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.

  • http://muslimgirl.net Amani

    This is amazing. You are my hero.

  • http://durkadurkistan.wordpress.com/ Durkadurkistan

    Sara,

    I really like your writing style! I think I’ve read dozens of critiques of articles like Dowds, but this may be the most entertaining.

    I also have to wholeheartedly agree with your opening paragraph. Ignorance, though, is a stubborn creature.

    Salaam and keep writing :)

  • http://shan-doodles.blogspot.com/ Shahneela Shaukat

    Thank you thank you thank you for this wonderful article.

    “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”

    COMPLETELY AGREE

  • Hussain Tabriz

    Salam allay kum

    Have you emailed your views to Maureen Dowd?

    http://www.nytimes.com/gst/emailus.html

  • http://www.SabinaEngland.com JihadPunk77

    That picture of her is just so infuriating. Those two bottles look like Grey Goose vodka. I thought alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia?

    …and before anyone freaks out, I’m not anti-alcohol, but I’m against privileged Western/white people flaunting alcohol in a Muslim country as if to say “LOOK!!!! I’M BREAKING THE LAW AND I’M GETTING AWAY WITH IT!!!”

    I’ve always loathed Maureen Dowd for her patronizing articles toward women and feminism. It doesn’t surprise me she displays the same attitude toward Saudi Arabia, either.

  • http://none Devi

    hi,

    being an outsider to Islam or Saudi culture, its reflections of a foreign women. I am pretty sure thats how visitors feel. When i visit Charminar area of Hyderabad, we do notice the bhurkas. a lot. She just pointed the practices that exist. Are you denying them?

  • Hanifa Haji

    This is a really well written article. Some of your comments are priceless….

    “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.” and…

    “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”

    loved it!

  • http://jilliancyork.com Jillian C. York

    Loved this. What I hate most is that Maureen Dowd (as well as a lot of the columnists of her generation) writes as though Saudis will never read her column. How infuriatingly stupid!

  • Sara

    Devi–

    I don’t believe I deny any of the practices to which Dowd refers in her piece; I’m merely suggesting that she not paint them with the broad brush she does, attempting first to provoke and astonish and–well, never, really–to inform. Her rhetoric drips of disdain for Saudi practices, and her article is less about the flourishing tourism industry than about the rights of women in the country. And even then, it’s not about their actual rights so much as about her impression of their rights, based on her pathetic attempts to run around flagrantly disrespecting norms with which she disagrees.

  • http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com zunguzungu

    I’m starting to think that Maureen Dowd just isn’t a serious journalist!

    She’s the sort of person that, if she didn’t exist, we WOULD NOT invent her.

  • Musa

    Masha’Allah, this is an excellent piece. You have amazing writing skills and really expressed your point in such vivid language. Now I’m gonna have to make dua for you. keep up the good work, salaams :)

  • A. A.

    This pic of her (Dowd) above smacks of the colonial days of ‘mehmsahb.’
    @ Devi, somehow I don’t get the impression she is just pointing out the practices that exist or is just merely reflecting as a foreign woamn…but seems to be going beyond that to disrespectful, condescending,supremacy. How can you genuinely learn about other cultures if one starts off by making sweeping generalizations & assuming yours is inherently superior in every way? Also, if you notice women wearing burkhas where you live – what does that in itself prove? Do you talk to those women & ask them about their lives, what they do, their beliefs – enough to know to what extent they were forced to wear a burkha and/or are ‘oppressed’? And look around you – aren’t women everywhere in all cultures & countries – even in yur own community – suffering (more than they need to)?

  • henna

    @ Sara, is there some write-up from Maureen? Or just the slideshow pictures that we can see when we click on the link in this article.

    @ Devi

    Since I could just see Slide show of pictures, I guess Maureen has written few comments like sunblock etc which may not go down well with people who love wearing abayas.
    But again I guess she has been blunt and not politically correct(which again I do not know if is required always)

    It is like she went to Saudi knowing their norms and then saying things against their norms.
    whether those norms are right or wrong is another discussion.

    Again, if someone comes to India and makes a photo gallery (I personally didnt feel all photos of Maureen to be bad)where captions are distasteful, people of India may not like it.

    I am also Indian so took India’s example.

