Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

March 29, 2016

Opinion: Barack Obama and the West Have Abandoned Their Ally Saudi Arabia – But They Will Regret It

By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

29 March 2016

Saudis have recently taken to describing President Barack Obama using an Arabic phrase “tarajala unn faras addiblumasiah” which, roughly translated, means: “He (who) alights from the horse of diplomacy”. Or to be blunt: he who has forgotten what it means to be president and is instead behaving like an ordinary man.

It follows Obama’s recent interview in The Atlantic, in which he described some US allies as “free riders”. Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal was especially offended, and although Obama did not single out Saudi Arabia the interview confirmed most Saudis’ fears that the US president has betrayed Saudi Arabia amidst growing Western hostility towards the kingdom.

Ever since Obama described Saudi Arabia as a “so-called ally” before becoming president Saudis have been sceptical of his commitment to Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. But many who watched Obama’s conciliatory speech to the Muslim world from Cairo in 2009 were hopeful the US would reverse its disastrous strategy towards the Middle East.

However, much to their bewilderment, Saudis found themselves relegated to the status of the red-headed stepchild at the family picnic while Obama courted and then secured a nuclear arms deal with Iran. They could only stand by and witness with incredulity as Washington embraced as an alley a nation that barely hides its role in state-sponsored terrorism and its support of Bashar Al-Assad’s murderous regime.

Washington found a new best friend by gutting its long-standing friendly relationship with the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia.

Adding further insult to Saudis, Obama equated Indonesian women wearing the hijab to Islamic fundamentalism because Saudis “funnelled money” to radical imams to “teach the fundamentalist version of Islam”. It was a slap in the face to every Muslim woman who considers it her right, her choice and a demonstration of her piousness to cover her hair.

Lost in all this noise is the failure of Saudi Arabia’s critics to acknowledge the burgeoning Islamic feminist movement among Saudi women.

These are the words, just about any Saudi citizen on the street will argue, of a man who fails to understand the vital nature of diplomacy between nations. He has abandoned his obligation to the office of the presidency to speak crudely about an ally as if he were gossiping with his neighbour over the backyard fence.

Obama’s inelegant remarks and very public attitude toward Saudi Arabia also reflects the growing vitriol in the American media directed at the kingdom. Seemingly forgotten is the vast counterterrorism intelligence apparatus that Saudi Arabia shares with the CIA and the FBI. Saudis are waging their war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen with the blessing of the White House. They created the 34-nation Islamic Military Coalition as a counterterrorism measure. Last month, the government offered to send ground troops to Syria.

Saudi loyalty, however, is ignored. Media fascination with Wahhabi Islam puzzles Saudis. How do the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, who is regarded as a mere footnote in Saudi and Islamic history, gain such traction in the West’s insistence that it is the root of the modern terrorist movement? Conspiracy-minded Saudis, and there are more than a few, argue that Wahhabism influence is a Western invention to create a bogeyman to explain the source of jihadi militants.

Neither can they fathom the West’s schizophrenic attitude toward the hijab, the symbol of oppression to many Western feminists who want to free Muslim women from patriarchal oppression (a notion many Saudi women embrace). Yet they want to deny Muslim women the choice to wear a garment that honours and respects God. To Saudis there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy with the employment and wage gap between American men and women, shuttering Planned Parenthood clinics that provide basic medical services to women and the misogynistic tone on the Republican Party presidential candidates’ campaign trail.

Perhaps American wrestler Mick Foley put it best in 2011. When Fox News Redeye host Greg Gutfeld complained about the victimization of women in Muslim countries, Foley replied: “The world gets an F in their treatment of women, but we’re (America) getting a C-minus and we’re bragging about it.”

Lost in all this noise is the failure of Saudi Arabia’s critics to acknowledge the burgeoning Islamic feminist movement among Saudi women who seek only their rights granted in Islam. These are rights that many Muslim countries fail to fully provide. And certainly Saudi Arabia must share responsibility in denying some of these rights.

But the kingdom’s ministries of Interior, Justice, Labour and Social Services have been chipping away at obstacles that stand in the way of Saudi women’s rights. Today women have greater access and fairer justice in domestic courts, the right to be represented by a female attorney, to practise law and the right to seek employment without having written permission from their male guardian. Yet women’s rights in Islam, which adheres to the principles of Sharia, doesn’t conform to the Western narrative of liberal feminism.

It is evident the political winds have shifted dramatically since relations between the US and Iran have thawed. There is an eagerness among Americans that the US wean itself from Saudi oil. By doing so, the US is free, without fear of consequences, to push a more aggressive agenda targeting what it sees as Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, particularly its treatment of the Shia population and women’s rights.

Few Saudis begrudge Americans’ desire to free themselves from their dependency on oil. No one wants to feel they are held hostage by another country. But to abandon Saudi Arabia loses sight of the big picture. The militant attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels are not the acts of a loose band of confederates or jihadi lone wolves killing innocents in an attempt to spread fear in the West. It’s not sloppy indiscriminate killing. It’s an act of war inspired by Daesh that is becoming more sophisticated and cunning with each attack.

Saudis have long abandoned hope that the US would use its resources to step in and snuff out Daesh and its followers. The country best equipped to wage a campaign against terrorists by using its vast intelligence network is Saudi Arabia. At a time when European Union leaders are urging the world’s intelligence agencies to share information, the loss of Saudi Arabia as an ally would be a blow to ending extremist influence.

