NYT series of articles on Saudi youth

Reading from the recent New York Times series of articles on Saudi youth and dating (from the perspective of men, from the perspective of women, and on a much more grave topic, journalistic methodology and the threat of rape, which recollected this widely publicized court case in Saudi Arabia last year), I was nostalgically reminded of my time in Jeddah some 15 years ago, when my Saudi girlfriends met men in malls and dated surreptitiously by cell phone, and teachers at the Saudi girls’ school where I worked told hilarious stories about their sons dressing up brooms with `abayas and veils and putting them in the back of their car and driving around to see how many men would follow, trying to flirt with the broom-women.

More than ten years ago, I wrote a short article for Middle East Report on the phenomenon of dating in Saudi Arabia and how it was mediated by commodity culture.  In the Times article, it seems that just about the only difference between now and then is (a) the way that Bluetooth technology is mediating the flirting of Saudi youth, and (b) the fact that New York Times reporters have gained enough access to Saudi society to write about the phenomenon.

–L.L. Wynn

9 Responses to NYT series of articles on Saudi youth

  1. Raffe says:

    This is fascinating, thank you for posting it.
    I’m quite simple in terms of my knowledge of Saudi society and i found several aspects of these stories quite surprising.
    Whlst i knew that women were unable to drive a car and were forced to be veiled in public with a male escort it’s still quite shocking to read. Considering the explicit gender gap in Saudi Arabia it sounds similar to racial segregation in the Deep South and I was wondering whether or not this due to a misguided sense of sexual superiority of men over women or is it based on Islamic text?

  2. llwynn says:

    This is the type of question that Saudi women constantly confront from Westerners: why are you oppressed? Where does it come from? When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I saw two different strategies that Saudi women used to answer this question.

    The first I learned through a Saudi anthropologist by the name of Afrah al-Attas, one of the first Saudi women I ever met. She looked for the answer in culture. She pointed out that in the southern villages in the south (in Asir Province), men and women worked equally in the fields, women drove trucks around on their farms, etc. She also looked to examples of Muslim women elsewhere in the Arab world who lived very different lifestyles, and pointed out that the variability in the status of women, in styles of dress and veiling, in interactions between men and women, both within Saudi Arabia and between Saudi Arabia and other countries, in contexts where the thing that was shared was religion, suggested that the answer could only be in historically specific interpretations of Islam and cultural factors all over the world.

    Indeed, if you look at internal debates in Saudi Arabia over whether women should be able to drive or not, most conservative opponents of women driving do not say that they shouldn’t drive because of religion. They say, rather, that Saudi culture is not prepared for it: because women would face harassment by men on the street and nobody wants to see his or her wife/sister/daughter subjected to that kind of treatment. It’s an interesting argument when you compare it with the work of Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatima Mernissi, who argues that Islam assumes that the concept of fitna, or chaos, inheres in women’s nature. In contrast, the Saudi assumption seemed to be that it was men who could not control themselves in the presence of women.

    The second type of response was to challenge the very assumptions in that question: that women are oppressed. This was by far the majority response I found amongst the Saudi women I knew. They were intellectuals, university professors, businesswomen, and doctors, they were wealthy and powerful women, and they argued that sex segregation did not equate with inequality. The pointed to all the ways that they were privileged — and indeed, these upper-class Saudi women were very privileged indeed — and said, tell us, where is our oppression?

    That didn’t mean that they didn’t have internal discussions about how the status of women should and could be improved. For example, they pointed out that while Saudi women graduated from college at rates higher than Saudi men, the library resources of King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah was only open to female students one day a week. In this sense, sex segregation did lead to inequality. But the Saudi women I knew argued that it shouldn’t have to be that way, and that sex segregation need not necessarily equate with inequality. But these conversations were mostly between themselves, and not for the benefit of the Western outsider (myself). When talking with me, overwhelmingly the sentiment was one of weariness at being asked the same question over and over again: why are Saudi women oppressed? They were sick of the question, sick of the assumptions behind it, sick of the patronizing attitude implied.

    What is shared in both of these two types of responses was the strongly held belief that it was not Islam that oppressed women, it was particular cultural structures that could only be overcome through the reinterpretation of religious texts and through a return to the “true” form of Islam as it was originally revealed.

    So I would press you to look at your original question and rethink your assumptions about Saudi women. Think, for example, about the idea that women are “forced to be veiled.” For Saudi women raised in that culture, it is not a question of force, it is simply their normal, internalized sense of modesty. I would feel terribly uncomfortable if someone told me that I should go out of the house not wearing a shirt. Does that mean I’m forced to wear a shirt? Oh, but wouldn’t I feel more comfortable if I let my breasts hang out in the nice warm Sydney air, free from the constraints of bra and blouse? Well maybe I would, if I hadn’t been conditioned all of my life to think it normal to cover up my breasts in public. But I’m American and I just can’t get used to the idea of letting it all hang out! (I dare you feel the same way about your genitals.) I don’t feel oppressed because of it. (Well, maybe a little! ;)

    So it’s interesting to consider the implications: the question about veiling or sex segregation being signs of oppression seems to primarily come up in a context of cross-cultural comparisons and a structure of cultural hegemony: our women don’t veil, your women do; therefore, your women must be oppressed. I reckon that the equation doesn’t follow so simply as that. It’s only in the context of a global system of cultural hegemony that Westerners can feel like their culture is *normal* and others are strange. I try to imagine a world where a culture of people who like to decorate their bodies with paint but otherwise walk around naked are politically, economically, and culturally hegemonic. Then women like me, raised in a culture where covering the breasts was normal, would be faced with a couple of different options. Some of us might say, “Yes, look, that culture is better! It’s much less inhibiting and chaffing and sexually repressive if you don’t have to wear clothes.” The culture of painted naked people might see that group of women as revolutionary feminists, throwing off the shackles of our repressive culture. Others of us might say, “There’s nothing oppressive about wanting to wear a shirt, so leave me alone and stop telling me to take it off!” And we might get tired of hearing the painted naked people bemoan how oppressed we were, given that we actually LIKE to wear clothes.

    How does that work as an analogy?

  3. Raffe says:

    Good analogy.
    Once again, excuse any mistakes i make, but within the NYT articles there were references to ‘religious police’, the Mutaween. Whilst many women may wear the niqab regardless of this presence there is an element of being forced into covering from head to toe because of this group.

  4. Raffe says:

    Furthermore, you do have the option of not wearing a shirt. There are nude beaches throughout Australia, though admittedly i’ve not exactly gone out looking for them :), allowing you to express your…assets.
    Whilst i agree that different cultures deserve respect i don’t believe that the respect should evolve into placidity in the face of something awful such as the 2002 fire when 14 girls were pushed back into a burning building by the mutaween because they were not veiled.

  5. llwynn says:

    Good points, Raffe. There definitely are differences, and our lack of a morality police (technically translated, the “mutawe`en” just means “volunteer” but the organization they work for translates as “The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” — so Orwellian, isn’t it?) is the biggest difference. I was talking about the sentiments of those who don’t feel like they’re beholden to them, but it would be naive of me to not acknowledge the segment of society that sees itself at odds with the purposes of the mutawe`en. I was surprised in the NYT article to see how the women interviewed seemed to identify so solidly with the mutawe`en as their defenders. Most of the people I knew in Jeddah, no matter how personally devout, hated the idea that this one group of society had the power to impose its will upon others, and there was a loud local outcry against the fire when girls died because the mutawe`en wouldn’t let the firefighters into the building of women. I guess that just speaks to the very narrow segment of society that I personally had access to. It might also relate to the bigger picture of the politics of representation: I could imagine that it’s possible that the women interviewed for the NYT felt that it was important to speak in favor of the mutawe`n when talking to a NYT reporter because they wanted to counteract prevalent Western portrayals of Saudi society as backward and oppressive.

    But back to the analogy: I COULD choose to not wear my shirt on a nude beach, but I couldn’t come to work without a shirt on. There are actually laws against “indecent exposure” in Australia, so I could be arrested for walking around naked. Does this count as our “religious police”?

  6. Raffe says:

    Apologies for the mistranslation, i guess there’s a reason we can’t cite wikipedia in academic essays :)
    I agree that there are restrictions on what people were and how they can act in public and this all goes back to the harm principle from Locke and Mill. The sole purpose of law is to prevent the harming of others. If a society found that all its citizens enjoyed being naked then laws would be changed to accomodate their views.

  7. llwynn says:

    Sorry, didn’t mean to suggest that you’d translated it badly. Mutawe`en often gets translated as “religious police” or “morals police” and that’s a better translation than the literal one, “volunteer.” By the way, if anyone is interested in learning more about the fascinating history of this organization in Saudi Arabia, Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist, has a lot about it in her “A History of Saudi Arabia” (Cambridge University Press 2002).

  8. Raffe says:

    I believe that i should clarify my original statements. I support the wearing of the hijab, the niqab and other religious and cultural symbols that one may choose to wear. As a Jew, whilst i don’t wear a kippah, i would feel deeply offended if i was told that I couldn’t express my faith (i still wear a magain david around my neck).
    I do take into consideration the importance to adhere to your own culture and belief, which i think is one of the modern western morals that, although not fully developed, has recently spawned in our society from a history of oppression and oppressing. However, the violent imposition through government policy and legislation of strict religious principles to the point that women, who may potentially disagree with their treatment, are denied the right to leave, is strictly against what I feel is moral.

    Western political thought has established the social contract, where the individual assesses the sacrifices they are to make and weighs them against the benefits of the state. I find it difficult to believe that a woman who is given the choice of being publicly stoned to death in exchange of utter subservience to her husband, and in neither case given the liberty to leave (although I acknowledge this does not reflect the situation faced by every woman in Saudi Arabia) reflects my understanding of what is right and moral. I am also happy to acknowledge that these are Western values, and that no value (regardless of how crucial we may perceive it) should be considered universal, and they certainly shouldn’t be forced upon unwilling societies, as was the case during centuries of imperial oppression.

    So I am at a deadlock in my own personal values and cannot resolve this problem now. I know that the oppressive treatment of women in Saudi Arabia is wrong, as in many cases they are not being given the liberty to choose to accept these conditions. However, this right to choose is my value and does not reflect those in other societies. I can only conclude with the understanding that more thought, research, study and history is required before a suitable process for establishing compatibility between Islamic societies such as Saudi Arabia and the West is fully achieved.

  9. llwynn says:

    Of course anyone would object to a cultural order in which women have to choose between public stoning and “utter subservience to her husband.” But that is not the situation in Saudi Arabia. Stoning is a penalty imposed only for adultery — not for disobedience — when it can be proven by four eyewitnesses to the act of adultery. In other words, it’s nearly impossible to prove adultery, and as far as I know, stoning is extraordinarily rare. It is hard for women to get a divorce in Saudi Arabia, but it is possible. I know several Saudi women who have. So it’s not just obey or be stoned. Certainly there are ways that Saudi (and American, and Australian, and so on) women are oppressed, but we don’t achieve any real understanding of how that works or how to counteract it by being simplistic.

    Also I should note that Saudi men are equally the target of the mutawe`en. See, for example, these two recent reports in the press:

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