  • zak

    mashaallah, such literature, mashaallah. i love when we can do it too and even better! certainly Allah has a purpose for you. the ayah where Allah says to argue with them with poetry etc. May Allah guide you and keep you always ameen. qalamullah/ pen of Allah and defender of his deen

  • Sara

    @henna: the Vanity Fair website only has a little blurb about the piece; you have to buy the magazine in order to read the full article, as far as I can tell.

  • Chris

    Sara,

    You wrote, “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.”

    People who believe in human rights, however you define them, often see that the rights of women, and people generally, are violated on a routine basis. So, while not all countries are required to be like the United States, or any other country for that matter, countries are required to respect the rights of their own citizens (Does the concept of “citizen” exist in Saudi Arabia?). So, to the extent to which Saudi Arabia denies its women, and citizens, even the most basic rights it is required to be like the United States, or other countries which respect the most basic human rights.

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  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    Seriously: thank you, thank you! I’ve often had issues with Dowd’s writing, even after taking her style into account, but this was just deplorable!

    Oh, have I said thank you yet?

  • Sara

    @Chris: It’s an interesting point, but also comes down to an essential debate about universal human rights as they conflict with cultural relativism. As a disclaimer, I don’t think the women in Saudi Arabia are treated equally, nor do I think that they are given the full set of rights that they deserve–and, I also think that had Maureen Dowd wanted to have a serious, nuanced discussion about what rights should exist in Saudi, and the way in which those rights might be compatible with interpretations of Islam as they exist there, and the way in which progress can be made while still preserving people’s ideas of tradition, then that would’ve been a truly valuable article that would have so many people talking and would’ve given Muslim women a platform to display the range of their opinions. But she didn’t do any of that. She wrote a piece allegedly about tourism, and from there took a stance on an issue about which she knows nothing. At all.

    And yes countries should respect the rights of their citizens–but countries only respect the rights of their citizens as those rights are defined by the country itself. So whether or not you or I or Maureen Dowd agrees with the rights that are or are not afforded to Saudi women (and men), the Saudi government is required to give its citizens only what it defines as rights, no matter how narrow those rights are. And if we don’t agree with those rights and consider them an infringement of basic human guarantees, then the idea is to convince the Saudi government to expand its own definition of human rights so that it can then provide them to its citizens–but certainly never to expect the government to give its citizens OUR definition of rights.

    And I would be a little more cautious about calling the United States a country that respects the basic human rights of its citizens. That really depends on who you’re asking. If by that you mean I can wear whatever the hell I want–sure. But if by that you mean my right to privacy, my First Amendment rights, my right to a speedy trial (under a number of circumstances), my right to be charged upon detainment and given access to a lawyer, my right to be treated with human dignity when I’m detained–oh, I don’t know.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    I don’t want to make it seem like I’m defending Maureen Dowd, because I truly find her to be insufferable.

    But I think it’s worth mentioning that when she’s not writing inane articles about Saudi Arabia, she’s usually criticizing sexism in US and ‘western’ culture. She’s particularly disparaging of the Catholic Church and their sexist policies.

    So she’s kind of like equal-opportunity obnoxious.

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  • http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com zunguzungu

    @henna If you can stomach it, she had a series of atrocious columns for the NY Times a few months ago, when she was actually in Saudi Arabia (here, for example).

  • Elena

    If an African American had travelled to South Africa to enjoy the “flourishing tourist” industry there during the 80′s, would American racists have contorted themselves as much as posters here are to criticize her when she described the unbearable racism? Maureen Dowd, as a female tourist, wasn’t allowed to visit a cemetery, leave the airport on her own, drive a car she paid for, go to the hotel spa or even work out. A woman would be a fool to travel there. I guess that old saw that if it’s a man, it’s human rights, if it’s a woman, it’s culture holds sway here.

  • Chase

    I do not think that the author’s criticisms of Maureen Dowd’s feature are entirely fair. In the first place, to characterize Dowd’s “defiance” of Saudi Arabia’s social norms, law, and theologically-justified sexism as “cultural imperialism” when Dowd, in defying of these non-trivial forces, risked imprisonment, seems ungenerous, almost gratuitously so. Dowd’s piece is, furthermore, a Dowd piece: she is beloved and despised as a columnist because of her flair for language, willingness to muddy the frivolous with issues of gravity, and the extent to which her columns trade in pop culture. Lumping her with Sex and the City 2 on the grounds that both are orientalist is improper: Dowd’s “orientalist” language is clearly a means by which she subverts the self-consciously Orientalist and self-exculpating tale that Saudi Arabia’s tourist ministry has spun about Saudi Arabia.