Rob L Wagner is an American journalist and former managing editor of the Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper. He is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 


February 2, 2012

News Analysis: Islamic Feminism in the Middle East

By Rob L. Wagner

International Policy Digest

2 February 2012

As Islamist political groups continue to make gains in Middle East elections, women activists are evaluating their strategy to improve their roles to help form new governments and to strive for equality. The minefield facing Muslim women is whether to embrace a secular or Islamic feminist approach to achieve their goals and to gain a foothold in Arab politics.

Observing from the sidelines are women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain hoping for answers to forge their own feminist path. But the 400-pound gorilla in the room that gives women pause is the Egyptian military’s organized campaign of sexual violence and the sexual harassment in the Saudi media of outspoken feminists.

Women in other Arab countries are experiencing varying levels of violence and harassment to crush their own rights campaigns.

The emerging role of women – and the physical and rhetorical violence that color that role – has highlighted the gulf between secular feminists who embrace the Western ideal of a liberal democracy and Islamic feminists seeking to shape their future within the context of religion. However, the secular approach to women’s rights is a luxury few Muslim women in the Middle East care to indulge in.

Secular feminism has never held much attraction for Muslim women forging a place in the Middle East’s patriarchal society. For one, the baggage of secular feminism is too great. It is perceived among Muslims as loosening morals and threatening family cohesion. Justified or not, it is also seen as encouraging women to abandon the hijab and modest dress. At a time when Muslim women activists need the support of men in powerful positions, a secular movement not only would fail, but also roll back progress.

The reemergence of the Egyptian Feminist Union following a 60-year ban is encouraging, but there are worrying signs from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party. The Brotherhood’s Azza Al-Garf, who is among only five women elected to the new 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has taken a regressive position on women’s rights. She argues that women should marry, procreate and remain separated from men. Reforming divorce laws is not her priority. The Salafists’ Al-Nour Party has given similar indications.

Treading Carefully

It is this environment where women activists tread carefully. More palatable to Muslim women is an Islamic feminist movement that seeks to marginalize cultural and tribal influence and grant women rights guaranteed in the Qur’an. Islamic feminism is not a new or novel concept. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini pioneered Islamic feminism in the early 1990s. Saudi scholar Mai Yamani popularized the concept in her 1996 book, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives.”

However, Islamic feminism has stalled since 9/11. It has gained little traction in the Western media that often confuses Islam with cultural and tribal oppression of women. The Arabic press conflates Islamic feminism with the secular women’s movement. In Saudi Arabia, for example, feminism is deemed a threat to society. It doesn’t help that the influential Islamic scholar and women’s rights ally Mohammad Akram Nadwi implied in his recent book, “Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars in Islam,” that secular and Islamic feminism are a single movement with a common goal to give women all that men have.

To tamp down the burgeoning movement, government-controlled Arab media and shadow military forces in some countries attempt to intimidate activists. Egypt continues to wage a brutal war against women challenging the patriarchal order.

Under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government waged a systemic campaign of sexual violence against women activists in 2005. The military then initiated so-called virginity tests for female protesters in 2011. Secular feminist Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy says the tests are nothing more than rape with a foreign object.

Egyptian women responded by developing HarassMap, an initiative that helps women report sexual assaults and harassment through text messaging. The organization reports that more than 80% of the Egyptian women have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted since the overthrow of Mubarak.

Media Harassment

Systemic sexual violence is absent in Saudi Arabia, but organized media campaigns have targeted Saudi women challenging conservative clerics, male abuse of power and draconian guardianship laws.

A judge recently demanded the government revoke Saudi journalist Nadine Albodair’s citizenship when she complained in a television interview about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban and abuses by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Arabic language daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat responded to her interview not to address her concerns, but evaluate her body and sexual appeal.

In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists filed libel complaints with the Ministry of Interior following a report by the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” Male readers almost daily write obscene comments about high-profile Muslim women in the sensationalistic online Saudi newspapers Al-Weeam and Sabq.

Attacking the morality of women and bringing shame to their families have proven a useful tool to quiet advocacy for Saudi women’s rights. Leading women activists who were vocal last June during the women driving ban demonstration have toned down their advocacy after the Saudi government implemented tougher media and speech laws and journalists waged ad hominem attacks, including doubts about their religious faith.

Greater Weapon

Yet the greater weapon to silence critics who say that Arab feminists seek to destroy the moral fabric of the Ummah is the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations described at a recent Arab women’s rights conference in New York that Islam is the “cultural touchstone” that allows women to argue for rights that address child marriage, polygamy and education. By using the Qur’an to counter patriarchal interpretations, Islamic feminists have the ability to introduce discussions about rights without the secular revolutionary rhetoric that threatens government institutions. It has also helped that the literacy rate has improved dramatically for young Saudi women, who once relied on the men in their family to interpret the Qur’an. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen from 81.7% in 1992 to 96.5% in 2009. Coleman points out that this grassroots movement challenges conservative traditions and provides the necessary steppingstone to gain rights.

Muslim women living in conservative cultures that have marginal contact with the West recognize that the mere label of being a feminist spells trouble. Adopting secular feminist language that eschews religion and promotes a woman’s personal goals above the family is likely to leave a woman’s reputation in tatters and shaming her family, which is no small thing in Arab culture.

