Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

September 24, 2012

OP-ED: Toothess Hate Speech Laws Fail all Religions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

24 September 2012

Three years ago, French law authorities arrested and later convicted famed fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple at a Paris café.
It was a casual conversation that ended ugly, but John Galliano paid the price for his intemperance and bigotry due to France’s hate speech laws. President François Hollande also stripped Galliano of his Légion d’Honneur award following his conviction for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, yet bigoted comments from print publications, media outlets and even politicians run rampant with the sole intention of abusing Muslims. Extremist American and European writers and politicians claim they are simply exercising their right to free speech. In reality they hide behind free speech protections to voice hatred.
This week the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, on the heels of the release of that anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that even to an atheist is insulting. Defended by Charlie Hebdo editors as satire, the cartoons badly miss the mark and border on the repulsive. This new round of cartoons only serve to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So how did it come that bigots face prosecution for directing hate speech toward Jews, but not Muslims?
France’s hate speech laws have been on the books since 1881, but the courts more often than not rule against religious organizations no matter what the affiliation.
And to be fair, Christian groups in France have lost more civil and criminal hate cases than any other religion.
The courts refused to ban “The Last Temptation of the Christ” in 1988. The courts also refused a request by Christian groups to remove a movie poster for the 1996 film “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” for its sexually suggestive imagery mixed with Christian icons. In 2005, the courts denied a request to remove a fashion clothing billboard depicting female models and a shirtless man in a scene from The Last Super.
Likewise, French courts refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Versus” in 1989. The courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo’s editor in 2006 on charges of maligning Islam by republishing the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet. The court ruled that the cartoons were directed at fundamentalists and terrorists and not the entire Muslim community.
Yet in 2008, a court convicted France’s most beloved actress, Brigitte Bardot, for inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims. She had complained in a letter made public that Muslims are destroying the country.
The Muslim question, if you want to call it that, is relatively new, having arisen in the past 20 years with the rising number of immigrants coinciding with the mainstreaming of the right-wing lunatic fringe into European and American politics and media. These secular and religious extremist groups demand that free speech protections be exported worldwide without respect to the sensibilities of other religious organizations, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
The argument from the West is that a religion targeted for satire should be strong enough to take ridicule. More important, the attacks should not be taken personally. Since many Christian branches made a pact with governments centuries ago to separate church and state, Westerners generally view religion as private and at a distance. As Stanley Fish put it in the New York Times recently, religion in secular countries is an “add-on” to personhood, much like a political party or sports team. There is no such division in Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Faith is not a part-time endeavor. The entire person-hood is faith. This is what distinguishes Muslims and Orthodox Jews from other religions. While there are a great many Muslims who may believe in secularism or are indifferent to the haters — after all, Islam is not the monolithic religion the media portray it to be — for the vast majority in the Middle East and South Asia denigration of their religion is indeed a personal insult.
If secular groups want to drag Jesus through the mud in the name of free speech, must Muslims accept this denigration? Of course not. Such depictions of Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham are unthinkable in the Muslim community.
While French hate speech laws seem toothless, success in the courts depend on how Western societies regard their minority populations. For now, the laws treat Islam pretty much the same way it does Christianity. However, organized advocacy among disparate religious groups will help the courts rethink their approach to hate speech cases.
I am not singling out France. I am holding it up as an example of how Western nations in good faith keep hate speech laws on the books but apply the law inconsistently. They have yet to reconcile such protections with the increasing prominence of hate groups that abuse that right. The line between free speech and hate is so fine that governments can’t confidently prosecute the latter because it may come at the expense of the former. The United States is an entirely different matter, where the First Amendment is so highly regarded that it’s unlikely that lobbying to legislate hate speech will gain any traction.
Regardless of the path governments take to control hate speech, those who take offense to such things can take solace that thousands of insults have been hurled against the prophets and their religions still stand tall and sturdy as ever.