  • Chase

    Dear Sara,

    I appreciate many of the sentiments that animate your letter, but I do not think that your criticisms of Maureen Dowd’s feature are entirely fair. In the first place, you characterize Dowd’s “defiance” of Saudi Arabia’s social norms, law, and theologically-justified sexism as “cultural imperialism.” This seems very ungenerous: Dowd, in defying those non-trivial forces of national governance, at least risked imprisonment. Secondly, you write that Dowd seems “to think the country and its customs should pander to [her] narrow sensibilities.” Her point, in defying Saudi norms and law, was that her behaviour could only be construed as defiant according to Saudi sensibilities in so far as she is a woman. You would no doubt agree that Dowd should be able to travel the world, and walk through the streets of Riyadh, without fearing arrest because she is without a male escort.

    Furthermore, Dowd’s piece is, through and through, a Dowd piece: as a columnist, she is beloved and despised for her flair for language, her willingness to muddy the frivolous with the grave, and the extent to which her columns trade in pop culture. It is certainly within everyone’s rights to find her infuriating. But lumping her with Sex and the City 2 on the grounds that both are Orientalist is improper; her Orientalist inflection is deliberate: with it she tries, quite successfully I think, to subvert the self-consciously Orientalist, materialistic, and deeply male-supremacist tales that Saudi Arabia’s tourism ministry has spun and disseminated about Saudi Arabia.

    Finally, I am deeply troubled by your notion of political rights and their relation, as you’ve described it, to the nation state. I understand and share your post-colonial wariness of intellectual systems, be they feminist or to do with human rights, that insist they are universally applicable. But you write that “the Saudi government is required to give its citizens only what it defines as rights, no matter how narrow those rights are.” This view reduces the concept of “rights” to tautology, and its consequent, meaninglessness: according to it, neither the holocaust, nor American slavery, nor the annexation of Tibet, nor the mass rape of Bangladeshi women, nor the burning of witches throughout Medieval Europe, nor the ongoing occupation of Gaza, violated peoples’ rights, because the governments that perpetrated these acts defined their victims as without rights.

    I think women have rights. You do too. So does Maureen Dowd. For Dowd to complain that she was mistreated while in Saudi Arabia because she was and will remain a woman is not to saddle Saudi women with additional burdens, nor imperil the growth of a Saudi feminist movement, nor muffle feminist interpretations of Islam, but healthy. To do it in the unorthodox guise of a travel piece is clever. To do it at all – to report for eleven days, to research throughout the three months prior to taking her trip, to attempt to engage with Saudi Arabia as an equal and on both its and her terms – is, to me at least, an accomplishment deserving of congratulations, as well as an unhesitating invitation to return to the Middle East, not insults.

    Yours,
    Chase

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    Loved Elena and Chase’s comments, especially that part in Chase’s in which he calls out Saudi Arabia’s self-created orientalist tourism program. The notion that Saudi Arabia is an ancient, magical harem is as much a product of Saudi advertising as it is America’s.

    And it seems that Sara might have fell for it: By presenting cultural difference as ‘timeless’, static and inert — a very Orientalist trope — the Saudis have been able to depoliticize the sexual apartheid under their regime. Then when Maureen politicizes it again — calling out difference, calling out weirdness and oppression — you say she just doesn’t understand Saudi ‘history’ and ‘culture’.

    When you dismiss human rights abuse as “thousands of years of culture and tradition”, you are in fact buying into the orientalist fantasy, not critiquing it.

  • http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com zunguzungu

    Chase,
    “risked imprisonment”? What the heck are you talking about? She was on a junket sponsored by the Saudi government and literally *did* nothing.

    I do like the phrase “muddy the frivolous with issues of gravity,” though.

