An Open Letter to Maureen Dowd

Dear Maureen,

I hear you’re back from your jaunt over in Saudi Arabia. Kudos to you for making it back from that big, bad place. Somebody get this woman the gin and tonic she deserves!

Maureen Dowd at a hotel in Riyadh. Image via Ashley Parker at Vanity Fair.

First, a secret: I am so tired of frothy, pop-culture media and art about the question of veiling. It’s really reached the point where whenever I hear about a story about the “Muslim world,” I feel premonitory exhaustion at the prospect of having to respond to its same tired clichés and unnecessary dichotomies, all of which result in a nice big pat on Orientalism’s back. But I know, Maureen—you don’t care about my angst.

Did you go out of your way to collaborate with the writers of Sex and the City 2 when you wrote your August Vanity Fair piece on Saudi tourism? Titled “A Girls’ Guide to Saudi Arabia” and introduced on the magazine’s front with the absurd pun “Maureen Dowd Shakes Up the Sheikhs,” the story reeks of magic-carpet exoticism à la Carrie Bradshaw, except no one really expected sound political and intellectual commentary from a chick-flick. We expect it from you (well, I’m familiar with your work, so I don’t—but I’m sure other people do).

As Haroon Moghul and Hussein Rashid both mentioned over at Religion Dispatches, you not only believe that Saudi Arabia is the single best place to learn about Islam; you also seem to think the country and its customs should pander to your narrow sensibilities. This, perhaps, is why you spend the majority of the article whining about the abaya and what would happen to you if you just tore it off in some liberating spectacle that would make Laura Bush proud. You talk about your first visit to Saudi, and how you wore your hot-pink skirt (with fringe) in presumable defiance of cultural norms with which you plainly disagree. But here’s a sociological truth, Maureen: it’s not defiance when you do it; it’s defiance when a Saudi woman does it. When you do it, it’s just good ol’ cultural imperialism.

While your sarcasm is cute (see: “Today, Saudi Arabia is [...] even toning down the public beheadings”), it betrays your sanctimonious attitude toward the Saudis and their culture. They may have caught on. Don’t you think it’s a little irresponsible to lump together the abolition of slavery and “letting women sell lingerie to women” as markers of societal progress? Or to say that “the big Gloria Steinem advance [...] is that women now wear abayas with dazzling designs on the back,” effectively undercutting nascent Saudi activism and the attempts of so many women to expand interpretations of Islam? Or to equate with civil rights-era sit-ins your entirely disrespectful attempt to force your ideas of equality onto a Starbucks?

Calling Saudi Arabia “a country that legally, sexually, and sartorially buries its women alive” and “the most bewitching, bewildering, beheading vacation spot you’ll never vacation in,” doesn’t promote understanding, Maureen. It only continues to perpetuate stereotypes of viziers stroking their beards and sad little princesses who can’t leave home—stuf that is simply not helpful or true. Your escapist romp was fun, I’m sure, because you got to once again compare yourself to the poor women with “black tarp thrown over their heads,” as you sophomorically recount your plight like it was a small piece of theirs.

But you are indeed woman, Maureen. We know, because you roar about everything from gender segregation to the fact that you can no longer have a bad hair day because—alas!—your hair is covered. Clearly, though, you didn’t have a moment to visit an expat compound, where you’d have found the gender equality you so craved every moment of your visit. That, Maureen, could have been your oasis, replete with alcohol and mini-skirts and movie theaters and—Wait, did you even leave the country? At least you got to live it up on that yacht, wearing your “real bikini and [living] the high life.” Emancipation at its most meaningful.

What you seem to forget is that foreign countries are not required to be like your own—that the entire tourism industry is in fact built upon giving people glimpses of new places and experiences. (Really though: the only time you’re not complaining, in your article, is when your Saudi experience mimics that of some weekend in the Hamptons).

So unless you’re a self-righteous Times columnist with a history of thinking that thousands of years of culture and tradition should tremble in your Western wake, you should attempt not to project all of your customs onto another people. That means you can’t spend your whole article discussing the “veiled” nature of the “Forbidden Country” (Where did you find that moniker, by the way? Google disagrees, Maureen), or weaving stories from a hundred years ago with last week’s horrifying death-by-abaya story and sprinkling in some trite anecdote that makes it sound like you’re being slammed back to the Stone Age. You can’t toss around faulty syllogisms about oppression, frolic in your provocative haram/polygamy/veil/beheading/misogyny rhetoric, and assume that your ten-day stay makes you a regular pro.

Forgive the Saudis “their Flintstones ways.” You mention in your piece that everything in the country operates on a sliding scale, depending on who you are; you might consider that the same goes for the way it’s all perceived.

But welcome back home, Maureen. And for the sake of the global Muslim community, just stay here.

Cheers,

Sara

P.S. My condolences, really, that you were denied Sandra Bullock’s décolletage and the erection joke from The Proposal on the plane flight over. It’s that whole oppression thing at its finest.

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