Sally Quinn Peddles Offensive Stereotypes About Middle-Eastern Women On MSNBC

This was originally written by Megan and published on Jezebel.

jezebelSally Quinn just got back from a Brookings Institute conference in Doha and, judging by her appearance on MSNBC talking about the status of women in the Middle East, she didn’t apparently learn much.

Quinn peddles so many offensive stereotypes about Middle Eastern countries, the status of women in those countries and the interplay of national wealth and personal poverty (not like we’d know anything about that in America) that it’s hard to know where to begin, really.

But let’s start here: Quinn identifies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman as “the most oil rich countries in the Middle East.” Um, no. While Saudi Arabia does, indeed, have the largest oil reserves in the Middle East, Bahrain is an island nation with no fucking oil. The UAE is at least 5th on the list of most oil rich countries in the region; Qatar is 8th and Oman is 11 on the list of 19. So, her premise starts off false and doesn’t get any better.

She then states — without attribution, of course — that in all of those countries, fewer women vote; fewer women are in Parliament; there is a reluctance to grant women the vote; there are fewer women in the work force; and women have fewer rights than elsewhere in the Middle East with less oil. But, for instance, Yemen has less oil than Oman, and yet Oman has a higher literacy rate among women than Yemen by far. I could spend hours researching and debunking the claims she’s made, but perhaps it’s just easiest to say: not every country in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights, education levels and incomes vary widely throughout the Middle East and within countries, as they do everywhere.

But, we could take the UN’s Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and its Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) as (very) rough guides of where women are at in terms of what Sally Quinn is supposedly talking about. The GDI takes into account life expectancy, literacy rate, educational levels and estimated earned income disparities between men and women to rank countries (the U.S. is 16) and the GEM takes into account the seats held by women in Parliament; the percent of total female legislators, female officials and managers; the percentage of female professionals and technical workers; and the ratio of female to male earned income to determine countries rankings (the U.S. is 15). So, here they are matched up against the rankings of countries “in the Middle East” (yes, I know Sudan and several Central Asian countries are on there, but it’s a US government chart and a useful comparison):

Notice anything striking? Like an utter lack of coherence of oil reserves and how the countries rank in terms of the GDI and GEM? In fact, the two best countries in the actual Middle East — Kuwait and the UAE, respectively — are near the top of the list in terms of their oil reserves, and the worst country on both in the Middle East (Yemen) has relatively little oil. The only country that’s relatively high on both scales — Bahrain — is the country that doesn’t have any oil despite what Sally Quinn says.

She also ignores glaring income disparities in some oil-rich countries in the Middle East, refers to the women in oil-rich countries as “cossetted,” suggests that they have no economic need to work and even says, “They can shop, they can gossip, they can go to lunch,” as though all the women in oil rich countries in the Middle East are like the Real Housewives of Orange County in abayas. Oh, and she adds,

“I think most of them are bored out of their minds, the rich ones.”

Because, naturally, she’s conducted intensive sociological research in this area. And then she says:

“I think a lot of women, and this certainly goes for women in this country, too, would probably rather spend more time at home when they have little children and not have to work full-time. But I think that most women would prefer a more fulfilling life than just sitting around eating bon-bons all day.”

Gosh, there’s no stereotypes there about the role of women in the Middle East, nothing culturally insensitive about calling to mind harems and women of leisure when talking about women in the Middle East, nothing offensive to American women to suggest that we’d all like to stay home and exclusively care for our children when they are little. If she could overgeneralize more about what large swaths of ethnically, religiously, culturally and nationally diverse women all want, she’d probably strain something.

The study she was supposedly on MSNBC to discuss is, of course, months old and something that I critiqued months ago because of the arguments it advances about encouraging women to take up textile work in Middle Eastern countries as a way to expand economic opportunities for women; its willing ignorance of cultural factors at play; the lack of attention to overall unemployment in some oil rich countries as a result of the lack of economic diversification; and the fact that women have poor economic and political opportunities in oil-poor countries in the Middle East as well as oil-rich ones (as I noted above). That doesn’t make it a bad study or one not worthy of discussion — it’s worth plenty of discussion by people far more informed than Sally Quinn — but it’s certainly no road map to resolving the issues of gender inequality in some Middle Eastern countries.

Editor’s Note: The original post at Jezebel has a video of Quinn’s appearance on MSBNC.

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  • Muffy

    It has become increasing popular in the USA to link oil and oil money with many of the world’s evils, e.g. terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism (and related to that, women’s rights). By reducing our dependence on foreign oil, as the story goes, we’ll also de-fund “backwards” Middle Eastern regimes that rely on oil money to survive. Hence, we should buy hybrid cars/drill in ANWR/[insert whatever political idea here]. Oil is the new “blood diamond,” I guess you could say Sally Quinn was likely basing her analysis on this notion. However, as you pointed out, people completely oversimplify the situation in their zeal to prove the evils of “foreign oil.”

  • Sahar

    This reminds me of a post on Nuseiba a while back by a guy called Michael Ross who argues that women have less of a political influence in oil-rich countries because they don’t participate in the economy as much. There are fundamental flaws in his analysis, like the political, historical and cultural context which his analysis is divorced from. But it’s still similar to the argument this woman is making. Although she’s getting her countries mixed up.

    Oil can’t be blamed for the issues related to women in these societies. Nor can Islam. This reductive approach in Western scholarship particularly is irritating ’cause you’d think it would be common sense to actually recognise different factors contribute to how societal processes work.

  • Sahar
  • coolred38

    I live in Bahrain and this is the first I heard that we dont have oil revenue. What the hell else is the royal family living the high life off of?

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  • DaisyDeadhead

    I can’t believe she hauled out those old bon-bons again.


  • luckyfatima

    Everyone loves to hate Gulf Arabs! This is more of the same! Just pure trash. Gulf Arabs’ standard of living is similar to that of people in the US, meaning there are some very wealthy people, middle class, and poorer people as well. I’ll tell you what, I think racist subtext in Western culture makes it so that Western people prefer to see poor people of color, Muslims, and when there are relatively affluent people of color like in the Gulf, they can’t stand it and they pick and pick and pick and degrade the people and the culture and imply that the women here are just label whores and bon bon eaters—the opposite of hard working, meritocratic Amerkuns and such. Orientalist mirror to one’s own culture, anyone? I also agree that the women’s issues are very misunderstood, but rather than actually try to understand, there is a lot of feign of concern used to trash the culture and trash Islam.

    Co-sign with Muffy as well.