September 17, 2012

OP-ED: Anti-Islam Film an Exception to Free Speech Protection

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

17 September 2012

THE anti-Muslim film produced by Christian extremists may have sparked the violence that spread across the Middle East and South Asia this week. But the core issues in the following days of protests were unemployment, politicizing religion and the deep resentment against the United States for its wars that cost thousands of innocent lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Protest organizers just got a lucky break when Egyptian television aired and dubbed in Arabic the “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer. The movie simply got the ball rolling.
The debate in America is not whether rage against the US government’s meddling in Arab affairs is justified, but why Muslims get so riled up when the Prophet Muhammad is ridiculed. After all, other prophets get the same treatment in a secular society in which free speech rights are sacrosanct.
Muslims in the Middle East get the free speech thing, but often wonder why its advocates take such great pleasure in beating them over the head with it.
On Al Jazeera television the other day the news host brought in Arab and Western media types to talk about “Innocence of Muslims” and its impact in the Middle East. TJ Walker, a media-training consultant who works with Bloomberg TV and Fox News among other outlets, gave Al Jazeera’s mostly Arab and Muslim audience a brief lesson on the First Amendment, its importance to Americans and why all religious figures are equal opportunity targets for mockery and ridicule. Really, Walker implied, what’s the big deal about making fun of religious figures? We do it all the time. His tone and message was clear: Muslims should lighten up and accept the American standard of free speech.
Walker’s cluelessness about sensibilities of the audience he was addressing can be forgiven. His experience is how to train people to deal with the American media and not interpreting global news events. But he encapsulates many Americans’ “live and let live” approach to free speech.
Yet the extremists who made the film are not clueless, and have much darker goals in mind. It’s one thing to parody religious figures on “South Park” and quite another to deliberately produce a film filled with falsehoods with the intention to provoke violence.
Steve Klein, the Californian who provided technical assistance for the film, acknowledged in interviews that he knew the film was provocative. He announced that it was a success.
“We have reached the people that we want to reach,” Klein told the New York Times. “And I’m sure that out of the emotion that comes out of this, a small fraction of those people will come to understand …, and also for the people who didn’t know that much about Islam. If you merely say anything that’s derogatory about Islam, then they immediately go to violence, which I’ve experienced.”
Most people wouldn’t admit to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, but Klein seems to be proud of this accomplishment, even if it helped lead in some way to the deaths of four American citizens in Libya.
We are seeing a rise in violence prompted by hate speech. Norway mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik cited the writings of America’s leading Islamophobes as inspiration. The same Islamophobic gang and their confederates are now boasting of their success. They continue to defend their right to pursue objectives that result in violence.
The US Supreme Court had addressed the issue of false and dangerous speech in 1919. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. used the metaphor of “shouting fire in a crowded theater” when considering whether distributing anti-military draft leaflets during World War I was imminently dangerous to the nation’s security.
The court ruled there was no violation of free speech because the leaflets presented a clear and present danger to the US government’s efforts to recruit soldiers during wartime. Although subsequent decisions watered down the ruling, the issue of speech posing a “imminent lawless action” remains an exception to free speech rights.
Columbia University law professor Tim Wu told the Washington Post that, “Notice that Google (which posted the film on its website) has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the US government. Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies.”
Google, according to legal experts interviewed by the Post, “implicitly invoked the concept of ‘clear and present danger’ ” when it blocked access to the film in Egypt and Libya.
“Innocence of Muslims” is a perfect candidate as an exception to free speech rights since its creators deliberately focused on fermenting violence. But rather than leave it to corporations, the US government must take the initiative to prosecute future purveyors of violence.

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.”

November 5, 2011

Op-Ed: Firebombed Newspaper Charlie Hebdo a Victim of its Own Making

By Rob L. Wagner


5 November 2011

A thug is a thug. And thugs who firebomb newspaper offices deserve the harshest punishment under the law. But do I sympathize with the editors of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo when someone firebombed their offices after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover?

No. The violence is inexcusable and the bombers must be brought to justice. But Charlie Hebdo hardly deserves victim status.

Do I believe the attack was an assault on freedom of speech?


Charlie Hebdo decided to publish an edition “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad as an attempt at satire to “celebrate” the Islamist Ennahda Party’s victory in the recent Tunisian elections.

This celebration took place in the form of demeaning cartoons of the Prophet and women in burqas, spoofs on Sharia and such fanciful lines as “100 Lashes if You Don’t Die Laughing.”

All in the spirit of good, clean fun because, you know, Muslims need to lighten up.

I have been a working journalist for more than 35 years. The First Amendment is the most vital component of what I do for a living. Without it I’m not reporting news or giving an opinion, but just someone writing advertising copy. One cannot work effectively in journalism without the legal protection of free speech. So it is not without considerable soul-searching that I reject the idea of pushing for solidarity on the issue of free speech for Charlie Hebdo’s editors who insist on mocking the religion of 1.5 billion people.

There are still enough news people out there who consider journalism a calling. We take the words we write seriously, and we carefully weigh those words that have an impact on our readers and community. And power to all those opinion writers who believe that being offensive is the best way to deliver their message.

Yet it is no excuse for publishing offensive material just because you can publish it. There’s no excuse for promoting racial, ethnic and religious hatred and say it is okay because it is just satire. Playing the free speech card is a cop out. It is nothing more than an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes and stoke the flames of bigotry. Islamophobic bloggers argue that republishing the Danish newspaper cartoons is a display of solidarity to fight for our free speech rights. They argue that since Christianity is fair game, so should Islam. Why, Islamophobes whine, should there be a two-tiered approach to mocking and ridiculing religion if one religion gets a free pass and the other doesn’t?

The mainstream media have managed to steer clear of mocking Jews, but many publications revel in portraying the Prophet as a dirty, hook nosed Arab or having a bomb in his turban. The ugly stereotypes of Jews in Nazi propaganda are still fresh in our minds. Today, publishing such hateful images is unacceptable under any circumstances. However, Charlie Hebdo and its supporters believe it is just fine to demean Muslims in the same manner.