Although the label of Islamic feminist carries the similar dangers, Saudi women avoid the discussion of feminism and frame women’s rights as an Islamic obligation while at the same time appealing to the better nature of men.

Challenging Guardianship

Since the fall of 2011, the Saudi Ministry of Education has tightened its rules that require female university students to have a male guardian living with them while studying in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many young Saudi women send their guardians home, and live and study independently. The enforcement of the rules has stricken these women with the fear of losing their government scholarships. It forced them to beg to have their guardians return. The issue received considerable attention in the Saudi press.

Although Islam requires women to have a guardian during travel, there are no other mandates once the woman arrives at her destination. Almost to a man, male journalists endorse the Saudi interpretation of guardianship as vital to protect Saudi society. And with few exceptions, Saudi female university students see it as simply male control.

Yet the guardianship issue opens a window for Saudi women to loosen patriarchal dominance by arguing there is no religious justification for infantilizing women. By appealing to institutions to replace patriarchal interpretations of Islam with a more gender-neutral approach, women secure a foothold that leads to greater participation in society.

January 16, 2012

Saudi Women Target Guardianship Laws to Ease Employment Restrictions

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

16 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – When Shroog Talal Radain sought employment as a teacher’s assistant at King Abdulaziz University, her husband signed the necessary guardianship forms granting her permission to take the job.

It’s the law of the land. A woman must carry around a permission slip from a man to function in Saudi society.

“To me getting permission wasn’t a big deal because it felt like a piece of paper and that’s all,” Radain said in a recent interview. “But unfortunately to others it’s a big deal, especially to those who do not have a close guardianship like a father, brother, husband or son.”

As violent protests roil through the Middle East with ruling monarchies facing uncompromising demands from its citizens for a greater voice, women’s rights is emerging as Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Spring, albeit in a less demonstrative manner. Emboldened by the role women played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Saudi women are beginning to challenge the core of the kingdom’s interpretation of guardianship in Islam. A male family member supervising all aspects of a woman’s life is a belief among Saudis who view guardianship as a sacred duty.

It is also perhaps the most abused tenet of Islam. The Qur’an is clear on the issue of employment of women: Islam permits women to work with some conditions. Women can work as long as the job does not interfere with being a wife and mother. The job should also not force women to mix with men. Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. Nor does a government have the authority to demand that a woman receive such permission.

Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”

“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.

By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“It has nothing to do with Islamic concepts simply because our society is tied up where they throw every issue on Islam,” Radain said. “Guardianship in Islam [refers to] a person who protects the woman, and seeks shelter, love and protection for her. It’s not a person who is in control of her and her life actions.”

Writer Tara Umm Omar, who blogs about Islamic and women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, told me that blanket guardianship rules are not practical given the varying dynamics of Saudi families. Guardians are often too busy to help with paperwork or they use the right as a weapon. “Some of these male family members abuse the guardianship law out of spite and use it to their advantage, inconveniencing their female relatives as a result,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the global consulting company Booz & Co., nearly half of the Saudi population is female and 56.5 percent of the kingdom’s women hold university degrees. However, just 14 percent of the women are in the workforce, In contrast, women account for 25 percent of the population in Qatar with 89 percent holding university degrees. Qatari women make up 30 percent of the country’s workforce.

The study notes the Gulf region’s “mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the GCC’s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence on young women’s lives.” The study also found that only 22 percent of Gulf women believe they must devote their lives as wives and mothers before taking on a job. It marks a dramatic shift of Arab women’s attitudes from how their parents view their roles in society.

Yet Saudi women walk a tightrope between demanding their rights within the context of Islam while at the same time being perceived as challenging those very precepts as defined by the government.

US-based Muslim women’s rights activist Raquel Evita Saraswati, a frequent lecturer on religious and human rights issues, said that petitioning religious authorities might be seen as aggressive by Saudi authorities.

“But it really isn’t all that aggressive or extreme in the context of Islam itself as a religion with a rich history of debate and dissent among the faithful,” Saraswati said in an interview. “However, Saudi Arabia has implemented a specific interpretation of Islam as state law, effectively banning any other interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law).”

Mark Sedgwick, coordinator of the Arab and Islamic Studies Unit at Aarhus University in Denmark and a historian of modern Islam, said it makes sense that Saudi women want rights grounded in Islam. It does not make sense, he said, when it is incorrectly implemented.

“So many of the practical problems for women in Saudi Arabia derive from the way in which the concept of guardianship is interpreted there — ways in which it is not interpreted almost anywhere else in the Muslim world — that it makes a lot of sense to start with those interpretations,” Sedgwick said.

Saraswati said the guardian rules are simply a mechanism to control women.

“I do not argue that the Qur’an grants the sexes complete equality,” Saraswati said. “However, I find Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women in the workplace to be a conscious, calculated interpretation on the part of religious authorities, rather than absolute mandates set down by the religion.”

Saraswati said the Labor Ministry’s guardianship rules are so egregious that it renders Saudi women to the status of a child. “Islamists have burned embassies and murdered film directors over insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, while Muslim women live under rules more insulting to Prophet Muhammad than any cartoon could ever be,” she noted.

If push comes to shove, few Saudis will argue the religious validity of the kingdom’s guardianship rules. Umm Omar, however, said Saudi woman must shoulder some of the responsibility for their predicament.

