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Saudi Women: Breaking the Chains
By: Jamie Glazov
Thursday, February 16, 2006


In a Frontpage Exclusive, a Saudi woman discusses her passion for the women's movement.

Frontpage Interview's guest today is Moudhy Al-Rashid, a Saudi woman with aspirations to pursue a career in human rights. Ms. Al-Rashid is a senior at the College at Columbia University. While she plans to graduate in May with a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy, she hopes to pursue a Master's Degree in human rights and Islamic studies. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, she feels especially passionate about the women's movement in her homeland.

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FP: Moudhy Al-Rashid, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Al-Rashid: Thank you, Jamie.

FP: First, tell us a bit about your background. What was life like growing up in Saudi Arabia as a woman?
 
Al-Rashid: I spent the first fifteen years of my life in Saudi Arabia, my childhood and my formative years. As a girl, my innocence shielded me from the implications--political and personal--of traditional customs such as the veil or the prohibition from driving. As a woman, my experiences provided the most important lessons I have learned in my life.
 
I still remember the first day I was obliged to don the traditional abaya. I also remember gathering my hair into a ponytail when I was in the fifth grade and chopping it off in an effort to avoid the momentous occasion (I wanted to look like a boy).
 
In short, I neither understood nor cared to understand the ways in which law and society systematically excluded women. However, my rebelliousness has recently given way to a new understanding of the position of women in Saudi society, one that takes into account such factors as the discursive power that women wield through their contribution to literature, or the structure of power within the home. There are many ways to participate in society, and Saudi women leave their mark in unconventional and often unrecognized ways.
 
FP: Please discuss a bit how women wield power through unconventional and often unrecognized ways. Tell us about their contribution to literature, or the structure of power within the home in this context.
 
Al-Rashid: Well, I have in mind one book in particular: "Women and Words in Saudi Arabia: The Politics of Literary Discourse," written by Sadekka Arebi. In her work, she presents a study of writing by Saudi women. One of her arguments is that women have found a political voice through contributions to the literary discourse that shapes the public sphere. Premised on the relationship between discourse and power and between literary __expression and political participation, her argument reveals, for example, that through words, women contribute to the production of knowledge and to the writing of their history. Because as an occupation, writing is compatible with cultural norms and restrictions of women's mobility, it represents an important mechanism for social change that women have access to.  Access to this form of political participation enables women to wield power in an unconventional way. Also, by confronting the cultural dilemma posed by "the relationship of women as a private category and words as a public one," these writers find a way to challenge power structures and social norms.

Although there are other ways in which Saudi women influence society, such as through active political participation, and a panoply of articles and books written on the subject, I will limit answer to the more Foucaultian approach for now (since I just finished reading Arebi's book).
 
FP: The Saudi government has made some strides in the past decade on the position of women in society. Tell us about some of these and whether they are meaningful or just window dressing.
 
Al-Rashid: Well, her Royal Highness Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal recently gave a talk in which she sought to dispel the image of Saudi women as "down-trodden slaves to men." I agree with her. For the media to portray Saudi women in this light is to sell us short of the accomplishments we have made in the last fifty years, beginning especially with the efforts of the late Queen Effat.
 
Whereas it was illegal for girls to attend schools before 1959, today there are more women than men enrolled in higher education. Although women were not allowed to vote, two women were elected to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry early last year in the first municipal elections held in the country. Women are expected to vote in the 2009 municipal elections. More and more professional opportunities are becoming available to women.
 
While these statistics may only serve to dress up an oppressive reality, I can attest to a marked difference in my own experiences. As a child and teenager, I remember being petrified of the religious police; during my few weeks spent in Riyadh last summer, I did not spot one mutawa'a, and I noticed more and more women were not wearing the veil or were barely draping it over their hair. Even if in small ways, change has been meaningful.
 
This is not to say that there remains A LOT of work to be done, but I am excited that so much has changed in my generation alone. There remain the issues of driving and the veil. I see the improvement of the position of women in Saudi society as both a challenge and an opportunity.
 
FP: What do you think about the portrayal of Saudi women in the Western media?
 
Al-Rashid: My view is twofold. As I said above, I agree with her highness Princess Loulwa that the portrayal of Saudi women is both inaccurate and unfair. First, it commits the fallacy of "cultural essentialism": in other words, Jamie, it turns the situation into a purely cultural phenomenon to be placed in direct opposition to Western values when in reality, it has specific political explanations.
 
Also, to reduce the experiences of Saudi women to the symbolic markers of oppression (such as driving, the veil, polygamy, etc.) is to rob women of their historical and political agency. Too often, the media seizes on the negative and ignores the positive. At the same time, I think it is important that the negative sides come to light. Before September 11th, the "plight" of women living under traditionalist Islamic legal systems was largely ignored. It is crucial that these abuses are addressed, and this task has fallen to media sources with the luxury of freedom of expression.
 
