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