“There has to be a line drawn as to how much a government and employers can interfere in peoples’ lives,” she said. “That goes for those Saudi women who think they know that what is best for them is also best for others. Sometimes I think that these types of women are their own enemies.”

Still, working women and young university students seeking employment are aware that abolishing the Labor Ministry’s requirements will only poke a stick in a hornet’s nest.

“If the Ministry of Labor had to loosen up the guardianship issue, then other ministries will have to loosen up as well, which will start a whole new dilemma,” said university teaching assistant Radain. “But for them to abolish it completely, believe me it will never happen.”

January 3, 2012

News Analysis: Saudi Arabia — ‘Female Body is Battleground in The War to Stem Reform’

By Rob L. Wagner


3 January 2012

As Saudi women celebrate their progress in gaining voting rights and expanded employment opportunities, conservatives have intensified their campaign to marginalize those achievements in a new round of attacks targeting liberal Saudi writers and thinkers sympathetic to the women’s movement.

Saudi newspaper columnist Saleh Al-Shehi made a vague critical comment on Twitter at the Saudi Intellectual Forum at Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel that men and women were behaving “shamefully” by socializing during breaks. He implied Saudi men are aiding and abetting the corruption of women in the name of progress. One leading woman writer described the tweet as opening “the gates of hell.”

Saudi Arabia’s internal cultural and religious wars over the last decade have focused on women’s rights issues almost to the exclusion of everything else. Voting, running for public office, employment, education and women’s bodies rarely go unmentioned among religious conservatives railing against the perceived corrupting influences of the West. In essence, the female body has become the battleground in an ongoing war to stem reform.

Saudi women activists and Islamic feminists over the past year have aggressively pursued male allies to help advance their cause. And many forum participants offer varying levels of support to better integrate women into society.

Conservatives, however, see the changing role of women a threat to the stability of society, especially considering that gender segregation is ingrained in the daily lives of all Saudis.

Al-Shehi’s Twitter shot heard throughout the kingdom took on a life of its own on Facebook and the online Saudi newspaper Mmlkah (Kingdom), which reported the incident. The coverage gave conservatives ammunition that Saudi Arabia’s liberal writers and intellectuals crossed the line with flagrant immoral behavior.

The Saudi Intellectual Forum was the second conference held in eight years to bring together more than 1,000 writers and thinkers. A key speaker was Princess Adela Bint Abdullah, daughter of King Abdullah and the wife of the kingdom’s education minister, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Al-Saud. Among the attendees were author Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book “She Throws Sparks.” Khal often writes about individuals living on the margins of Saudi society, which led the Saudi government to ban some of his work as un-Islamic. Also participating was Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr. The conference concluded Dec. 29.

Al-Shehi’s tweet in Arabic said, “I have believed that the so-called enlightenment culture project in Saudi Arabia revolves around women.” He added that it was shameful. Al-Shehi tweeted during a break in events while in the Marriott lobby crowded with men and women. Almost immediately, photographs circulated online showing Khal and other men speaking in close quarters with Saudi women. Mmlkah implied the photos were taken at the forum, but were actually taken at a 2010 Qatar conference. The tweet, according to some participants, implied that Saudi intellectuals and writers were not promoting cultural awareness, but pursuing an agenda of corruption.

A Facebook user identified as Lamh Al-Khawater from Bahar Al-Makhatr (some thoughts from the sea of danger) posted a link to the Mmlkah article on the popular Facebook page run by Dr. Sabah Abu Zinadah. Zinadah writes on social issues and has more than 5,000 followers. Al-Khawater wrote, “Does being educated mean to strip off our values and our morality and cross the red lines?”

Coverage from Mmlkah featured several photographs of forum participants and screenshots of the tweets. Al-Shehi’s comments earned praise from Sheikh Muhammad Al-Oraifi. “(He) is a good man and I have found him smart, wise and educated and (he) cares about his country and religion,” he wrote.

Dr. Sunhat Al-Otaibi wrote on Facebook that, “Saudi Arabia’s new elites have turned to eve-teasing (flirting) and exchanging numbers and dates and shameless behavior. (It’s) a Westernizing project to corrupt women.”

Khal threatened Al-Shehi with a defamation complaint if he did not apologize, but the harshest remarks came from Saudi writer Lamia Baeshen, an academic specializing in English literature. She invoked an Islamic rebuke that shakes up even the most stalwart Muslim conservative. “Hasbi allahu wa ne’mal wakeel (“Allah alone is sufficient for me and is the best trustee of my affairs.” Muslims generally interpret this as “I delegate Allah as my attorney to give me justice from you”),” she wrote on Facebook.

“You have opened gates of hell,” she added.

By threatening a defamation complaint, or more accurately libel, Khal raised the stakes in the war over cultural values, attitudes about women’s social behavior and the price paid for damaging reputations. While the burden of proof for defamation and libel is set high in Western democratic countries, the threshold is much lower in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi’s honor and personal and religious reputation often are the keys to professional success. A Saudi can face professional and personal ruin if his religious faith and morality are impugned and the allegations go unchallenged.

Yet, as personal attacks via Twitter and Facebook grow and the ironclad protections against libel once found in Saudi print media diminish, establishing personal and professional harm has become more difficult.