Charlie Hebdo chose to publish its Prophet Muhammad edition because it could and because its editors knew that it would anger and hurt the Muslim community. In a seriously twisted effort to encourage Muslims to assimilate in French society, the government banned the hijab in public institutions and the burqa everywhere outside the home. These laws have done nothing but to marginalize a segment of French society. Charlie Hebdo’s editors are well aware of a disaffected Muslim community, but decided to further marginalize them by publishing images of Muslim stereotypes. The newspaper has a history of this kind of behavior when it faced criminal charges in 2008 for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” after Muslim groups had complained. A French appeals court acquitted the publication of the charges.

The editors knew of the consequences of publishing the Prophet Muhammad edition. There are plenty of nasty people willing to do harm over the smallest slight. But when bad things happened, the newspaper’s editors, in a cynical ploy to gain attention and in a bid to become free speech martyrs, cried that it was an assault on free speech. It was really an assault of their own making. Now they are milking their suffering to create an image that they are champions of a free press.

Enacting censorship laws certainly would certainly stifle press freedoms and I have grave concerns over the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s efforts to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. But Charlie Hebdo’s editors and their ilk abuse the privilege of being journalists. Their behavior only strengthens the OIC’s argument that anti-blasphemy laws are necessary to keep bigotry out of the news media.

The newspaper’s staff can boo-hoo all they want – ultimately it they who are the bigots, manipulating their victimhood to gain undeserved support of the journalistic fraternity.

October 4, 2011

Tussle over a Textbook

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

27 September 2011

New Saudi high school text prompts controversy with attacks on West and UN

A power struggle usually ends with winners and losers. If a new religious textbook critical of Western culture is any indication of who is winning the role of guardian of young minds in Saudi Arabia, then Islamic conservatives are the clear victors.

In what amounts to a rebuke of a scholarship program under the aegis of none other than King Abdullah himself that sends thousands of young Saudis to foreign universities, a new secondary school textbook called Hadith argues that Western culture exposes students to corruption.

“The conservatives have the upper hand and have made sure that it’s their voice that says what is permitted in Islam,” Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst based near Washington DC, told The Media Line  “The conservatives have the loudest voice in making a persuasive argument within the Saudi context. Saudi Arabia is truly concerned about modernization in its educational institution, but even the king doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

The publication of the book comes at a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia as it struggles to scrub its textbooks of derogatory language of other religions and cultures. The Ministry of Education has made progress to eliminate some passages, including controversial definitions of jihad.

More than 100,000 Saudis have obtained King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship to pursue studies in universities in professional fields such as medicine, computer science, engineering courses and administration and finance. About 30% study in the U.S., 15% in Britain, 11% in Canada and 8% in Australia. Only about 6% study in a Muslim country, Egypt. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of citizens studying aboard of any country in the world.

The textbook, which warns students of democratic countries’ attempts to Westernize Muslim countries by advancing the United Nations’ human rights agenda, has received little attention in the media, where restrictive laws passed in response to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government can levy fines and jail sentences for criticizing government institutions

As a result, few Saudis are willing to publicly criticize for the record the Ministry of Education. Religious conservatives, Ahrari says, are taking advantage of the chilling effect of those laws to broaden their power.

But the book has lit up the social media with complaints – mostly anonymous – that politics have no place in teaching hadith, sayings attributed the Prophet Muhammad.  The authors are accused of attempting to politicize Islam by slipping criticism of the West into religious texts just as students are preparing to enter foreign universities.

Saudis have also expressed bewilderment that the Ministry of Higher Education, which administers the scholarship program, and the Ministry of Education, which published Hadith, do not have a shared strategic education plan.

However, Hadith has brought renewed scrutiny to how the ministry vets textbooks that contain political opinion. The controversy also renews focus on how much influence Saudi conservatives wield at a time when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Ennahda Party in Tunisia are also flexing their political muscle.

The textbook details the “risks” scholarship students face. “A lot of them [student] have returned laden with the spirit of the West, breathe with its lungs and think with its mentality,” the book states. “They echo their Orientalist teachers in their own land and spread their ideas and theories with deep belief, increasing enthusiasm and eloquence so they become a burden on their society.”

“The percentage of those who survive from this influence is a very little one,” the book’s authors say.

Another section in Hadith, entitled “Westernization,” targets the UN. The section characterizes the international organization as a tool for “dominating” Western powers to apply political pressure on Muslim countries to adopt more aggressive human rights legislation. The West, the textbook argues, uses “the United Nations, the Security Council and its different committees, on weak countries, especially the Islamic ones. This is done for the sake of westernization under slogans such as reform, democracy, pluralism, liberation and human rights, in particular those related to women and religious minorities.”