  • Chase

    Dear zunguzungu,

    It does not, so far anyway, seem that she was on a press junket. NPR’s coverage, and Vanity Fair’s, suggest that Dowd was employed by Vanity Fair on a typically lucrative, one-night-stand basis. Were I to wager a bet, it would be that Dowd took Saudi Arabia’s tourism ministry up on its rather vague press offer, or press release, or statement of purpose:

    http://www.saudinf.com/main/e9.htm

    Yours,
    Chase

    p.s. I enjoy your use of the question mark.

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  • Sara

    Chase,

    A few things:

    Risking imprisonment is not in itself a noble thing, as you suggest it is when you say Dowd “at least risked imprisonment.” She also didn’t face arrest without a male escort. I’m not sure where you found that lovely bit. She’s actually known to have a lot of discrepancies in her pieces about her treatment, particularly at the hands of the Saudis. She often complains that she’s not allowed to do things (visiting mosques among them) when in actuality, women and foreigners do them quite frequently without the interference of the state. The difference between Saudi’s professed rules and their enforcement is something that should at least be taken into account, when discussing Dowd’s experience.

    I’d argue that Dowd in fact muddies the grave with the frivolous, as she makes incredibly inane comparisons in her piece when she attempts to contextualize the revolutionary spirit of her actions. You’re giving her way, way too much credit as a writer. I’m not sure how familiar you are with her pieces, but she plays with words in a way that, while (arguably) cute, is irresponsible. I think her Orientalist “inflection” is deliberate, yes; but subversive? Certainly not. That would imply that she can separate her own beliefs from a sort of political satirizing of Saudi tourist rhetoric. Her piece is proof that she clearly can’t.

    I should have clarified my earlier comment: The Saudi state, like every state, believes that it has only to give its citizens the rights that it considers human rights, and only to those considered humans within the parameters of the state. We all understand that, and every state participates in it. What I said in that comment, though, is that Dowd doesn’t seem to get that—seems to think that in some pathetic protest, she ought to wave her little human rights banner by hopping over divisions in restaurants and then complaining when, predictably, she is rebuffed. There are far, far more significant ways to work toward women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and there are Muslim feminists and movements both within and outside of the state who are working for those rights. Dowd doesn’t for a second deserve to be lauded for three months of research and ten days of spa treatment in Saudi, especially when she’s virtually guaranteed no trouble (on her previous trips, she’s been remarkably well-connected to American diplomats, all of whom have helped her and given her access to Saudi officials) and has a platform in a huge American magazine.

    Finally, Saudi’s tourism does incorporate Orientalist rhetoric, but I’m somewhat shocked that you, Chase, fall for that. You, of all people, should know how deeply aware the Middle East is of what, exactly, sells to Western audiences. You should also know how reflective of Western ideas the Arab tourist industry has become. I’m sure the Saudi government knows exactly how to sell its country—by magnifying a cultural difference that Dowd only parrots.

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  • sam

    @ chase

    sooo….lemme understand you right. maureen dowd gets a free pass to be as condescending, belittling, and downright insulting as she pleases to a whole nation of people she clearly thinks are miles beneath her, because she “RISKED IMPRISONMENT” to do so?

    ….what??

    also, if you’re going to decide whether something is “subversive” instead of flippantly racist, why doncha ask those who are actually on RECEIVING END of the racism instead of consulting with your oh-so-liberal whitey mcwhite friends.

    “you’re just too sensitive/over-emotional/rageful/uneducated/unintelligent/missing the point” is not an acceptable response, either. in fact, it’s a ~*racist*~ one! wasn’t that a nice freebie?

  • sam

    also, annoying bigoted commenters aside, i love this blog. keep up the good work!

  • cyndie lancaster

    So it seems we will just forget all about that sticky stuff as far as men controlling everything women are and are not allowed to do under the Saudi rule and just shoot the messenger instead!! Clearly women being punished for showing even the slightest bit of “neck skin” while wearing their abayas is just and calls for immediate and serious concern!! Surely women not being able to rent cars without a male escort, eat or drink in any seat of a restaurant of their choosing or walk around town with a male other than a relative is understandable!?! The above article is an insult to the truth and deems to make light the real horror of the life of Saudi women and reading it was akin to watching a magician’s show….it’s all smoke and mirrors! And if you cannot see that then the brainwashing is complete and really nothing is left to discuss. People who continue to believe that oppressing women and making them yield to the ridiculous demands of the ruling men are uninformed, uneducated and unenlightened.


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