Westerners are often baffled over controversies involving men and women socializing in the same room, but Saudi society strictly adheres to gender segregation to avoid improper conduct. Separating men and women goes to the heart of Islam’s definition of morality. Men and women meeting in the lobbies of Jeddah’s upscale hotels are relatively common, but Riyadh hotels follow a stricter code of conduct. However, Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel staff members often overlook such interactions since foreigners often can only conduct business with Saudi businesswomen in a public lobby.

Some Saudi journalists view the Marriott incident as an expanded effort by conservatives to tame influential male intellectuals supporting the suffrage movement. Until last year, women activists have largely fought the battle alone. In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists complained to the Ministry of Interior that the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan defamed them by alleging that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” In March 2011, Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari, prominent writers on women’s issues for Al-Watan, were banned from writing.

One Saudi woman journalist said the mere suggestion of immoral behavior not only could leave a career in tatters, but also create a roadblock and even reverse advances in women’s rights.

“It’s not necessarily religious people who think this way,” she said. “It’s people blinded by backwardness and tribal culture. You look at what happened in the Marriott lobby and say to yourself, ‘How silly, it’s a big deal over nothing.’ But it is a big deal. If the men who support our cause are silenced for fear of being accused of corrupting Saudi women, we will get nowhere.”

March 30, 2011

Saudi-Islamic Feminist Movement: A Struggle for Male Allies and the Right Female Voice

By Rob L. Wagner

Peace and Conflict Monitor
March 29, 2011

Saudi Arabian women have long sought to launch an Islamic feminist movement, but Saudi laws against public demonstrations and deep cultural and religious attitudes towards public displays of defiance have stalled efforts. Women are now turning to social media to garner support for a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement that specifically embraces gender-neutral Sharia to secure their rights to an education, to travel and to marry the partner of their choice. Activists, however, are rejecting Western feminism because of the perception that it promotes the individual over the family, and by extension the Muslim community.


The anti-government uprisings spreading across the Middle East have brought a renewed focus on Islamic feminism perhaps not seen since the 1990s. Arab women not only played a large role in demonstrations that ultimately toppled the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, but women are also demanding decision-making roles as new governments emerge.

Largely missing from the discussion of Arab women’s empowerment is the near non-existent feminist movement in Saudi Arabia. There is no organized effort from Saudi women that encourages cooperation with potential powerful allies in the royal family under King Abdullah. Women who have begun to explore a feminist movement also have not sought to give a face to a movement by approaching prominent female academics or activists.

Instead, Saudi women are bypassing traditional means of developing a grassroots campaign to secure their right in a patriarchal society by reaching out through social media. It is not a movement, but a tentative testing of the waters. Activists acknowledge a lack of unity among Saudis that continually stalls efforts to organize. Yet the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries have raised the consciousness of women who are questioning why Saudi society is marginalizing them. This consciousness has sparked the stirrings of what some women are describing as the potential for a “Saudi-Islamic feminist movement.” [1][2][3][4]

Islamic Feminism

According to the feminist historian Margot Badran, Islamic feminism “is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”[5] Modern Islamic feminism was first used in a modern context by Iranian scholars Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Afsaneh Najmabadeh in 1992 and popularized by Saudi Dr. Mai Yamani in her book “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives” (Ithaca Press, 1996). [6]

Secular Muslims embrace Islamic feminism that may include Western feminist ideals that are contrary to Islam, which is primarily to establish a single set of rules equally applied to men and women. Islamic scholar Amina Wadud enthusiastically endorsed Western feminism, particularly for Muslim women living in the West, in her book, “Qur’an and Woman” (Oxford University Press, 1999). [7] Some Saudi women prefer Western-style feminism by advocating liberation from Saudi rules, traditions and culture. They place a negative connotation on Islamic feminism by likening it has the age of Al Jaheleya, or ignorance from the pre-Prophet Muhammad era. However, conflating Al Jaheleya with Islam is offensive to most Saudi women, and the Western views held by these women hold little credibility among the majority. [8]

An ideal Saudi-Islamic feminist movement differs significantly from traditional Islamic feminism with Saudis rejecting Western feminism. Instead, young Saudi women like Rasha Alduwaisi and Marwa Al-Saleh argue that a Saudi-led feminist movement must include the rights accorded women in the Qur’an and specifically in Sharia. A codified gender-neutral Sharia in the Saudi judicial system could give women the rights they yearn. The emphasis in a new Saudi movement would eliminate non-Islamic customs and patriarchal interpretations to follow the true path of Islam. By following the true essence of Islam, Saudi women can marry whomever they please, obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling, travel freely, and pursue educational and business opportunities without interference. [9]

A Saudi-Islamic feminist campaign, however, is hampered by the failure to generate momentum to get a mass movement off the ground. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for the Council of Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010), said that public demonstrations and mobilization are treated as criminal offenses in Saudi Arabia, making it particularly difficult for women to form a robust movement. Social media will help, but key allies in the struggle for equal rights are men. She said, “Women can’t be expected to do it all on their own. Women’s movements have always received critical help from men around the world and throughout history. There are some powerful men who encourage women in Saudi today, but more male voices will be needed speaking out against injustices against women to enable more women to take the plunge.” [10] [11]