In fact, some of the views expressed in Hadith are widely held by Saudis.

Maha A., a 33-year-old Jeddah native and university student studying in Newcastle, England, says the UN entry in the book is legitimate. She points to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as meddling in the Kingdom’s affairs and with sharia, or Islamic law. Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000. “I have no problems with the way the United Nations is portrayed in the book,” she told The Media Line.

The schoolbook also warns of Western attempts to subvert Islamic culture by distributing “immorality” through the media. It considers the media tools to advocate western values.

Turki Al-Dakheel, a journalist and presenter on Al-Arabiya television, complained in a column in the Arabic-language daily Al-Watan that the textbook’s “extremist” portions are not consistent with the changes taking place in the international community and in Saudi society.

“The same educational institutes that send students abroad also criticize the scholarship [program],” Al-Dakheel argues. “We should take out the mentality of disagreement from our curriculum in order to protect our students from being politicized or being slaves to one single notion.”

Ahrari, the Washington-based analyst, told The Media Line that the book’s content is less a challenge to King Abdullah and more of “classic bureaucratic” infighting in the Ministry of Education

A Saudi Ministry of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the textbook, agreed. He told The Media Line that there are two factions in the ministry struggling to implement their ideology: Western-educated liberals and Saudi-educated conservatives.

Many of the ministry’s decision-makers hold postgraduate degrees in education from the U.S. and Britain. These supervisors often square off with mid- and upper-level managers educated in Islamic studies from Imam Mohammed Bin Saud University in Riyadh and other Saudi universities.

“There is a great debate between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives are in the minority, but they are very active,” says the official, although he notes the ministry’s policy requires moderation in texts.

The infighting is so intense, he says, that the ministry recently began publishing school textbooks without authors’ names to prevent accusations of extremism. Yet the anonymously authored books have also led to the lack of accountability within the ministry’s ranks for authors failing to adhere to moderation guidelines.

One 22-year-old Riyadh student studying in Britain says there is little merit in warning scholarship holders of the dangers in the West.

“Saudi students are already asked to attend a two-week course on Western culture. The scholarship program selects the highest qualified students to go abroad. If a student is weak in religion and cultural values, he won’t be studious and he won’t be allowed in the program,” Muhammad A. told The Media Line.

But the student also says that human rights issues advocated by the UN are consistent with the pillars of sharia. “Sharia talks of human rights and it’s no different than the United Nations’ human rights. It’s compatible, and there are no negative effects on Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved

September 10, 2011

Saudi Arabia’s Municipal Elections: Tough Lessons Learned from Islamic Conservatives

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

9 September 2011

The Sept. 29 municipal elections in Saudi Arabia mark the second round of polling in six years and the third in almost 50 years. The latest scheduled elections ostensibly will bring Saudis closer to developing democratic ideals espoused in the West. However, the elections also have prompted criticism from Saudi activists who assert that the electoral system prevents half the population from representation by denying women the right to vote and that it gives an edge to religious conservatives.

The September elections followed a voter registration drive in May and a short period through early June that permitted candidates to register their campaigns. Ultimately, voters will go to the polls in September to elect men to 1,632 seats in 258 municipal elections. Half the municipal council seats throughout the Kingdom are appointed by royal decree. In 2005, 1,212 seats were open on 179 councils. Saudi authorities have banned women from voting or registering as candidates.

Although the Arab spring continues with violent clashes in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears virtually immune to demands from Western nations and Saudi dissidents for more aggressive democratic reforms. Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement of the September elections followed his return from Morocco and coincided with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in late February and March.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the municipal elections will become a Middle East template for Western-style democracy as envisioned by the United States and the European Union. The U.S.-backed 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories that brought Hamas to power foreshadowed what the Arab spring brought to North Africa. In Tunisia, the conservative Islamic Ennahda Party has gained considerable power by using Friday prayers at neighborhood mosques to solidify their base despite warnings from the Tunisian government against using political propaganda in sermons. And in July, thousands of religious conservatives descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo in a show of solidarity. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept a low profile during the Egyptian revolution, has emerged as the strongest political party. If Saudi Arabia’s 2005 municipal elections were any indication, religious conservatives will also prevail in September, although in a much quieter fashion.

Long before the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia had been on a reform binge, albeit by modest Saudi standards. In 2003, King Abdullah helped established with then-King Fahd the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to encourage free expression on domestic issues. Since 2005, King Abdullah inaugurated a new system of succession. He also created the National Human Rights Society, broadened women’s role in the workplace, and revamped government institutions to streamline bureaucracy and reduce corruption.

Perhaps the most radical reform was the establishment of an electorate not seen in Saudi Arabia since the early 1960s. However, few Saudis have seen tangible results from the elections since municipal council meetings are largely inaccessible to the public.

Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, who with the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, was part of a Riyadh team in 2004 to help Saudis establish democratic municipal elections. The Saudi government, he reported, embraced some Western electoral procedures and eschewed others. Most notably was implementing cross-district voting that enabled religious conservative candidates to secure large numbers of votes and win elections they otherwise would have lost if voting were limited to their own districts.

“Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom. It also posits that it was this level of coordination, facilitated by the electoral rules that gave the entire campaign a distinctly ideological flavor, even though the elections were formally run on a non-partisan, individual-candidacy basis, Kraetzschmar wrote in his January 2011 study, “The First Democratic Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005.”

Previous Elections

The 2005 municipal elections were not without precedent. Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 1939, just seven years after the founding of the country. Little is known about this fledgling attempt at democracy, but King Saud bin Abdul Aziz permitted municipal council elections again, starting in about 1954, in part to blunt criticism from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. These early efforts inexplicably ceased around 1962.

The Arabian American Oil Co., a consortium of U.S. companies that developed the Saudi oil industry and now owned by Saudi Arabia as Saudi Aramco, kept some records of the early elections process. Islamic scholars and reporters employed by Aramco monitored the elections from the beginning. Registered voters elected candidates to councils that had real power. Councils had the authority to build roads and acquire routes through eminent domain. Some councils had authority over electrical hookups.

How voters cast ballots depended on the region. Shiites in the Eastern Province often found themselves on the short end of the stick when pitted against the Sunni majority. In one election, voting took place similar to the U.S. Electoral College in which about 50 men represented about 20,000 residents in the region. Although Shiites comprised of about half the population, none of the 50 representatives were Shiites. Predictably, the election resulted in a Sunni landslide.

In other regions, older conservative landowners easily beat young businessmen, and middle-class entrepreneurs and mid-level managers. The minimum voting age was 18 or 21 depending on the district. In some districts, the local Emir determined who was eligible to run for office. The total number of votes, not percentages, elected candidates. In one election, 5,000 voters cast ballots among scores of candidates, but the winner received only 115 votes.

Poll monitoring by candidates’ supporters kept voter misconduct at a minimum. In Dammam, for example, monitors suspected several illiterate voters of casting ballots filled out by other people. Monitors ordered them to cast their votes a second time after voiding the first ballots. Not unexpectedly, the most organized candidates won council seats. Many candidates acknowledged the influence of the 1960 John F. Kennedy/Richard Nixon U.S. presidential race in how they approached their campaigns.

2005 Elections

For a country that had not experienced a municipal election in more than 40 years, voter enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections was remarkable. According to the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications, older Saudis took the most interest in the elections. An estimated 73 percent of the registered Saudis voters over the age of 46 cast ballots. About 55 percent of registered Saudis voters between 30 and 40 years old went to the polls, while 43.5 percent of registered men between the ages of 21 and 29 voted. An estimated 55.5 percent of the registered voters held Bachelor of Arts degrees and 54 percent were government employees.

ASBAR painted a bright portrait of the 2005 elections. The study reported that 72.7 percent of the polled Saudis voted because it was an act of national pride and patriotism. Nearly 63 percent of the Saudis polled said they voted because the elections assured “every citizen’s right to vote.” And 48.3 percent said they voted because they wanted to encourage and support the elections.

However, the study also found that in some regions a high percentage of registered voters never went to the polls. In Al Baha, 41.9 percent of the registered voters didn’t cast ballots. In Makkah, 38.3 percent of the registered voters didn’t vote and 39.1 percent of registered voters in Riyadh failed to go to polling stations.

The study did not provide details of its methodology. Yet ASBAR reported that 59 percent of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5 percent didn’t want them on municipal councils. The study concluded that “there was a clear increase in the percentages showing the lack of support concerning women’s participating in the elections, whether in voting or as candidates. This was attributed to reasons related to traditions, norms and the weak qualifying of women.”

Architectural consultant Nadia Bakhurji, the first Saudi women to register her candidacy for 2005 elections only to have her application nullified, argues that female voter participation legitimizes the election. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step,” Bakhurji said. “There is no excuse for us not to participate.”

Bakhurji pointed out that contrary to the ASBAR study men are ready to vote for women candidates. She said the 13,000-member Saudi Council of Engineers has only 200 women on its membership rolls. Bakhurji said she was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat, yet her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also noted that Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and the women elected to seats on the Jeddah and Riyadh Chamber of Commerces illustrate substantial progress. “Obviously women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she said.

Bakhurji’s allies like Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls.

Golden Lists

Saudi electoral regulations ban candidates sharing similar political views from creating alliances, slates or campaigning on issues outside of their local council districts. Yet a Golden List, sometimes referred to as the Recommended List, emerged in the weeks leading up to the 2005 election.

The lists featured candidates “approved” by local clerics or Islamic scholars and played upon the religious emotions of the voters. One Saudi journalist noted that Saudis are “weak” when pressed on matters of Islam and susceptible to ideological arguments. According to LSE Public Policy Group’s Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, telephone text messages bombarded voters with statements that convey such messages as, “These are the candidates who follow the principles and line of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If you want the better for our Islamic and Arab society, vote for them.” Older voters were less likely to reject such arguments, thus keeping the Islamic slate of candidates from fragmenting.

