Daring to listen to Saudi women

If you pay close attention to the coverage of Islam in the mainstream press, you may have noticed that there are three major themes:

(1) Islam is a religion of peace.

(2) There is no one Islam.

(3) When some Muslims do horrible things, they are being driven by cultural (not religious) realities, even if they insist that their motivations are rooted in their Islamic beliefs.

It’s easy to spot the tensions created by these templates. For example, if “Islam is a religion of peace,” then that makes it sound like there is only one Islam. Meanwhile, if there is one, true form of Islam, is it logical that journalists in the West (or even professors at Georgetown University) should be the ones who get to make decisions about which form of Islam is the true form? That sounds rather provincial, doesn’t it?

Now, if there is in fact no single, correct version of Islam, then it is possible — probable, even — that some Muslims may do horrible things based on their interpretation of the faith, often creating clashes with the beliefs of other Muslims or even a majority of Muslims.

All of this gives journalists headaches.

Thus, I assume that someone passed around a bottle of pain killer when editors at The New York Times started editing reporter Katherine Zoepf’s recent news feature that ran under the headline, “Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia.” Here is the top of that report:

JIDDA – Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women like herself were beginning to organize campaigns for greater personal freedoms. Suddenly, there were women asking for the right to drive, to choose whether to wear a veil, and to take a job without a male relative’s permission, all using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings and all becoming, she felt, more voluble by the month.

The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that a female activist in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had been to the border with Bahrain, demanding to cross using only her passport, without a male chaperon or a male guardian’s written permission. Ms. Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has failed — so far — to change any existing laws or customs.

But Ms. Yousef is still outraged, and since August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women.” … Ms. Yousef’s fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger tussle in Saudi society over women’s rights that has suddenly made the female factor a major issue for reformers and conservatives striving to shape Saudi Arabia’s future.

Now, this story does a fine job of letting readers hear the actual voices of people on both sides of this debate. It is also clear that there are more than two sides, with some women seeking change — but change within strict limits that they believe are rooted in Islam. Some of the laws limiting the rights of women are merely cultural, they say, while others are based on Islamic law.

Thus, we need to stop and ask: Is it a good thing for the Times to call this a fight between “reformers” and “conservatives”? What if there are conservative reformers? Is moving toward the West automatically “reform” if millions of Saudi women are debating how far “reforms” should go?

This story, however, does make attempts to get past simple templates:

Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.

She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.

“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.

Is it safe to say that journalists often walk in the footsteps of those human-rights activists, in part because it is painful to accurately report the views of many Muslim women? After all, Yousef expresses surprise that the Times was interested in her effort. Although 30 articles had appeared in the Saudi press, Western reporters based in the Kingdom had declined her overtures to discuss these issues.

By all means, read the rest of this fine report. There are nits that can be picked, but this is a far more nuanced and complex report than one normally sees in the mainstream press. Note that the story even allows the word “Shariah” to be used. Of course, there is no one approach to Shariah law, either. However, it is progress to admit that there are religious laws and doctrines involved.

Once you have finished the Times article, you may want to head over to the Huffington Post and check out a related article by journalist Sabria Jawhar, who is wearing a burqa in her column logo.

Now, please note that this column opposes the attempts to abolish guardianship laws and also, interestingly enough, assumes that the Western voices cheering on these Saudi changes are political conservatives (as opposed to liberal feminists).

Whatever. The key is that Jawhar sees herself as a pro-reform traditionalist and, yes, she is convinced that she has Islamic law on her side. Here is a key part of her essay:

Many families treat their wives, daughters and sisters with great respect and don’t follow their every move. Permission to travel or to conduct business abroad is often granted carte blanche with a signed piece of paper from a mahram. Many women travel freely with this document and consult little with the men in their families about their movements.

But since there are no codified laws, most Saudi women traveling alone don’t know from one day to the next whether their documents will pass scrutiny at the airport. And for every family that follows guardianship rules, there is another family that wields the law like a club. It’s not a system ripe for abuse. It’s already a system abused with regularity. …

It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family’s tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women’s shelter.

Here is a clear instance of the Saudi judicial system failing to protect the woman and tacitly endorsing abuse of the guardianship system. If men follow the spirit of guardianship as outlined in the Qur’an and recognize at the same time there is no place for tribal customs within the system, then a happy medium can be found. But if the Saudi courts fail to implement checks and balances to punish guardianship abusers and to protect the victims, then the laws are pointless.

Tribal customs should not usurp Sharia.