The influential Islamic scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been a longtime supporter of elevating the rights of women. And Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud criticized Arab countries for economically and socially marginalizing women. However, Al-Qaradawi’s more controversial views on Israel and the U.S. invasion of Iraq have sidelined any potential for a role in an Islamic feminist movement. Prince Alwaleed is not regarded as especially religious. [12] [13]

Marwa Al-Saleh is the founder and general manager of, a web design and Internet marketing company in Al-Khobar and a principal advocate on the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She argues that most Saudi women are unaware of their rights contained in Islam and view any kind of demand for their rights as conflicting with Islam. Rasha Alduwaisi, a 30-year-old Saudi mother who is also active with the Facebook campaign, is more blunt: “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal.” [14]

Al-Saleh and Alduwaisi are among today’s 7.6 million Saudi women with the median age of 23. They came of age or reached young adulthood in a post-9/11 world. They are highly educated, entrepreneurial and technologically savvy. More than 60 percent of Saudi university students studying domestically and abroad are women. Saudi women under the age of 30 grew up with satellite television, the Internet and mobile phones. Their broadened view of the world far exceeds that of their mothers and older sisters. [15]

Western Influences and Conflicts

While Saudi women, especially those who have studied in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, marvel at the freedoms that the West has to offer Muslims, they say Western feminism is an anathema because it is perceived as a threat to Islamic societies. Coleman notes that many Saudi men view Western feminism as promoting divorce, promiscuity and a breakdown of the family. Feminism, as defined by Western standards, has such negative connotations that the word itself severely hampers any progress to galvanize women to develop a grassroots movement. [16]

Western-educated Saudi women, however, would be hard-pressed to say they have not been influenced by Western feminism. The feminist movement laid the groundwork in the late 1960s and 1970s to open doors for wider education opportunities. Among those opportunities are gender studies in university curricula. Muslim women’s exposure to the feminist influences in academia have broadened their thinking and sharpened their critical thinking skills. Yet they also recognize that bringing such a movement home is doomed to failure.

Some young university students like Rawan Mj Radwan see some accommodation for Western feminism thought. Radwan observes, “If women choose to take up the Westernized path such as let go of their hijabs and change everything they were brought up on just to please themselves then they’re doomed. But if Saudi women can look to find a midway station between Islamic values and the ways of the West, then success stories would be heard all around.” [16]

Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy between Western feminism and a Saudi-Islamic version is the family structure. Saudis perceive Western feminism as advancing the rights of individuals over the best interests of the family, and by extension the Muslim community. Islamic scholar Dr. Lois Lamya’ Al-Farugi points out that Western activists view arranged marriages as an assault on individual freedoms.

However, Muslims view such intense family participation in the future of marriage-age family members as advantageous to the individual, the family and the community as a whole because it strengthens the cohesiveness of the family. Arranged marriages instill safeguards to protect the harmony of the family. Promoting individualism threatens the very nature of social interdependence. [17]

Further, Western feminists seek what Al-Farugi calls a “unisex” society in which there is a single set of rules for both sexes with women assuming more traditional male roles. Al-Farugi wrote, “The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and despised.” [17]

The Western feminist ideal of the roles of men and women counters the deep-seated belief among Muslims, especially Saudis, that men and women are separate but equal. This is evidenced in the Qur’anic verse 33.35: “For men who submit (to God) and for women who submit (to God), for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember—for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.” [17]

Although Western and Saudi-Islamic feminism are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of women’s rights, a balance, as argued by Radwan, is possible. Arranged marriages should be abolished and a woman’s right to marry the partner of her choice should be honored, but family participation and advice in that choice should not be ignored [18]

No Appropriate Saudi Leader

The question that remains, however, is how to shape the movement and what kind of image it will project. Seeking role models is not a habit that Saudi women indulge. Saudi female filmmakers, racecar drivers and pilots hold little appeal to young women because they are perceived as pursuing these professions at the expense of Islam. Their role models are generally confined to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. Aisha greatly influenced the Prophet’s thinking and he praised her in an often-quoted hadith, “Learn half of your religion from that red-headed one!” Aisha is said to be responsible for a great many hadiths, which are the sayings and deeds of the Prophet. Khadijah was a successful businesswoman before and after her marriage to Muhammad.

Several Muslim women have picked up the cause of Saudi women’s equal rights. Egyptian-born and Saudi-raised journalist Mona Eltahawy has struck a strident tone in recent years in advocating against the oppression of Saudi women. Saudi Wajeha Al-Huwaider founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and waged a “No to the Oppression of Women” campaign to bring attention to domestic violence. Mai Yamani, a London academic and expert on Islamic feminism, is a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam and its treatment of women. [19] [20] [21]

None of these women, however, has garnered a following in Saudi Arabia because they are perceived as speaking to a Western audience and not Saudis. Eltahawy advocates a west-leaning feminism and supports France’s ban on the burqa. [22] Saudi women perceive Al-Huwaider and Yamai as too strident in their condemnation of Saudi society. [23][24] But the prevailing theme in numerous interviews with Saudi women is that Eltahawy, Al-Huwaider and Yamani do not wear the hijab. These activists do not present the image of how Saudi women perceive themselves. One Saudi journalist remarked, “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

In addition, young university students are reluctant to pick up the mantle for fear they will be perceived as engaging in un-Islamic behavior of vanity and pride.

