Reflections on Three Decades of Religious Dominance: The 1980s

Not so long time ago, religion constituted the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s society and culture. Growing up in Riyadh in the 1980s, I witnessed an excessiveness of religion that was considered the norm. Religion was not only taught in school or practiced at home; it governed the unconscious drives and instincts of the Saudi population.

The impact of religion on people’s lives was most dominant in the 1980s. The 1979 bloody siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, followed by a decline of oil prices and the rise of a new King caused the country to close up on its self. Entertainment outlets did not exist; as a result, social gatherings became the only means for people to interact and entertain themselves. These gatherings functioned as an unofficial ground for religious discussions based on folklore, rigid interpretations of religion and reflections on Friday sermons.  Consequently, what was discussed on these social events had a long-standing effect not only on men and women, but also on children who were sometimes present in such gatherings.

The rise of new religious figures contributed in materializing the religious discourse at that time. Their growing influence and ability to reach a big audience allowed them to be seen as a credible source of information. They contributed immensely in the growing interest in religious publications. The popularity of these new figures created a distinction between them and those from the official religious establishment. Nevertheless, they preached freely in mosques, publish and distributed books and played a major role in shaping a new understanding of religion that would dominate the cultural and social scene for years to come.

In my experience, and other who grew up in the 1980s, the growing dominance of new religious figures was attributed to the expansion of what can be dubbed the “morbid booklet effect”. These booklets played a major role in shaping the psyche of the Saudi population. The subject matter of these booklets was not only religious, but quite morbid in nature. They were usually cheap, sold for only 1 Saudi Riyal per copy (around 0.25 US Dollars). Many received them for free since some would buy them in bulk and distribute them as they see fit.

The discussion of morbid topics such as death, torture in grave and hell proved to be successful in generating fear that was utilized to make people follow a more strict form of religion back then (see fig. 1). Women were also a central topic of discussion in these booklets. Issues concerning the importance of women’s virtue and the roles women must fulfill for her husband, family and society were stressed and encouraged (see figs. 2 and 3).

Figure 1. A collage posted on Twitter showing some of the titles widely circulated in the 1980s and 1990s. These topics concern life after death, torture in grave and hell.
Figure 2. Also widely posted collage on Twitter showing booklet titles relating to the importance of women’s virtue.
Figure 3. A flyer showing the differences between virtuous women and non-virtuous women. Even though both of them are dressed in black, the one on the left is considered to be dressed less appropriately and, hence, called “less virtuous”.

On the other hand, booklets targeting the male audience highlighted the importance of maintaining the status quo of women in a traditional and virtuous manner. Shaming of men who allowed women to break free from the cultural dogma was quite common (see fig. 4). As a result, men were constrained by a society that did not accept them if they allowed women more freedom. Emasculating men due to their lenience towards women was a common theme in these booklets. Therefore, women had to operate through the double burden of society, as well as the immediate male guardianship system.

Figure 4. A recent poster in a school encouraging fathers to ask their daughters to cover appropriately.

One example of the rising influence of new religious figures can be seen in their reaction towards photography or any other form of figurative representation. At that time, they considered it a way of imitating God’s creation. People were encouraged to burn photographs, not watch television and were asked to get rid of toys such as stuffed animals and dolls. Many in Saudi know of a family member or a friend who burnt family photographs or did not allow their children to have certain toys. However, those who did so would usually express remorse when they see photos of the same religious figures, among their family and friends, posted on their social media accounts.

With the lack of satellite dishes, mobile phones or the internet, the dominance of religion managed to affect people’s lives completely. Also, the absence of any other form of entertainment as well as the ability for booklets and preachers to reach a big audience helped homogenize the religious discourse in the 1980s. Therefore, the 1990s was a challenging decade for maintaining such rhetoric as satellite dishes and the internet would, slowly but surely, change people’s perceptions and attitudes, as shall be seen in the next post.

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