This strategy had a stunning impact in every municipal council district. Candidates running on the Islamic Golden List ticket scored overwhelming victories in Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh, Dammam, Tabuk and Qaif.

Further, candidates on the Golden List greatly benefited from cross-district voting. Many candidates who won seats garnered significantly more votes than there were registered voters in their district. For example, a winning candidate in Jeddah received 9,090 votes, far more votes than the number of registered voters in his own district. More than half of his votes came from other districts.

The Golden List and the informal collaboration between candidates also illustrate the power of new communication technology and its influence on vote getting. While social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, played a minimal role in the 2005 elections, it’s likely to have a significant presence in the September 2011 polling.


Islamist electioneering, council transparency and the marginalization of women have prompted opposition from some Saudi liberals and women’s groups. A group of Saudi writers and intellectuals, which includes Saudi human rights activist Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani, released a statement in March 2011 that the group would boycott the September elections because the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs failed to address concerns of the 2005 elections. The ministry also failed to explain why it cancelled scheduled elections in 2009.

The group complained the councils had no effective role in even the smallest issues affecting local municipalities. Election opponents also said the process diminished democratic practices because half the council members received their seats by appointment. The group also cited the exclusion of women for the second time in six years and the lack of public participation in council decision-making.

The primary reason for keeping women from voting is that the infrastructure and electoral procedures to allow women at polling stations were not ready, according to Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Authorities cancelled the 2009 elections, claiming they needed more time to evaluate how women should be included in the process.

However, the failure to allow women the right to vote sparked the launch of the Baladi Campaign by women activists. The Facebook-driven Baladi Campaign encouraged Saudi women to challenge the ban by attempting to register at local registration offices and demand voter identification cards. Two women successfully registered in the Eastern Province, but registration officials in other Saudi regions refused to issue women voter identification cards. Two women filed claims with the Board of Grievances to overturn the registration officials’ decision, but they failed.

The Baladi Campaign group argues that a woman’s role in Saudi society has “surpassed traditional limits” and that the ban violates international charters ratified by Saudi Arabia that prohibit gender discrimination. The group also cites religious texts and legislation. The group appealed to Saudi authorities to consider the negative perception of the Kingdom in the international community.

“Women in Saudi Arabia have a negative stereotypical image as being oppressed, completely marginalized, and incapable of being productive members of society. It is important to change this negative image in order to show that Saudi women are like all other women in the world, with their own concerns, hopes, capabilities and potentials and can express themselves in their own ways,” the Baladi Campaign said in a statement.

Saudi Women Revolution, another group of women activists using social media to garner support to overturn the driving and voting bans among other gender rights issues, has taken a more aggressive approach. Ignoring some Islamic requirements, Saudi Women Revolution seeks an end to the male guardianship laws in which a male member of the family has complete legal control over a woman’s right to seek higher education, a job or to leave the country.

The group is not seeking the “equal but separate” Islamic concept of women’s rights. Instead, the group embraces some feminist Western ideals. The group states: “Saudi women should have their complete political rights which are guaranteed Saudi men, such as running and voting for elections in municipality councils. Women should also be part of the Shoura Council and all state institutions, foundations, firms and ministers including ministers of justices and foreign affairs.”

In June, Saudi women activists won support from the Shoura Council, the Kingdom’s quasi-legislative body. The Shoura Council issued an advisory ruling that women be permitted to vote and run for municipal council seats. The Shoura Council determined that, “the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs should take the necessary measures to include female voters in municipal elections, in accordance with Islamic Sharia.” However, the recommendation does not include the September 2011 polling but future elections.

Council Transparency

Saudi’s enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections turned to indifference when it became clear that there would be little transparency as to how newly elected council members went about their business.

Nadia Bakhurji characterized council members conducting municipal business as a “complete blackout.”

A telling incident of how a fledgling municipal council works was broadcast in the 2010 MTV “Resist the Power! True Life” documentary. One segment chronicled Jeddah youth activist Ahmed Sabri’s attempts to have the Jeddah Municipal Council grant an audience to a group of women to discuss the lack of transportation available because of the country’s female driving ban. Following lengthy negotiations, the group received permission to attend one meeting. However, the council spent most of its time debating whether the men and women should be segregated in the council chambers. Sabri finally made his statement to the council. Several women in the audience followed with specific comments on their inability to conduct family business without adequate public transportation. The council made no decision and did not meet with the group again.


The Saudi municipal elections can be best described as ongoing experiment in political reform. To be sure, sidelining women is the central flaw in the electoral process. A separate, but equally important, weakness is the Shoura Council’s failure to pass clear-cut open-meeting legislation guaranteeing council transparency. The elections are meaningless without public access or participation in the council decision-making process.

