muslims’ world had been on the top of their game for quite some time. Their knowledge of science and medicine was without peer. Their technological achievements were staggering. Although it cut across many different national boundaries, Islam was a progressive force and a powerful one at that. They welcomed new ideas, they allowed other religions to co-exist alongside them. Their art, crafts, and poetry were superb.
And they gave it all up.
It wasn’t taken from them or subsumed in a wave of evil western imperialism. They let it go voluntarily, willingly.
In 1577 Murad III’s chief astronomer — a man called Taqi Ad Din — built in Constantinople, a magnificent observatory, perhaps one that rivaled Tycho Brae’s observatory at Uraniborg. It was finished in 1577.
And torn down by the clergy a year later.
The priest class had the power to remove things they didn’t much care for and they were more than willing to use it. This ‘renaissance-thing’ was anathema to traditionalists; it encouraged people to ask questions. And as they did so, they came up with answers that looked nothing like the descriptions found in holy texts.
We can’t have that, the clerics must have thought.
They felt exactly the same way in Europe.
Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’ Heliocentric theory — which argued that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around — stood in direct opposition to established church teachings of a geocentric universe that placed earth firmly at its center. He quite wisely published his findings in 1542, shortly after his death.
Galileo threw his weight behind the idea of a solar system dominated by the Sun and that landed him in hot water with the Roman Inquisition. The famed astronomer wisely withdrew his support for Heliocentricity. In 1632 however, he published ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’ a satirical piece that seemed to dismiss those that still clung to the old Aristotelian notions of a geocentric universe as mere simpletons.
He spent the rest of his life under house arrest for that one.
The concerted efforts to preserve not only the status quo but also the preeminence of church power was just as real and just as virulent in the Christian world.
We too burned our heretics and tore down buildings that offended us.
It’s just that in Europe, and pretty much in Europe alone, the progressives won. Those of you who have been to Bulgaria or Luxembourg will understand that the idea of turning your back on science during the 15th or 16th century would have been absurd. European geography is such that it was in an almost constant state of war.
Any suggestion to the King of Belgium that it might be a good idea to hold off on research into the casting of ever larger cannons would have been laughed out of court. A nation opting for isolation would be a nation conquered. A nation opting to ignore scientific progress would have been divvied up among those who chose not to.
Europe overtook Asia; Europe overtook the Middle East. Africa never really stood a chance and as for the Americas? The recently re-discovered continents were doomed too. Those civilizations that arose independently of Eurasia were crushed via a rather nasty combination of guns, colonial brutalities, and measles.
Those countries that might have stopped Colonial expansion — Persia, China, India and so on — were too weak. European hegemony was an accident of history helped along by geographical realities and accelerated by the victory of conservative factions elsewhere.
The Church fought back against science and lost. And the Enlightenment did not stop there. Scholars and thinkers moved beyond the realms of science and began to question the nature of humanity itself. They even began to question God and in doing so, challenged the Church’s moral authority.
The Birth Of Modernity
Which brings us to now.
The effects of the European renaissance are still with us.
Democracy, free speech, basic tenants of individual liberty, the desire to keep religion at arm’s length. It’s all there, in the Constitution, and it all boils down to one salient point. We went through a period of Enlightenment.
Of course, the vast majority of Muslims are well-meaning, well-intentioned people who are welcome to pop round to any progressive household for a chat, a cup of tea, and a slightly uncomfortable exchange of opinions.
However, that does not mean that Islam is without serious flaw.
It is its own worst enemy and has been for hundreds of years.
“If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.”
The Quran has much to say on a variety of topics but somewhat ironically, a discussion on the laws of thermodynamics is not one of them. Apocryphal or just downright wrong though that story might be, it doesn’t change the fact that Islam is in dire need of its own reformation.
As Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg :
“Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”
And that would be sad if it wasn’t for that video of a Saudi woman walking through the streets in a mini skirt.
Across the Horizon
Mini skirts were all the rage back in Bronze Age Europe but their popular revival in 1964 caused something of a scandal. It was a familiar formula. The establishment fought back against what it saw as new and disturbing trends whilst women — who it turned out quite liked wearing mini skirts — fought back with protests of their own.
It was no contest really.
Personal liberty was an established cultural norm; counter progressive forces within both the church and government were powerless to dictate to people what they should be wearing.
It’s easy to be smug about such things.
About how enlightened we are.
We should resist such impulses. Even with the head start the West was given thanks to the accidental success of the Enlightenment, our track record is not always that great. Even as young feminists protested their right to choose the length of their hemlines, homosexuals were being imprisoned in ‘progressive’ nations such as the U.K.
Likewise, equal marital laws are less than a decade old in most western countries.
So yes, we have five decades of statutory tolerance for homosexuals and yes women have been wearing short skirts in American cities for decades without fearing punishment from the law. And yet, such gains are statutory only. Women in skimpy outfits are still harassed by men; rape culture is a real thing; homophobia still engenders hate crimes.
Khulood’s bravery, however, is part of new phenomena – the phenomena of trans horizon optics. This is after all no longer the age of Enlightenment. It’s the Information age. Cross cultural contamination via social media and the internet has created an entirely new milieu, a melting pot that crosses all boundaries and knows few limits.
The Arabic world is changing, progressive values are seeping through the cracks and although the incumbent clergy are pressing down on the breaks as hard as they can they are only slowing progress.
They can never stop it.
Khulood has denied uploading the video and as of yet, her fate remains uncertain.
At any rate, According to The Guardian, women who do not abide by the dress code in offices can be fined 1,000 riyals (£205).
And that’s a small price to pay for freedom of expression.
Featured image from imgflash.org.