OK, journalists, what is the accurate label for Jawhar? Is she a reformer? Is she a traditionalist? A conservative? She is pro Shariah law, and, thus, in favor of the many Islamic laws that so outrage women in the West (such as those lined up to see Sex And The City 2). So she is in favor of patriarchy, as defined by her view of Islamic law, yet she opposes some of the laws and customs of Saudi Arabia, which defenders would insist are based on their interpretations of Islam.

Complex stuff. By all means, read it all. And kudos to Zoepf and the Times for at least sticking a cautious toe into this whirlpool.

Hat tip: To Rod Dreher, who bluntly called out GetReligion to post something on this one. Consider it done.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for highlighting this story. I noted that most of the story centered around women and that, in itself, says something.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Once again, we see the profound interest of GetReligion readers in foreign coverage and for complex issues linked to Islam (which is a pretty important subject, if you stop and think about it).

  • Ira Rifkin

    there are just 2 replies here so far (including your’s and not including mine). I take it you are being sarcastic – or am I being dense?

  • Jerry

    Terry, Lack of comment does not necessarily mean lack of interest. Maybe 10,000 loved the post but had nothing to say. Even in spite of my love of giving my opinion, there are stories on which I have nothing to say. And I know that is true for many.

    Do you get and review “page views” so you can see the number of people reading the particular post? Maybe that would be a measure of interest or maybe you get those stats and are noticing people not paying attention to the post?

  • Jeff

    As a Western non-Muslim journalist I have been reading Ms. Jawhar’s columns for several years now. She is indeed difficult to peg. But at the end of the day she is both a reformer and a traditionalist. She’s a women’s rights activist who wants the rights women are entitled to under Islam. According to her columns, she wants a broader interpretation of Islam, not the narrow interpretation that Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal society has established to limit Saudi women’s opportunities. She argues that Saudi women will resist Western intervention in obtaining their rights because it’s not consistent with Islam.

    It’s refreshing to see a Western website recognize the nuances of the women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia within the context of Islam. So few Western journalists take the time to examine the issue or even read the Qur’an to figure out why Saudi women are not interested in equal rights as defined by Western society. Congratulations on tackling the issue. I hope it’s the first of many on Islam.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I’m one of those who read the post, read the stories and thought GR did a good job of highlighting some stuff worth thinking about, so I did some thinking. I try to do as much of that as I can to myself; people stare at me less. Maybe if you included an automatic “dittos!” button? …

  • Ira Rifkin

    OK, I was dense.

    But tmatt, what ever made you think that GR readers were, on aggregate, any different than the general population of American media consumers in today’s atomized, narrowly focused news environment?

    All you can do is to do your part. Be not discouraged!

    And Brett’s right; why comment just for the sake of doing so if my comment adds no value?

  • Dave

    Once again, we see the profound interest of GetReligion readers in foreign coverage and for complex issues linked to Islam

    Ease up, Terry. Some of us still operate on the archaic 24-hour cycle and tap into GR once a day.

    Those who see Islam as just one thing (in particular the thing that brought down the Twin Towers) are just as blinkered as those Moslems who see the West as monolithic and don’t parse the difference between corporate execs and feminists.

  • Trudy

    Partly because I am a religious professional but not a journalist, I find this conversation fascinating. This story brings out the many dimensions well, the ways that religion, culture, social practices, psychology and in this case law become conflated. That is not surprising because in life they often are interwoven in complex ways. But isn’t this true in Christianity in America as well? (Wives, obey your husbands being only the example closest to hand.) There are religious liberals who are economically conservative and politically moderate and socially radical. Well, and much much more complexity depending on your lenses. Of course, where religion is established, it is be even less simple to separate religion from culture and law. It seems to me the that calling individuals “conservative” or “reformer” is helpful only when the context is well established by the piece. Here that it is done by letting individuals speak for themselves. Is that the only way it CAN really work? And I imagine it takes incredible skill to report them in such a way they can really be heard as themselves by us, translated into our context.

    Or does this rumination simply mean I would be a terrible journalist? Because you have to simplify some things, don’t you, to communicate them well? (note I am not a pastor so I don’t have to preach!)

  • Chip Smith

    Once again, we see the profound interest of GetReligion readers in foreign coverage and for complex issues linked to Islam (which is a pretty important subject, if you stop and think about it).

    I don’t usually comment when all I have to say is “Yeah, I agree and would like to see more of these kinds of articles!” but since you asked…Yeah, I agree and would like to see more of these kinds of articles!