However, the elections should to be placed within the context of Saudi Arabia’s attempts at reform following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Until the formation of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue in 2003 under King Fahd, public discourse of domestic matters was largely taboo. The municipal elections broadened freedom of expression by creating a new relationship between Saudis and their government. The elections encourage public participation in government matters and demonstrate the Saudi government’s neutral position in the outcome of the elections.

Equally important to Saudis is that the elections comply with the tenants of Islam. Although the elections may not be a model of Western democracy, they are an important step towards fulfilling the requirements of Islam. The Holy Qu’ran, for example, twice cites Shoura, which is essentially mutual consultation. The Ash-Shura Verse 38 states, “And those who answer the call of Allah, and perform regular prayer, and who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation, and spend out of what we have given them.” In Al-Imran, Verse 159 states, “Thus it is a mercy of Allah that thou art lenient unto them; had you been cruel and hard-hearted, they would have surely dissipated around you; therefore, ask forgiveness for them, pardon them, and consult them on the conduct of [their] affairs, and when you are resolved, put your trust in Allah, Allah loves those who trust [in Him].”

For the first time in more than 40 years, Saudis enjoyed the right to register to vote or run as a candidate, vote in secret, have access to polling stations and public debate the elections’ outcome.

Discussion of social issues such as government corruption, women’s rights, health and even the development of cinemas, have only surfaced in the past six to eight years. Although the government tightened its control of the news media in 2011, the Saudi press had enjoyed relative freedoms in covering domestic and foreign policy issues. Municipal elections were a logical step in furthering public discourse.

Although religious conservatives managed to skirt some election rules regarding candidate alliances and exploit others such as cross-district voting, most voters did not take issue with the overall credibility of the election process.

Many Saudis remain critical of the lack of transparency in the municipal council and the failure of municipal employees to be held accountable for their decisions. This was evidenced during the 2009 and 2011 Jeddah floods that left scores of people dead and more than 10,000 buildings damaged. Saudis used Facebook and Twitter to criticize Jeddah municipal officials. Ultimately, Saudi law authorities arrested 50 municipal officials and businessmen on corruption charges stemming from mismanaging construction projects. While the criticism was not directed specifically at the Jeddah Municipal Council, Saudis sent a message that municipal leaders’ conduct is under scrutiny.

The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections are tentative steps towards a democracy within the context of Islam and shouldn’t be misunderstood as failing to embrace democratic ideals advocated by the West. Rather, if Saudis learn from both elections and implement changes to include women and develop municipal councils as true consultative bodies, then the Saudi Islamic electoral process will become compatible with Western-style democracy.


[1] Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia in September [,%20%2012,000%20Candidates%20Registered.htm] Arab News, 3 June 2011 (Retrieved 06-06-2011)

[2] IPS: Islamic Forces Rise in Tunisia, IPS News, 31 July 2011 [] (Retrieved 08-01-2011)

[3] Egyptian Uprising: Islamists Lead Tahrir Square Rally [] BBC, 29 July 2011 (Retrieved 01-08-2011)

[4] Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Case of Municipal Elections [] by Mishal Fahm Al-Sulami, associate professor of Comparative Thought, Islamic Studies Department, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp: 113-135 (2008/1429 A.H.) (Retrieved 01-07-2011)

[5] The First Democratic Local Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005: Electoral Rules, the Mobilization of Voters and the Islamist Landslide [] by Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, LSE Public Policy Group Working Paper No. 6, January 2011 [Retrieved 19-5-2011)

[6] Saudi Arabian Elections [] by Thomas W. Lippman, Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service (SURIS) 19 November 2003 (Retrieved 16-07-2011)

[7] Evaluation of the Elections that Took Place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [] ASBAR Center for Studies, Research & Communications (Retrieved 16-06-2011)

[8] Author interview with Nadia Bakhurji, 30 April 2011

[9] Saudi Election News [] (Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[10] Voters Disenchanted with Upcoming Saudi Elections [] NPR, 8 May 2011(Retrieved 12-07-2011)

[11] Declaration of Municipal Elections Boycott by Group of Saudi Writers and Intellectuals [] Jadaliyya, translation by Ziad Abu-Rish, 26 April 2011 (Retrieved 05-15-2011)

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

[13] Saudi Women Respond to Exclusion: Baladi Campaign (My Country Campaign) [] Jadaliyya, 16 May 2011 (Retrieved 30-05-2011)

[14] Women Launch Facebook Campaign to Participate in Municipal Elections [] by Walaa Hawari, 6 February 2011 (Retrieved 20-05-2011)

[15] Saudi Council Calls for Women to Get Local Vote [] Reuters, 6 June 2011(Retrieved 07-06-2011)

[16] Poll Panel Dismisses Woman’s Complaint [] Arab News, 27 May 2011 (Retrieved 27-05-2011)

[17] Rowdy Saudis: MTV’s “Resist the Power – Saudi Arabia” [] Muslimah Media Watch, 7 June 2010 (Retrieved 08-06-2011)

[18] MTV: Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia [] MTV, 24 May 2010 (Retrieved 08-06-2011)

[19] The Foundation for Democratic Advancement Electoral Fairness Research [] by Davood Norooi, 29 July 2011 (Retrieved 2 August 2011)

[20] After the Flood, Rising Saudi Anger Getting a Response [] By Rob L. Wagner, MidEastPosts, 29 January 2011(Retrieved 8 August 2011)

May 20, 2011

News Analysis: Bin Laden’s Family under ‘Islamophobic’ Microscope

By Rob L. Wagner
20 May 2011

It’s inevitable that following the slaying of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs earlier this month that the Western media turn its attention to the terror leader’s sixth wife, Amal Ahmed Al-Sadah, and their 12-year-old daughter, Safiyah.

Most notable in engaging in pointless speculation, Islamophobia and conflating pop culture with the life of Safiyah, is Jezebel, the high traffic U.S.-based feminist website.

While we know virtually nothing about Safiyah’s life, Jezebel’s Anna North tells her readers that the young girl is an assassin in training poised to take on a jihadi role. That is, after she spends some time in a Pakistan madrassa.

Amal was shot in the leg and Safiyah may have suffered minor shrapnel injuries from a grenade during the raid at the Abbottabad compound. Safiyah reportedly witnessed her father’s death.

Safiyah was among many children living at the compound, but she has drawn the most attention. In a May 12 post on the Jezebel website, North describes Safiyah not as a victim, bystander, or even a daughter caught up in circumstances beyond her control, but a potential black ops killer. Why? Because bin Laden allegedly said, “I became a father of a girl after September 11. I named her after Safiyah who killed a Jewish spy at the time of the Prophet. (My daughter) will kill enemies of Islam like Safiyah.”

Jezebel’s North, however, never mentions that Safiyah bint Huyayy was a Jewish convert to Islam and one of the most political savvy of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. And while North does mention that bin Laden was “attentive and playful with his children,” he also wanted to toughen his kids with camping trips to the desert. This, according to North, is cause for concern.

North implies that bin Laden’s teachings radicalized Safiyah. Bin Laden brought two Saudi women – including one with an advanced degree in Islamic studies – into the compound to home-school Safiyah and the other children. While we can speculate on the impact bin Laden’s skewed views of Islam had on Safiyah, there is no evidence that he interfered with the tutors’ teachings.

She also notes that bin Laden’s children could end up in a Pakistan madrassa. According to North, “It’s not clear what the US will do with her and the other children now in its custody, but a lot of the options look pretty bad. According to The (Toronto) Star, the kids could be sent to an orphanage, but conditions in government-run Pakistani orphanages are grim. Some in Pakistan want them sent to a madrassa, but a Pakistani ex-diplomat says, “It’d be a huge mistake. The children would have a cult following and almost certainly become jihadis.”

Left unsaid by North are the dozens of bin Laden family members, many associated with the multinational construction company Saudi Binladen Group and who have long renounced terrorism, who could take in the children.

However, North exercises a special brand of Islamophobia when she conjures up images of the recently released film, Hanna, about a teen-age girl trained as a killer.

North writes: “And while Safiyah hasn’t murdered anyone, her upbringing is a little like that of the titular teen in Hanna – she was raised in isolation, and if we take bin Laden’s words at face value, she was raised to kill. If this were a movie, she’d spend a few years training, and then wreak her revenge on her father’s killers. The job of the US now is to make sure things don’t turn out like that.”

Good grief. North wants to make sure that Safiyah doesn’t avenge the killing of her father like in the movies and because her father believed Safiyah’s name is synonymous with killing the enemies of Islam.

North manages to reduce Safiyah bin Laden to a pop culture caricature based on sketchy media reports and the fact that being raised in the bin Laden household automatically makes a 12-year-old girl a potential killer.

Jezebel up until last week usually got it right about Muslim women. Its articles on Muslims were generally non-judgmental and often its stand-alone photographs depicted young Muslim women without comment on their manner of dress. Jezebel was one of the few websites that refused to label young Muslims as anything other than just women. The website exercised remarkable restraint by not forcing Western feminist ideals on the Muslim community.

Yet Jezebel has also moved away in the past year or so from its more serious attempts to examine feminist issues to more frat house humor, titillation and reliance on four-letter words in headlines to attract readers. Perhaps North’s Islamophobic musings of the future of a 12-year-old girl is indicative of Jezebel’s own future as a feminist website. Why address what truly waits for Safiyah as she grows into adulthood when a mash-up of pop culture and true-life experiences makes for better reading? Readers can find this sort of thing at any of the innumerable anti-Muslim hate websites. Perhaps Jezebel is seeking this editorial direction.

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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