FP: What are Saudi women's conceptions of themselves?
 
Al-Rashid: When Karen Hughes met with Saudi women to address the issue of driving, she was met with mixed reactions. Many of the women insisted that they were "happy" under this system, and when one woman stood up to proclaim this position, her words were met with applause.
 
Driving aside, many women choose to veil and do not view the requirement as a form of oppression. In my experience, and I can only speak for myself and the few other Saudi women that I know: Saudi women find ways to articulate their presence within the current system, and many agree with traditional customs. This does not mean, however, that none of us want to drive and all of us want to veil. We are not yet full agents in the political and social sense, but we are certainly not victims.
 
FP: With all due respect, as a son of Soviet dissidents, I have a difficult time listening to people who say the persecuted citizens of a tyranny are not victims.
 
Ms. Al-Rashid, I think that in Mecca in 2002, when Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the mutaween, pushed fifteen fleeing female students back into their burning school because they were not properly covered in their veils, and those fifteen girls died, I think it is safe to say that they were victims. And those poor girls represent all women in Saudi Arabia -- and millions of women throughout the Islamic world who live and suffer, and are tortured and who die, under the cruel paradigms of Islamic gender apartheid.
 
You say that when Karen Hughes met with Saudi women to address the issue of driving, that she was met with “mixed reactions.” Many of the women, you say, insisted that they were "happy" under the system and there was applause when this comment was made.
 
Ms. Al-Rashid, in a tyranny where dissent is illegal and people are arrested and tortured at best and executed at worst for speaking what is truly on their minds, the proclamations of being “happy” are absolutely meaningless. This is like going to Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China and taking seriously peoples’ statements about how happy they are, when if they say anything to the contrary they will suffer long terms in concentration camps or simply disappear.
 
Tell me please, what would have happened to the women in the audience who were listening to Ms. Hughes who would have simply started chanting against the Saudi rulers and then ripped off their abayas in protest? What would have happened to those women? That is the question to ask and the answer to that question is what our concern must be, not sitting around talking about women who said they were happy when dissent and certain behaviour is punishable by severe penalties.
 
You state that “many women choose to veil and do not view the requirement as a form of oppression.” That is not the issue. For those of us who care about the real meaning and reality of freedom, the key question is: what if a woman chooses not to veil, does see veiling as a form of oppression, and makes her non-veiling publicly evident? That is the question.
 
And my heart and my concern is with those brave and courageous women who suffer Saudi persecution because they have made choices that go against tyrannical rules. I am not interested in articulations of happiness made by people in a despotic order where articulations of dissatisfaction can land one in prison and get one publicly flogged or tortured in a Saudi prison cell.
 
Al-Rashid: The position of people living under a Soviet regime, or in communist Russia, is quite different from the position of those living in a traditionalist Islamic state. I am not defending tyranny. I am defending the historical agency, specific to women in Saudi Arabia, that the Western media denies us by portraying us as victims and victims only. The young girls who died in the fire in 2002 were indeed victims, and they will never be forgotten. However, to claim that those fifteen girls represent all women in Saudi Arabia and women in majority Muslim societies everywhere is incorrect, not to mention that it is sick to turn an incident that claimed the lives of fifteen innocent girls into a literary trope or a means of lumping the experiences of women in a vast majority of cultural and political milieus into a homogenized, oppressed group.

I don't think it is impossible to conceive of honesty among women in
Saudi Arabia. The women that Karen Hughes encountered and interviewed seemed sincere in their proclamations of happiness, whether or not these interest you. I think it would be wrong to automatically discount their opinions simply because of a restricted political climate.
 
Many women have courageously braved the consequences of confronting the regime, such as the women who took to the streets in their cars in 1990 in protest of the custom that forbids them to drive. Others have pursued careers in journalism, politics, and business in a way that allows them more leverage in the __expression of opinions. Slowly, Jamie, things are changing; this is the point I was trying to make in the previous questions. I was not trying to deny that human rights abuses take place. Please do not recast my positive outlook as naiveté, and there is no need to congratulate me for my self-conception as an agent rather than as a victim.

Finally, "for those of us who care about the real meaning and reality of freedom," I agree that the question turns on the possibility for choice and that the answer ultimately emerges from the human rights record of a country. I would add to that, however, that conceptions of freedom respond to the various political circumstances in which they arise. Like I said before, this does not amount to a support of cultural relativism. There is only one "freedom" per se, which ideally should be protected through international law, but to truly universalize this notion will require a dialogue, not a monologue.
 
FP: Well, I am not sure how the despotism in Saudia Arabia cannot be compared to a Nazi or communist regime. A tyranny is a tyranny. When you have a police state where dissent is not permitted, and where dissent is punished, then you have despotism. And whether it is Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism or Wahhabism, the assault on individual freedom is what it is: totalitarianism.
 