Interpretations of Sharia

Yet even if a Saudi-Islamic movement takes root and the Saudi government’s reform agenda includes programs to level the playing field among men and women, much tougher issues stand in the way. For example, a major bone of contention among Saudi women is how domestic courts administer rulings.

The Saudi judicial system follows Sharia, a malleable set of guidelines that govern the daily lives of Muslims and dispenses justice in criminal and civil affairs. Sharia is widely interpreted by Islamic scholars, most of whom are graduates of Saudi Arabia’s Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh. Yet Saudi judges often interpret Sharia based on their own personal experiences and views. Tribal customs and traditions also play a central part in many rulings. Tribal issues, in particular, seriously impact divorce and child custody issues to protect a tribe. Women often see favorable rulings going to husbands, brothers and fathers. [24]

The Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s consultative body, has been working since 2007 to codify Sharia to give consistency in criminal and domestic cases. This allows the courts to establish case precedents, thus taking away much of the power of judges who must refer to the rule of law instead of tribal customs and their own personal opinions. [25]

While codification of Sharia will be a giant leap forward in Saudi judicial reform, it also might be a case of being careful for what women activists wish for. Who interprets Sharia and how it is interpreted will have a long-term impact on the future of Saudi women. Middle East scholar Coleman notes: “Islam guarantees women many rights, but ultimately there are limits in interpretation. There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women. Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Coleman added that what “rights Islam grants women is contentious subject—one that progressives and conservatives debate.” [26]

Saudi women do not necessarily want to debate every aspect of Sharia but lay claim to the undisputed basics in the Qur’an and Sunna: the right to an education, inheritance and not to be subject to forced marriage. Radwan said a common law would prevent interference from male family members who disagree with the choices of sisters or other female relatives, choices that are their rights in the first place. [27]


Saudi feminists have wisely steered clear of overtly incorporating Western feminist themes in discussions of a movement. The backlash among religious conservatives would be swift and damaging to efforts to engage Saudi society in meaningful dialogue about women’s rights. By the same token, Western feminists have generally displayed remarkable restraint by not demanding instant change in Saudi Arabia despite exhortations from some human rights groups. Saudi women recognize they are walking on a fine line between exerting pressure to achieve equality and radicalism. Yet it is not possible to separate Western and Islamic feminism. Saudi women can learn organizational methods and promote the less threatening aspects of the Western movement, such as employment and education, without compromising their religion or culture. The key to attracting Saudi men as supporters is to leave the Western rhetoric behind.

This also means advocating for leadership positions in government, law and business, but ignoring calls from some Islamic feminists to lead prayer and become muftis because it’s contrary to how Saudi women view Islam.

It has never been a major issue as to who speaks for Muslim women in the campaign for equal rights, but few Saudis would disagree that often appearances are everything in Saudi society. Without a powerful male figure in a ministerial position as a vocal ally, and without young hijab-wearing women speaking the same language as their male counterparts on a religious and cultural level, a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement is unlikely to get off the ground.


[1] Author interview with women’s rights activist Rasha Alduwaisi (11-03-2011)

[2] Author interview with women’s rights activist Marwa Al-Saleh (13-03-2011)

[3] Saudi Women Revolution Facebook [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[4] Author interview with Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council of Foreign Relations (12-03-2011)

[5] Badran, Margot, Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 17-23 January 2002 [] (Retrieved 11-03-2011)

[6] Yamani, Mai, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives (Ithaca Press, 1996)

[7] Wadud, Amina, “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective” (Oxford University Press, 1999)

[8] Author interview with Saudi Western university student and former journalist Rawan Mj Radwan (14-03-2011)

[9] Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh interviews

[10] Coleman interview

[11] Coleman, Isobel, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010)

[12] Al-Qaradawai, Yusuf, “The Status of Women in Islam” [] (Retrieved 27-02-2011)

[13] Lemmon, Gayle Tzemach, “The Hillary Doctrine,” Newsweek, 6 March 2011 [] (Retrieved 07-03-2011)

[14] Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh interviews

[15] Index Mundi [] (retrieved 15-03-2011)

[16] Radwan interview

[17] Al-Farugi, Lois Lamya’, “Islamic Traditions and the Feminist Movement: Confrontation or Cooperation?”, undated [] (Retrieved 03-03-2011)

[18] Radwan interview

[19] Mona Eltahawy official website [] (Retrieved 01-18-2011).

[20] Khan, Riz, “Saudi Arabia: Fundamental Change?” Al-Jazeera English [] (Retrieved 22-02-2011)

[21] Dr. Mai Yamani official website [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[22] Brown, Ryan, “In Defense of the Burqa Ban” Salon, 12 July 2010 [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011)

[23] Young, Jennifer, “Wajeha Al-Huwaider: A Brave Heart!” November 2009, Al Waref Institute [] (Retrieved 18-03-2011).

[24] Yamani website

[25] Wagner, Rob L., “Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in its Courts,” The Media Line, 24 February 2011 [] (Retrieved 25-02-2011)

[26] Coleman interview

[27] Alduwaisi, Al-Saleh and Radwan interviews

March 20, 2011

Saudi Women Embrace Feminism — On Their Own Terms

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line
Published Sunday, March 20, 2011

Most reject Western ideas, but seek formula that blends with Islamic faith

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Perhaps one of the most significant developments emerging from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the growing Arab women’s rights movement that has spread to the anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain and Yemen.

