Saudi woman writer sees social change as ‘desperately needed’

Saudi writer Halima Mudhaffar - “We have to pay attention to creations by new talents and support them.”
Sunday 22/12/2019
Saudi writer Halima Mudhaffar. (Al Arab)
Looking to the future. Saudi writer Halima Mudhaffar. (Al Arab)

Saudi writer Halima Mudhaffar does not hide her delight with the significant and concrete transformation that Saudi Arabia is experiencing in cultural, social, legal and economic levels.

She said she is particularly happy with developments in culture and with the attention given to the arts, especially after a long period of distortion by extremist ideologies.

“Since the launch of Vision 2030, we have been in a stage of developing and building a cultural future,” Mudhaffar said.

She pointed out that the arts are neither superfluous nor only for entertainment purposes. When societies deal with theatre, music and the arts in general, as they would with physics, medicine and chemistry, they build long-standing, strong and solid civilisations.

That’s because the arts are a wheel for human development and psychological balance and a vital ambassador for a society’s identity and its indigenous culture, not to mention their intrinsic economic value in terms of revenues and creating new employment opportunities for young people, she said.

“We do have significant cultural heritage and well-known figures in literature, theatre, music and criticism,” Mudhaffar said. “These people built their careers and reputations by themselves. They didn’t have institutional support. This is the older generation and the Ministry of Culture should not stop at simply honouring them on occasions. It should invest in them as it invests in young talents.”

Mudhaffar classifies herself as part of the middle generation of writers and artists. She said she is biased in favour of the younger generation but also loyal to the older generation.

“We have to pay attention to creations by new talents and support them but we must not marginalise the previous generation of creators on account that they had their chance. They have worked hard tilling a ground that was far from being covered with flowers. Their experiences are inspiring and we should capitalise on them,” she added.

Mudhaffar said Saudi women have gone beyond waiting for the gender barrier to come down and, because of empowering them as full citizens, they have moved to the stage of production and building a legacy.

“Change in social culture starts with organisational legal change,” she said. “These vital changes that have taken place and touched women’s lives and empowered them to serve their society economically, culturally and humanly have a very big role to play in changing the narrow mindset and deficient view of a segment of society that still considers women as followers.”

“Freedom of expression is an elastic term,” Mudhaffar said. “Even major newspapers of the world place limits on it. Freedom of expression in all newspapers in the world is subject to laws that consider national security interests. The ideological bent of the paper itself places limits on it.

“As far as the local Saudi press is concerned, I think I’m quite familiar with it since I worked in the press for years before I decided in 2007 to devote my full time to writing my columns in addition to my government job,” she said. “I wrote social and cultural columns and I criticised senior officials and their ministries, especially the Revivalist current in those ministries.

“We cannot forget the incident of burning the Al-Jouf Literary Club by the Revivalists because of my writings and, yet, I have never been arrested for my writings and no one has interfered in what I write.

“In all honesty, I find the Saudi leadership open-minded and keen on ensuring freedom of opinion.”

“At the level of ‘opinion,’ the weakness of the local press is not the result of the lack of freedom of expression, as some claim, but the result of the lack of financial resources from which these papers suffer. Lack of resources led to professional weakness because the papers cannot attract professional journalists so the papers resort to inexperienced writers, even though this practice in itself is rather a threat to public opinion that must be addressed by those with experience and reasoning,” Mudhaffar explained.

She said the Saudis have turned the page of the Revivalist current and stand behind the clear official position against extremist ideology contaminated with Muslim Brotherhood ideology. She said Saudi society is heading to be more effective and more attached to the civil state.

“Change is desperately needed because time does not stop changing the world around us,” Mudhaffar said. “The Revivalist current, which I consider rather a hibernation current, proved to be a failed project. It succeeded in only kidnapping decades of our lives. This is why the Saudis support the official position and responded positively to it. As proof, we can cite the success of the Saudi festivals, the most recent of which was the Riyadh festival with its tremendous turnout. These festivals were rejected by the Revivalists.

“We can also cite the decision to allow women to drive. Most of those who opposed that project ended up getting driver’s licences for their wives and daughters. And so on and so forth of all the progressive decisions that the Revivalists had opposed.

“What we are experiencing today is happening with the consent and support of the Saudis themselves because these were decisions that answer their needs and affect the quality of their lives.

“As to those who are bemoaning the Revivalist era, they are a minority who had been taking advantage of that era for their own personal gains. Today, the law has put an end to their excesses.”

Regarding the new-old social conflict between the conservative Revivalist current and the liberal modernist trend, Mudhaffar said Saudi society promotes an authentic culture and aspires to modern and sophisticated life so there is room for everybody. “Everybody has the right to express his opinion ethically and responsibly,” she said.

A newspaper reported that feminism was criminalised as a form of extremist ideology but that line of thought was denied by the party to whom it was attributed and human rights activists asserted that feminism is not criminalised in Saudi Arabia.

“Sometimes I laugh and smile at this controversy, which is involving some elite names. Each one of them is singing a different tune and few are being systematic and knowledgeable in their approach,” Mudhaffar said. “It throws us back to the question about the conflicts between the modernists and the Revivalists and between the liberals and the religious. Now we have this feminists-versus-non-feminists conflict and both sides know very little about feminism.

“The dispute is due to their surface knowledge of the term and the concept behind it. Feminist in its simplest denotation emerged to fulfil the demands of women’s rights in Western societies, a mode of thinking that finds its roots in the culture of societies, personal beliefs, philosophical and social theories and political ideologies. This is why we find multiple forms of feminism. There is socialist feminism, liberal feminism, radical feminism, Jewish feminism, Christian feminism, et cetera.

“I once wrote about [Islamic State] ISIS feminism in recruiting and programming ISIS women and about immoral feminism, which was the other side of the coin of that feminism that doesn’t stop at anything. Obviously, we cannot consider that philosophy as true feminist thought but rather a crime punishable by law according to each state and society,” Mudhaffar said.