The Emerging Power of the Twentysomething Saudi Woman
By Rob L. Wagner
NewsTilt (25 April 2010)
Western feminists spend considerable energy debating whether Saudi women need rescuing from what Westerners perceive as an oppressive patriarchal society. Activists grapple with the conundrum of whether to respect the choices Saudi women make or to plunge ahead with a campaign to guarantee their basic human rights.
The most recent effort to rescue Saudi women comes from the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Commission. The commission is pressuring Saudi Arabia to allow female athletes to participate in the 2012 games or face a possible ban from competition. Yet Saudi women largely ignore this type of pressure. Which begs the question: Do Saudi women need a savior?
The answer is no. In my interviews in Saudi Arabia over the past six years, Saudi women consistently argue that reform develops organically and not from external pressure.
“I find Western intervention into my business rather annoying,” one Saudi professional told me recently. “Who appointed non-Saudis to speak for me? That’s not to say that Saudi women face serious problems. The current attitudes toward male guardianship pose severe hardships on women, but change in Saudi society is happening. And it’s occurring at a pace most of us are comfortable with.”
Shroog Radain, 29, is a teacher’s aide at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. She bristles at the suggestion that she needs help to overcome cultural obstacles as she pursues a career in higher education.
“Saudis are more open now than they ever have been,” Radain said. “You will find men and women working in a non-segregated environment. You’ll find the private universities have no limits.”
Radain noted that Western feminists fail to understand how Saudi women interpret women’s rights. Saudi society generally perceives women’s rights in the context of Western culture that threaten Islamic values. Abandoning the hijab, premarital sex and relegating the needs of family to second-class status are genuine fears among Saudis.
Indeed, Western activists fail to win the hearts and minds of Saudi women once they argue for reform that conflicts with Saudi values. Saudi women, according to Radain, want the rights that Islam guarantees them without the constraints of tribal and cultural traditions. The Qur’an, for example, interprets male guardianship considerably more loosely than the Saudi government.
The frustrated activist, though, can take comfort in the impact Western values has Saudi culture.
Access to the Internet and satellite television that broadcast American television shows, movies and pop music videos heavily influence Saudi women who are now making demands once considered taboo.
“It used to be that why we wear the niqab was never a topic of discussion,” said the Saudi professional who is originally from Madinah. “Everybody wore the niqab. When I moved to Jeddah in 2003, I’d say one or two in 10 girls were not wearing it. Now it’s even more. We can thank satellite television for that. You watch enough American movies and you begin to think differently about things as long as your basic religious values remain intact.”
A major obstacle to Western feminists winning the trust of Saudi women is generalizations made about Saudi men and the perception that they have complete control over wives, daughters and sisters. There are many instances of emotional abuse of women in Saudi Arabia, but to indict the entire male population is ludicrous, Radain said.
“My husband supports my desire to study in the U.S. and he is willing to quit his job and continue his studies as well,” Radain said. “He never thinks of men versus women. Most of my husband’s generation has the same mentality.”
A significant impact on young Saudis is the rising influence of young sheikhs, who are becoming increasingly popular among teens and young adults.
“These young guys are role models for teenagers today,” Radain said. “These sheikhs are willing to meet boys and girls in the same room. The girls don’t cover their faces and everyone memorizes the Qur’an together. It’s religious study in a modern way and it suits our lives.”
Saudi women point to the popularity of religious study in a mixed environment and their choices in careers as reform on their own terms and not defined by Western values. It’s reform they embrace.
Rob L. Wagner is a California-based journalist who writes about Arab/Muslim issues. He was managing editor of the daily newspaper Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from 2004 to 2007, and returns periodically to the Kingdom. He most recently was a contributing writer to the academic textbook Islam: Opposing Viewpoints (Greenhaven Press, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009).