“They Call Me Muslim”

February 21, 2008

“They Call Me Muslim” is a short film focusing on the experiences of two Muslim women, one in Paris and one in Tehran, who hold very different opinions on veiling. Samah, living in Paris, feels that the ban on headscarves in French schools forces her to choose between her religion and her education, whilst K must wear the headscarf when in public in Iran. The filmmaker, Dianna Ferrero, explains some of the issues arising from the film in this article. The overall message of the documentary is one that at times seems to be overlooked in the headscarf debate – that women are negotiating political and cultural obstacles in order to regain control over their bodies in both religious and secular contexts, and that ultimately it is the freedom to choose to veil or not veil that should be promoted.

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.

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