SaudiMedina's discrimination(s)

"This picture was published in UK's The Independent with the caption "Photos taken by activists in Saudi Arabia showing the destruction of the Grand Mosque" 

The Saudi Arabian city of Medina is considered a sacrosanct locale by Muslims around the world. It is the city that welcomed the Prophet Mohammed when his own tribe in Mecca turned against him and is the place where the Prophet, as well as his family members and companions, are buried. Medina was the site of Muhammad’s migration and has, since then, become the second of Islam's holy cities and thus, the second most popular spot for Muslims worldwide.

Such popularity has led to some distasteful changes to the historic and spiritually-important city as well as its fellow holy shrine, Mecca. In recent years, skyscraper apartments and hotels have taken precedent over valuable landmarks like the Prophet’s birthplace and the home of his first wife Khadija. According to a Gulf Institute report, “95% of the 1,000-year-old buildings in the two cities have been destroyed in the past 20 years.”

However, it’s not simply the tragic destruction of Islamic heritage sights that’s ruining the perceived splendor of these cities. As Saudis pave over History for shopping malls, we must look also at the shift of the city’s ideals – we must see that the spirit of tolerance and acceptance has been replaced with division and repression.
Racial discrimination and animosity are rampant in Medina, a place where people of all religions and walks of life once resided. The displays of racism vary – one must be particularly mindful to recognize it in the way Saudi women walk, un-veiled, in front of male migrant workers, whose race "excepts" them from modesty rules. One need be less aware to see the kinds of discrimination that happen within the mosques.

In Medina, I saw an Egyptian woman, who fought her way into a line that would allow her access to the Prophet’s Mosque, waiting for her turn to pray at the holy site. When she mentioned to a mosque employee that the hubbub made her feel like a beggar, the employee shot back “you are Egyptian… you should be used to feeling like a beggar.” Through her tears, the woman wondered aloud how such a hurtful exchange could occur in such a sacred place.


As Saudis pave over History for shopping malls, we must look also at the shift of the city’s ideals – we must see that the spirit of tolerance and acceptance has been replaced with division and repression.

Rather than remaining holy sites, mosques (and perhaps the city at large) have become brusque and business-like. In Saudi, race, money, and family lines dictate your place; religious intent and sacred sentiments bear no weight.

The cities of Mecca and Medina are holy to all Muslims, shia and sunni alike, but the sectarian snobbery of Saudi Arabians makes it difficult for members of the former group to worship there. In Saudi, a country run in accordance with the strictest religious interpretations in the Arab world, Shiites are considered the “greatest enemies of Islam.” No wonder they are the targets of so much animosity and humiliation in the sacred cities.

I once watched as a Shia, Iranian woman lost herself in prayer. The elderly matron quietly communed while a mosque employee circled her, arms crossed. Eventually the employee shouted at the old woman, forcing her to cut her prayers short and leave the mosque. The woman’s age and tired limbs made the affair a drawn out humiliation that all shuddered to watch.

Despite the fact that religious tolerance is espoused in both the Quran and the Hadith, Saudi Arabians let their personal sectarian ideologies get in the way. Rather than welcoming pilgrims and worshippers into their cities and holy sites, Saudis turn to the pretension and derision made prominent by religious publications, school materials, and the speeches of famous Saudi clerics.

Unlike the holy city of Mecca, where men and woman circle the Kaaba and pray side by side, the mosques in Medina (like many others elsewhere) are segregated by gender. If there is an area allocated for the women to pray in, it’s typically a small, crowded, sub-standard option when compared to the open expanses of the men’s area. In Medina’s Quba mosque, for example, women push and shove to get inside their tiny allocation and must pray in tightly packed clusters.

It is a widely accepted fact that at the time of the Prophet, barriers between men and women did not exist in the mosque; they were only created after the Prophet’s death. In fact, women were not only present in mosques - they also spoke up and participated in discussions. Today there is no such mixing. For the sake of the ladies’ “modesty,” they are kept segregated and out of sight. But news commentator Sobia Ali argues that it’s not for modesty’s sake that women are pushed aside. She reminds us instead that it’s because “men could be sexually attracted to women’s bodies” and thereby distracted from prayer--as the official argument goes. “This of course makes me feel like a sex object,” she writes.

The gender segregation at Medina left me feeling the same empty feeling. Rather than remembering that I am equal creation of God or valuable, I felt only that I should be ashamed of my body and as a result, should hide it. Tradition in the mosque in Medina and around the world has significantly changed since the Prophet’s death, and women are now the ones bearing the burden.

The holy city of Medina was a place of refuge for the Prophet. It was the site where he established the laws and precepts that all Muslims (strive to) live by today. The historical and traditional landmarks alone are enough to merit a type of modern deference. And yet, the physical remains of religious legacy fall under the plow with increasing frequency. Historic buildings offer little economic value to the land brokers and money-makers of Saudi’s cities.

What’s more heartbreaking, however, is that the intangible traits of openness, hospitality, creativity and equality imbued in the city are also falling prey to the country’s modern mannerisms. The tolerance present during the Prophet’s time has, unfortunately, been overcome by the discriminations inherent in the Saudi system.

And yet, those who defend such a system pretend it is driven by the respect for "immemorial traditions." Nothing could be more wrong and deceitful.

*Bayan Perazzo is a professor and blogger specializing in sociology, MENA politics and Islamic studies. She lives in Saudi Arabia and tweets at @BintBattuta87 (illustration image: subjects in the photograph are not mentioned in the article)Although mixing of the sexes is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, tonight, the rules don't apply...  

(Quick point here: I have nothing against breaking the rules, if the purpose is to exercise such a basic freedom as having fun. On the contrary, I long for the day when Saudis (and Arabs in general) launch massive campaigns of civil disobedience as a way to push individual freedoms. Yet in that Taif party, something nastier was in the air.)

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#4 arrigatto 2013-05-10 03:32
Few years back when they started building these hotels, I thought well this should be good for the growing number of pilgrims every year. Last year, when my relatives came from Bangladesh for Umrah, they couldn't find an affordable hotel nearby! These are luxurious hotels made by large corporations, only for people who can afford them. It has nothing to do with accommodating pilgrims, it's just pure business.
#3 Kazam 2013-04-30 19:47
Skhan what are you talking, People should have a right to choose and if they do not want to fast it's their wish. Why does Islam have to impose so many non-sensical rules.
#2 skhan 2013-04-27 12:29
Some Saudis (not all of them, obviously) always had a doubtful way of Islam. In their country they are "holier than thou". When you go to Hajj and buy jewellery or something, the shopkeeper will try to touch you and you are pinched and proded during the pilgramage itself. No decency.
During Ramdan some of these people go overseas to avoid fasting and there they are totally out of control - vining, dining and womanizing. Check them out in Mumbai's hotels and bars during Ramdan. People like that are the root of all evil, giving a stigma to the religion Islam. All these problems in the world today are due to them.
#1 brahim 2013-04-26 05:12
In the same way the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century paved the way for Europe to merge from the darkness of the middle age to the modern era, only a revolution and a change of the rotten al saud family will permit a birth of a progressive Islam that will garantee the equality of rights, the rule of law, transparecy and the respect of human rights.