THERE was a central square in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh that was used for executions. Every Friday, after prayers, prisoners were brought here and executed before the watching crowd. The blood of the executed, it is said, used to flow down the square and into the gutters. In recent days, the square has been remodelled. There are no more executions here, and high-end shoppers breeze through the shops lining the square.
At a restaurant, diners sip mocktails, sometimes racking up a bill of more than $1,000. Now men and women can enjoy the expensive mocktails without having to enter through different entrances. Nor will they have to sit segregated behind partitions.
At the beginning of the week, Saudi Arabia announced that it was putting an end to gender segregation in restaurants. While certain high-end luxury hotels in Jeddah and Riyadh had already ended gender segregation at restaurants, most of the latter continued to uphold the practice over the past several decades. Suddenly, all of them will have to make arrangements to accommodate men and women together.
Part of the kingdom’s move to become more entertainment-friendly (other reforms have permitted women to attend sporting events and watch certain shows and performances) is a continuing effort by the kingdom to escape its reputation as a staid and backward place, disconnected from the mores of the 21st century. A greater number of tourist visas are also part of the mix as an effort to attract tourists and travellers from the Muslim world and elsewhere to the kingdom.
As is the case with all changes, the new unsegregated restaurants edict has received mixed reviews. According to one businessman, the rapid pace of change can be likened to sitting blindfolded in the back seat of a car while it is being driven. One can sense that the car is moving but one cannot make out in which direction or its ultimate destination. Others complain that the pace of change, considering how slowly things have moved in the kingdom, is too fast for a sustainable transformation. There is a danger, given this speed of change, that people will seethe in silence and oppose the new ways being introduced in a society that is used to old ways.
At the same time, whatever dissenting Saudis may think of the changes, there is no doubt that a transformation is taking place. The strength of the state means that even if people do not agree with the change, they will have to follow the prescriptions whether they involve women in restaurants or women driving cars. Undoubtedly, a new generation of Saudis is welcoming the change, eager to be the pioneers leading their country into a new era.
Pakistan and Pakistanis have had a long history of copying whatever Saudi Arabia does. Over the past several decades, the constant sending of migrant labour to Saudi Arabia has meant that the norms and mores of that land have come to Pakistan. The constant stream of pilgrims that go back and forth between the two countries, not to mention the leadership of the ummah, have all meant that many Pakistanis look to Saudi Arabia and take their cue from it regarding their support for or rejection of the emerging norms in their own country.
One hopes that this will also be the case regarding gender segregation. While it is true that Pakistan is not nearly as gender-segregated as Saudi Arabia, and there are no laws imposing such segregation on Pakistanis, the prevalence of formal and informal gender segregation seems to have risen in the past decade. Many weddings are now segregated with male and female guests kept entirely separate, and several other gatherings follow the same trend.
This trend has been noticeable in educational institutions. In September of this year, it was reported that Bahria University had issued a notification to all teachers to ensure that male and female students in their classes were seated separately. It was not the only educational institution to do this; even while men and women may no longer be segregated in restaurants in Saudi Arabia, the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore reportedly announced that boys and girls would not be permitted to sit together in the canteen. It was only after protests and an outcry that the administration retracted the directive.
These are the official and administrative motions that are encouraging gender segregation in Pakistan. Scores of other unofficial mandates are seen in educational institutions that have gender segregation on campus based on instructors’ demands or those of conservative religious groups that have a presence there.
The rationale between these and other instances of gender segregation is the same — that men and women cannot carry the responsibility of behaving ethically and morally if they are in somewhat close proximity. Instead of placing trust in the individual conscience and showing moral strength, there is a tendency to build an environment to prevent ‘wrongdoing’.
It is a useless tactic. If the whole emphasis is on the environment, a human being’s individual capacity for moral behaviour, which is the basis of religious conscience, is completely negated. Ordinary human beings are generally imagined as little better than animals, dependent on this or that master for this or that freedom. The fact is that human beings are not animals and the power of the individual conscience is real. Men and women sitting in one section in a restaurant is just one means of ordering society so that the responsibility for good behaviour is placed on the shoulders of the individual.
Saudi Arabia has taken a step in this direction, recognizing that this is the way to the future. One can only hope that Pakistanis, who so often take directions from the kingdom, will do the same.