Absent, however, from the chorus of women’s voices demanding equity in the workplace, freedom to travel and a role in government are Saudis, who have done little to join their Arab sisters to create a feminist movement. In fact, no such organized movement exists in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t see signs of a feminist movement,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “I see signs of rising consciousness among women—a questioning of why things are they way they are.”

Rasha Alduwaisi, 30, a Saudi mother, is a leading force behind the first tentative steps to galvanize women through the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She acknowledges a feminist movement is an uphill battle.

“There’s almost no organized effort whatsoever to try to obtain these rights we’re seeking,” Alduwaisi told The Media Line. “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal. This upbringing in my opinion is playing a huge role in the reluctance and hesitation in taking the steps that such a movement calls for.”

Saudi Arabia has long stood apart from other Arab nations in how it treats its female population. Older generations of Saudi women through most of the 20th century were largely content with gender roles imposed by the patriarchal religious establishment. Post-secondary education for women was elusive until a minority of wealthy Saudi women began studying abroad in the 1980s. University education blossomed in the years following 9/11. Today, more than 60% of Saudi Arabia’s university students are women.

The rapid shift to educating Saudi women has given them a voice, but it also created a divide between today’s young females and their mothers’ generation. Disparate views on the role Saudi women play in society have contributed to a lack of unity. In addition, the ambitions of rural women, who may focus on economic survival in farming communities, contrasts sharply with educated urban women who may seek positions in government and business.

These differences have prevented the development of a grassroots to campaign.

“Public demonstrations and mobilization are treated criminally in Saudi for just about anything, so it’s particularly hard for women to form a robust movement,” Coleman told The Media Line. “Here, social media will help.”

Marwa Al-Saleh, founder and general manager of, a web design and online marketing company in Al-Khobar, promotes the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page with Alduwaisi. Al-Saleh says most Saudi women are unaware of their rights. “Sometimes they think their rights are against Islam.”

The definition of feminism remains a sticking point with young Saudis who say they want a feminist movement on their own terms, which includes Islam as a major component. Alduwaisi says she prefers a “Saudi-Islamic” feminist movement, noting that she wants rights that consider religion and a Sharia-based judicial system.

Coleman, who authored the book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, which examines Islamic feminism, says Western feminism appears threatening to Saudi men because it’s perceived as leading to high divorce rates and promoting promiscuity. She noted the portrayal of women in American films and television feed negative stereotypes of Western women. “Islamic feminism provides a more comfortable alternative path toward change,” she says. “It can be seen as more culturally relevant and less threatening to core Islamic values.”

Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh reject the Western definition of feminism, although there is no shortage of Arab women speaking to the Western media on behalf of Saudi women.

For example, some prominent Saudi women, such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Mai Yamani, frequently address Saudi women’s rights on Western news shows. Yet they have little traction with women living in Saudi Arabia because their idea of feminism reflects Western concepts not compatible with Islam.

“These women represent the opinion of a minority,” Alduwaisi says. “So I don’t think many Saudi women would want to have them be the face of the movement. I believe if we want this movement to be a success we’ll need a more moderate or conservative face.”

A 29-year-old Saudi woman journalist, who asked not to be identified, says few young women have role models beyond the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadījah bint Khuwaylid. “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

Al-Saleh says women’s rights critics who wave the warning flag of Western liberalism are looking for excuses to deny Saudi women a role in society. She points to neighboring Arab countries that have found room for women in the workplace and government. “Is Saudi Arabia the only Islamic country? Look at the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.”

Yet even an Islamic feminist movement faces significant challenges. Much like the Western suffragette movement of the early 20th century, the most vocal critics of Saudi feminism may be women. Rowdha Yousef and 15 other women, for example, launched the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” campaign in 2009 in reaction to calls to eliminate guardianship laws.

The push-pull of differing agendas makes empowering women slow going, although there are potential allies in powerful places to help create momentum. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal complained in February that Arab women were “economically and socially marginalized.” He routinely hires women in key corporate positions and makes it a point to showcase female entrepreneurial talent.

Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal has been a powerful ally in furthering the integration of Saudi women in the workplace and education by lending her support to several women’s groups. Princess Fatimah Kulsum runs a slew of welfare and charity groups for women. Princesses Adela bint Abdullah Al-Saud and Seetah bint Abdullah Al-Saud have emerged as the female representation in King Abdullah’s reform agenda by lending their names to various programs.

However, the larger issue should a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement succeed is just how to interpret women’s rights guaranteed in Islam.

“There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women,” Coleman says. “Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Pending codification of Isalmic law (sharia) in the Saudi judicial system may resolve issues of interpretation, but the basic premise of sharia is that’s always applied in the context of time and place. Male guardianship, for example, is outmoded in the 21st century kingdom, according to activists.

Abuses of guardianship over travel issues also play an important part in the future of a woman’s movement. A hadith, which contains the words and deeds of Mohammed and pertain to matters of Islamic jurisprudence, states that women must not travel without a guardian if the journey takes longer than three days. Travel in modern society no longer takes three days. If an Islamic feminist movement were to take root, reinterpreting the hadith would be a core issue on the table.

“The first priority is to get rid of male guardianship on woman after 18 in everything: Education, travel, work, business, finances, medical services, government and marriage,” says Al-Saleh.

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