Again, for the record, I couldn’t care less if the women that Karen Hughes encountered appeared sincere in their proclamations of happiness. It means nothing. Themes of happiness articulated by a person under a Stalinist regime who is talking under the watchful eye of the Stalinist police are meaningless. If there is punishment for stating opposition to a regime, then statements of approval of a regime mean nothing, zilch.
 
I’ll tell you what I am interested in: when a woman will be able to walk into the streets of Saudi Arabia alone and take off her abaya if she so chooses, and talk aloud about how she has converted to Christianity or Hinduism if she so chooses, and how much she likes the Danish cartoons of Mohammed if she so chooses, and then finishes by talking about her lover if she so chooses, and no harm comes to her. That’s what I am interested in. And until any and every woman can do this if she so chooses and then be able to go home freely undisturbed and unpunished, that is when women in Saudi Arabia, and all individuals in Saudi Arabia, will be free.
 
And this is not a cultural imperialist construct being forced on another society. It is a universal human right for a woman to exercise her free speech and conscience and sexual self-determination and to not face the threat of punishment or execution for it.
 
So you say that not all Saudi women are victims. 
 
Was every single human being under the Stalinist regime a victim? You could point to thousands of ways some individuals under Stalin were able to work through some kind of mechanism in which they ate, and slept and were able to work and to survive and to “wield power through unconventional and often unrecognized ways.” But this all means nothing in the sense of who is and is not a victim, because once any human being in this system articulated that he didn’t like Stalin, he would be gone. And that is how every human being under Stalin was a victim. And that is why every human being under any tyranny is, in one way or another, a victim.
 
So tell me:
 
In Saudi Arabia:
 
every woman is not allowed to drive, and every woman who makes the choice to get behind a drivers seat if she so chooses and drives a car will be punished.
 
every woman must veil herself, and every woman who makes the decision not to do so will be punished
 
every woman is imprisoned, to one extent or another, within the home. Every woman who dares to leave the home on her own and travels alone, will be punished.
 
So please tell me: which women among all these women are not victims? The ones who are not, tell me what would happen to them if they engaged in the restricted activities above and how this fits with them not being victims.
 
Al-Rashid: Jamie, unfortunately it seems that you would rather propagandize this than seriously discuss the issues. In order to seriously discuss this, then we have to have a common understanding of the terms we are using. The Stalinist regime in Russia was a form of totalitarianism. The current regime in Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship. These countries have very different histories.

Let us, for a moment, set aside questions about Saudi culture, alternative ways of exercising power, Karen Hughes, proclamations of happiness, and other questions we have already decided that we disagree on. Let us also set aside the extremely insulting formulation of Saudi women purely as victims, and let us concede, at the very least, that the question of women is both symbolic and real. On the one had, there is the beginning of a Western espousal of freedom, which articulates nothing but imperialism—the West exploits the hell out of Egypt and India, for example, as well as other developing countries, and then it wants to liberate their women. However, the woman question is important not just in terms of a glorification of West over East. On the other hand, there is the inevitable fact that religious worldviews must rely on texts written not in the early twentieth century, such as the Communist Manifesto, but in the early seventh century, or even earlier. Religious worldviews, and this includes Judaism and Christianity (and Hinduism), are rooted in a very strong and reinforced link with pre-modern literature and pre-modern ways of telling. Pre-modern ways of telling and the language of pre-modern political thought is very much centered on women, and that is only one of the reasons why religion focuses so much on women. Religion needs to be grounded in this tradition, or it will mean nothing.
Saudi Arabia
provides, perhaps, one of the more clear examples of this dimension of religion, which invariably defines the contours of the country's legal system.

Discussions of developing countries take place in terms of legal framework. The questions pivot on such issues as modernization of access to law, a bureaucracy that functions with transparency, and the implementation of a legal code. These are the issues that
Saudi Arabia
has in common with other developing countries. These issues have nothing to do with Islam or the veil or victimization, and everything to do with questions, as Hernando DeSoto formulates it, about "the mystery of capital" and similar practical concerns. The right way to answer these questions is through legal protection extended to less powerful sectors of society, not to those sectors that have the choice of whether or not they would rather drive or have a chauffer. Progressives legislation, in this context, is legislation that protects women and children in the less privileged stratum of society that do not have the luxury of even raising this question, or any of the others that you raised above.

Finally, Jamie, in light of this, the right to flaunt or not to flaunt your sexuality has no place in a serious discussion of the issues. The question of freedom is not fetishized in this way in this context; it only has meaning within the analytic parameters set by Western discourse that neglects the actual issues required for progress, modernization, and freedom in the context of a country like
Saudi Arabia.
 
To continue reading this interview, click here.

Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.