A 118-word Associated Press dispatch that was published by a number of international newspapers revealed that Qatar has decided to open the first female-only cinema in the Middle East. Some might say: “Very well, what’s important about this news item?” The answer is that this news has a number of implications, and is important in several regards.
First is its media importance, for the second part of this news contained the claim that the opening of a women-only cinema in Qatar serves as evidence that Gulf States are “catering” to Islamic customs and tradition regarding to gender segregation. The news item also reported that in the UAE, for example, the state-run taxi company has women-only cabs with female drivers to cater solely to female customers.
The news report then went on to cite Saudi Arabia as being the only country in the region that “follows strict Islamic customs that keep the sexes from mingling.”
The question here is: Why is it that most regional countries “cater” to Islamic customs and tradition, while it is Saudi Arabia that is viewed as extremist? This is where the political story begins.
The answer to this is very simple; namely, there is constant criticism of Saudi Arabia, along with a prolonged delay in dealing with local issues such as this.
The process of development does not mean running away from Islamic customs and traditions, and it also does not mean clashing with society at large. Rather, what we require is practical solutions to such issues, for there are urgent social, health, and security needs for this.
As for the issue of the women-only cinema in Qatar, the Qataris have succeeded in catering to the special characteristics of their own country and people, without using the term “special characteristics.”
They have also succeeded in dealing with this issue quietly and calmly, without further complicating the issue, particularly as cinemas in Qatar are open to everybody. However, this women-only cinema is being established to accommodate a component of society whose members have a right that deserves be respected for whatever reason. You cannot force people to do something that they do not want to, especially if this issue has nothing to with the law.
Therefore, the role of the state is to encourage and prepare its citizens through persuasion and providing alternatives, rather than through clashes, and this is something that is very important, however eager we are for progress.
As for the issue of cinema itself, satellite television today allows everything into our homes, whether it is acceptable or not acceptable, and we have no way of controlling this. However, there are better ways to create integrated programs that serve the nation and citizens, particularly the youth.
At one point, neighborhoods in Saudi Arabia – before they became suburbs – each included a mosque, school, restaurant, grocer, and football field. Today, however, because of urban growth and expansion, our neighborhoods have become suburbs and are completely changed.
Therefore, in order to serve the social, health, and security interests of our society, we must cater to each neighborhood is in need of integrated parks – including all kinds of sporting fields – as well as catering to women and children. There is also a need for cinema catering to youth and families, and even women, along the Qatari example, and so on.
This issue is not one of extravagance; rather, we must look at this from the perspective of serving the social, health, and security interests of our society, according to our customs and traditions, and this includes protecting women and children. In New York, for example, there is a special security apparatus that focuses on parks, the Department of Parks and Recreation.
There are numerous solutions to any given issue; the main problem is delay in dealing with these issues, for that is when they are transformed into controversies that tolerate no argument or debate.
This article first appeared in the London-based Asharq Al Awsat on June 29, 2011.