Monday, 24 January 2011

Smoking Dilemma in Saudi

According to my sources smoking is frowned upon by Muslims, in Saudi anyway.  I don't believe cigarettes were actually around at the time of Prophet Muhammad so there's nothing in the Qur'an that actually says "Cigarettes are banned".  But he said a few other things like ' Don't harm yourselves or others' and 'You can do what is good, but don't do what is bad' or something along those lines.  Quite reasonable sounding guidelines really and not much different to the sort of thing any decent human might say, Muslim or not, even in this day and age.

The scholars, the ones in Saudi, have decided to get a bit more specific about the choices Muslims should make in their day to day lives, as they frequently tend to do, and have issued a fattwa against smoking.

For once, I agree with them.  Not because I think Saudi's are incapable of deciding for themselves what is harmful, good or bad.  But because I don't like smoking.  And lets face it, the addictive properties in cigarettes aren't allowing smokers (Saudi, Muslim or otherwise) to think with free will - which is exactly how tobacco company's like you...chained and pleading for more.

Apparently, they (the scholars) wrestled with this issue because of the lack of specific wording in the Qur'an, but decided the huge amount of research showing the harm cigarette smoking does to the body when held against the guidelines above didn't give them much choice. (Gees, why don't they apply the same kind of logic to the reems of research on women's exercise benefiting women's health, or women being better drivers than men is a question that needs to be asked if you really are serious about Saudi peeps well-being).

Ours is a smokefree home - it always has been.  Any friends or family who do smoke, and there aren't that many, get sent outdoors and down wind if they light up when they visit. 

I really don't get the buzz about smoking.  Sure, as a teen I tried the stuff, but I'm pleased to say, it didn't stick.  I love that New Zealand has Auahi Kore - Smokefree whare, Smokefree waka.  Smokefree pubs, clubs, restaurants and....well, almost everywhere.  I'm a non-smoker...and I like me and the air I breathe that way.

The Saudi ladies I know have all, at some point asked, do I smoke.  I'm not sure if they presume all western women partake in addictive chemical infused tobacco sticks.  After I respond in the negative, they ask if my husband smokes.  Negative again.  They seem quite happy about these answers. 

I, of course, then ask about them and their husbands in regards to smoking. To date the response has been a big fat 'No'. In fact, they said, their list of requirements for what makes a good Saudi husband includes 'Does not smoke!'

That being said, it surprises me the number of Saudi men out and about who do smoke.  (And a number of those men lie to their wives about their smoking status, I have also discovered).

One evening Glenn and I decided to visit one of our more favourite hotel haunts for a late night coffee.  At this time of night the lobby was full of men lounging in the comfy seats... and the place reeked of cigarette smoke.  The haze stung my eyes and the smell was bringing on a headache. 

I felt like I had been thrown back in time 20 years or so....this is exactly what NZ's popular hangouts used to be like. It's also one of the reasons I didn't like going out to those places very often. As I've been saying (in case you missed it) I don't like cigarette smoke.

OK, it wasn't only Saudi guys smoking and No, not every Saudi man had a ciggie in hand.  But enough for me to be thinking 'What the?  I thought it was bad Muslim form to smoke?  What's going on?'

I don't have any concrete answers but here's my take on possible reasons for the Saudi smoking situation after a bit of research.  (Ok, a night on the net).
  • The smoking fatwa in Saudi is fairly recent.  My late night research gave conflicting answers to the exact date of issuance, so maybe not all Saudi men have heard about it yet. (Uh huh??)
  • Maybe these guys would like to give up they just don't know how. I don't believe there is a Smoking Quit Line in Saudi though, as always, I'm happy to be corrected.
  • And finally, fatwa are rulings, but they aren't binding law.  (Hmmm...might re-examine the black abaya and the driving rules....Move on Kiwi!)  Muslims can, apparently, still make up their own minds about issues such as smoking....except if you're a Saudi woman who lives in Saudi.
Which brings me to a little bit of a....well, a dilemma of sorts. You see, Saudi men, actually all men, can choose to smoke even though the knowledgeable say they shouldn't.  They can sit in any Singles Section and puff on a smoke, should they choose.  They can sit outdoors, where the rest of the population can see them, and smoke away if they fancy.  They can even pull out a pack in the Family Section, while accompanying their wives and offspring, and enjoy their cancer stick oblivious (I'm hoping from lack of education, not from arrogance) to the effect that second hand smoke has on the family, not to mention any non-smokers in the vicinity.

Women's options for smoking, however, are significantly reduced - and I mean all women, not just Saudi women.

One day, I was having coffee in a local place down the road when a group of young women settled into the cubicle next door.  Then I heard it....Chik!..A lighter.  Soon after, that unmistakable cigarette aroma wafted into my space.  I dropped my book on my lap and contemplated my options....Move. Not move.   While so engaged in my thinking a waiter came to the cubby next door...

'I'm sorry, you cannot smoke here'  (Yay)
'Why not'
'Smoking is not allowed'
'But, why not' 
'I'm sorry you cannot smoke here.  My manager said I have to tell you to not smoke.'
'So, where can I smoke?'
'Smoking is only allowed in the Single Section'
'But the Single Section is for men.  Are you telling us to go and join the men?'
'I'm sorry, you cannot smoke here'

The women, with lots of Wallah disbelief, left. 
On one hand, I was glad.
On the other, I was a bit pissed.

Why does this establishment allow men to smoke in the men's section, but tells women (and I have no idea if these women were Saudi or not because I only got a quick glimpse of them, but they spoke Arabic) that they can't smoke in their part of the cafe?  What gives managment the right to make such gender biased rules?  And here's the kicker - I have been in that same coffee establishment's Family Section while men out with their wives and family were smoking - and not a word was said from the manager or his staff.

I know I don't like the stuff but the bigger issue of the one sided-ness of this society was irking me a darn sight more at this point. 

Not all establishments are so one-sided.  There are a few dining spots in Riyadh I have been to that allow women to smoke.  I'm not quite so pleased if the ladies take advantage of that opportunity when I happen to be there, especially when the venue is indoors with no open windows - which is most Family Sections in Riyadh.

If women do light up now, a little voice in my head starts to make excuses for women smoking in Saudi and I'm not quite sure what to do with it.  Any suggestions for this little quandary would be welcomed.

Ka Kite,

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