The Saudi Ministry of Interior on Monday shared on its official Twitter account photos of female Hajj and Umrah security guards on duty at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and near the Kaaba.
The pictures went viral on Saudi WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms with thousands of users making positive comments.
Eighty Saudi women have been recruited to join the Hajj and Umrah Security Forces. Their duties are to maintain security, organize and manage crowds in all corridors of the Grand Mosque, and help women, one of the recruits told Al Arabiya.
Her colleague, Mona Al-Zahrani, said she had joined a military course in Riyadh to learn how to serve worshippers and pilgrims.
The presence of Saudi women in the military and somewhere that Muslims consider to be the “most sacred” place on Earth, reflects a deep change in the social role of women in the Kingdom. No more are they limited to certain job roles away from men.
In 2010, extremist cleric Yusuf Al-Ahmad called for the “demolition and reconstruction of the Grand Mosque” in order to prevent what he considered to be a “forbidden intermingling” between men and women there.
Al-Ahmad, who made his comments during a phone interview with a satellite channel, was not only speaking for himself, but also in the name of radical religious groups that showed contempt for women and those who disagreed with their opinions and doctrines.
Not only that, but some hardline clerics, and even conservatives, consider that “a woman’s mosque is her home.” One of their fatwas rules it to be a great sin for a woman to reveal her face.
Therefore, the photos of Saudi female soldiers in the Grand Mosque sent out a strong message that hardline ideas have no place in the new Saudi Arabia, and that the authorities would not allow Al-Ahmad and his followers to oppress women or prevent them from exercising their freedom to work in various places and positions.
The reform steps undertaken by the Saudi government are far from merely aiming at empowering women but seek to seize religious legitimacy from the hardline movement that has monopolized such matters for years.
The liberalization of religion and the separation between religion and politics, leaving options for citizens and residents to exercise their lives with fewer restrictions, and in accordance with the law, is the policy that the Saudi government is gradually working on.
The political leadership is convinced that the use of religion in politics, and the promotion of hate speeches, extremism, and sectarianism are practices that harm civil peace and run counter to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
The Saudi government has also launched Ihsan, a national platform for charitable giving, that works to support opportunities for donations and charitable projects in all regions of the Kingdom. More than SR347 million ($92.5 million) have been donated via the platform, benefitting 689,745 individuals and projects.
Ihsan also aims to liberate religion from the radical movement to prevent funds going to illegal entities, being used to finance terrorism, promote hatred, sectarianism, and racism, or support Daesh and Al-Qaeda cells.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s project to develop historic mosques, is not simply a restoration of heritage mosques in different parts of Saudi Arabia. It is also an affirmation that heritage and religious monuments are part of society’s culture, and that religious attitudes that disdain heritage or call for the demolition of some mosques for flimsy reasons will not be allowed to erase the memory of Saudis and rob them of their architecture.
Therefore, this project seeks to change religious thought from its rigid and old view toward antiquities and ruins, and to entrench the concept of religious tourism.
The Saudi female guards on duty at the Grand Mosque will not be the one and only batch of women recruits. Others will follow to actively participate alongside their male colleagues, serving visitors during Hajj and Umrah seasons, and in the process confirming that Islam will not be held hostage by a handful of extremists wanting to practice repression and tyranny in the name of religion.
• Hassan Almustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse, and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa