NYT series of articles on Saudi youth

May 14, 2008

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

Saudi labels Israel’s killing in Gaza as “copying…the Nazis”

March 3, 2008

Yet more on language, which somehow seems to be the common factor in most of our postings and comments this past week.  AP is reporting that an unnamed official in Saudi Arabia is likening Israel’s attack on Gaza, in which more than 70 have been killed, to Nazi war crimes:

“Saudi Arabia, which condemns the Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people and the threats of Israeli officials to turn Gaza into an inferno, sees that Israel through its actions is copying the war crimes of the Nazis.”

AP describes this remark as coming in response to Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai’s use of the word “shoah,” which can be translated as “holocaust,” to describe what the Gazans were “bringing onto themselves” with the continued firing of rockets into Israel.  The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, has settled for just calling Israeli actions “war crimes” without likening them to Nazism.

Ralph Nader enters the U.S. political fray

February 25, 2008

[cross-posted at Culture Matters]

Ralph Nader has announced that he is again running for president in the United States. As the BBC notes, the 2% of votes that he received in the 2000 elections when he represented the Green Party was a deciding factor in Bush’s win over Gore, and this time around, Republicans again welcome his candidacy, since it is again expected to split the Democratic vote.

So, on the occasion of Ralph Nader’s entry into the 2008 U.S. presidential election, let me tell you how I first found out who Ralph Nader was.

It was the summer of 1994, the year before my last year of undergrad at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and I was in Walnut Creek, visiting my grandparents. I was also getting ready to apply to grad school to do a PhD in anthropology, and we had a family link to Berkeley, since my parents had met there in the 60s, and it just so happened that one of my anthropology heroines was on the faculty of the anthropology department there. So I made an appointment to go talk to Professor Laura Nader. Read the rest of this entry »

Rumours that Saudi Arabia will lift ban on women driving

January 23, 2008

On November 6, 1990, some 30 years after girls’ education was introduced in the Kingdom, some 49 Saudi women formed a convoy of cars and drove through the streets of Riyadh. [1] It was during the lead-up to the Gulf War, when international media attention was focused on Saudi Arabia, and the women hoped to use this public demonstration to pressure society and the government into allowing Saudi women to drive.

Religious conservatives were incensed. The women were taken into police custody and their male guardians were summoned to retrieve them and take them home. The women had reportedly articulated their request to drive in a formal letter sent to Prince Salman, the Mayor of Riyadh and brother of King Fahd, the day of the demonstration (ibid).

But the women’s hope for intervention from the royal family was disappointed. Those who had participated in the demonstration were sanctioned with confiscation of passports and many were suspended from their jobs. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior subsequently encoded in law the previously unofficial ban on women driving, and the highest ranking cleric in the Kingdom issued a supporting fatwā (ibid p.32). Months later, after the uproar had died down, King Fahd quietly restored these women’s passports and their teaching posts (Gause 1994:162).

The 1990 driving demonstration was one of the most visible of internal political events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a monarchical oil state in which political demonstrations are infrequent and rarely publicized. For the outside world looking into the black box of Saudi society and politics, the driving demonstration and the fact that women continue to be barred from driving symbolizes the inferior status of women in Saudi society.

Yet when I interviewed 30 Saudi women about women and social change in the Kingdom in 1994 (Wynn, forthcoming), most considered driving to be a non-issue. Instead, their chief concerns revolved around expanding opportunities for women’s education and employment in Saudi Arabia. What’s more, they bristled at criticism of the status of women in Saudi Arabia, and were frankly tired of Westerners fixating on the fact that they could not drive, with the implications of social “backwardness” that this entailed.

Read the rest of this entry »