Saudi-Islamic Feminist Movement: A Struggle for Male Allies and the Right Female Voice
Author: Rob L. Wagner
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 03/29/2011
Saudi Arabian women have long sought to launch an Islamic feminist movement, but Saudi laws against public demonstrations and deep cultural and religious attitudes towards public displays of defiance have stalled efforts. Women are now turning to social media to garner support for a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement that specifically embraces gender-neutral Sharia to secure their rights to an education, to travel and to marry the partner of their choice. Activists, however, are rejecting Western feminism because of the perception that it promotes the individual over the family, and by extension the Muslim community.
The anti-government uprisings spreading across the Middle East have brought a renewed focus on Islamic feminism perhaps not seen since the 1990s. Arab women not only played a large role in demonstrations that ultimately toppled the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, but women are also demanding decision-making roles as new governments emerge.
Largely missing from the discussion of Arab women’s empowerment is the near non-existent feminist movement in Saudi Arabia. There is no organized effort from Saudi women that encourages cooperation with potential powerful allies in the royal family under King Abdullah. Women who have begun to explore a feminist movement also have not sought to give a face to a movement by approaching prominent female academics or activists.
Instead, Saudi women are bypassing traditional means of developing a grassroots campaign to secure their right in a patriarchal society by reaching out through social media. It is not a movement, but a tentative testing of the waters. Activists acknowledge a lack of unity among Saudis that continually stalls efforts to organize. Yet the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries have raised the consciousness of women who are questioning why Saudi society is marginalizing them. This consciousness has sparked the stirrings of what some women are describing as the potential for a “Saudi-Islamic feminist movement.” 
According to the feminist historian Margot Badran, Islamic feminism “is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.” Modern Islamic feminism was first used in a modern context by Iranian scholars Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Afsaneh Najmabadeh in 1992 and popularized by Saudi Dr. Mai Yamani in her book “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives” (Ithaca Press, 1996). 
Secular Muslims embrace Islamic feminism that may include Western feminist ideals that are contrary to Islam, which is primarily to establish a single set of rules equally applied to men and women. Islamic scholar Amina Wadud enthusiastically endorsed Western feminism, particularly for Muslim women living in the West, in her book, “Qur’an and Woman” (Oxford University Press, 1999).  Some Saudi women prefer Western-style feminism by advocating liberation from Saudi rules, traditions and culture. They place a negative connotation on Islamic feminism by likening it has the age of Al Jaheleya, or ignorance from the pre-Prophet Muhammad era. However, conflating Al Jaheleya with Islam is offensive to most Saudi women, and the Western views held by these women hold little credibility among the majority. 
An ideal Saudi-Islamic feminist movement differs significantly from traditional Islamic feminism with Saudis rejecting Western feminism. Instead, young Saudi women like Rasha Alduwaisi and Marwa Al-Saleh argue that a Saudi-led feminist movement must include the rights accorded women in the Qur’an and specifically in Sharia. A codified gender-neutral Sharia in the Saudi judicial system could give women the rights they yearn. The emphasis in a new Saudi movement would eliminate non-Islamic customs and patriarchal interpretations to follow the true path of Islam. By following the true essence of Islam, Saudi women can marry whomever they please, obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling, travel freely, and pursue educational and business opportunities without interference. 
A Saudi-Islamic feminist campaign, however, is hampered by the failure to generate momentum to get a mass movement off the ground. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for the Council of Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010), said that public demonstrations and mobilization are treated as criminal offenses in Saudi Arabia, making it particularly difficult for women to form a robust movement. Social media will help, but key allies in the struggle for equal rights are men. She said, “Women can’t be expected to do it all on their own. Women’s movements have always received critical help from men around the world and throughout history. There are some powerful men who encourage women in Saudi today, but more male voices will be needed speaking out against injustices against women to enable more women to take the plunge.”  
The influential Islamic scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been a longtime supporter of elevating the rights of women. And Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud criticized Arab countries for economically and socially marginalizing women. However, Al-Qaradawi’s more controversial views on Israel and the U.S. invasion of Iraq have sidelined any potential for a role in an Islamic feminist movement. Prince Alwaleed is not regarded as especially religious.  
Marwa Al-Saleh is the founder and general manager of Almara.net, a web design and Internet marketing company in Al-Khobar and a principal advocate on the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She argues that most Saudi women are unaware of their rights contained in Islam and view any kind of demand for their rights as conflicting with Islam. Rasha Alduwaisi, a 30-year-old Saudi mother who is also active with the Facebook campaign, is more blunt: “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal.” 
Al-Saleh and Alduwaisi are among today’s 7.6 million Saudi women with the median age of 23. They came of age or reached young adulthood in a post-9/11 world. They are highly educated, entrepreneurial and technologically savvy. More than 60 percent of Saudi university students studying domestically and abroad are women. Saudi women under the age of 30 grew up with satellite television, the Internet and mobile phones. Their broadened view of the world far exceeds that of their mothers and older sisters. 
Western Influences and Conflicts
While Saudi women, especially those who have studied in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, marvel at the freedoms that the West has to offer Muslims, they say Western feminism is an anathema because it is perceived as a threat to Islamic societies. Coleman notes that many Saudi men view Western feminism as promoting divorce, promiscuity and a breakdown of the family. Feminism, as defined by Western standards, has such negative connotations that the word itself severely hampers any progress to galvanize women to develop a grassroots movement. 
Western-educated Saudi women, however, would be hard-pressed to say they have not been influenced by Western feminism. The feminist movement laid the groundwork in the late 1960s and 1970s to open doors for wider education opportunities. Among those opportunities are gender studies in university curricula. Muslim women’s exposure to the feminist influences in academia have broadened their thinking and sharpened their critical thinking skills. Yet they also recognize that bringing such a movement home is doomed to failure.
Some young university students like Rawan Mj Radwan see some accommodation for Western feminism thought. Radwan observes, “If women choose to take up the Westernized path such as let go of their hijabs and change everything they were brought up on just to please themselves then they’re doomed. But if Saudi women can look to find a midway station between Islamic values and the ways of the West, then success stories would be heard all around.” 
Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy between Western feminism and a Saudi-Islamic version is the family structure. Saudis perceive Western feminism as advancing the rights of individuals over the best interests of the family, and by extension the Muslim community. Islamic scholar Dr. Lois Lamya’ Al-Farugi points out that Western activists view arranged marriages as an assault on individual freedoms.
However, Muslims view such intense family participation in the future of marriage-age family members as advantageous to the individual, the family and the community as a whole because it strengthens the cohesiveness of the family. Arranged marriages instill safeguards to protect the harmony of the family. Promoting individualism threatens the very nature of social interdependence. 
Further, Western feminists seek what Al-Farugi calls a “unisex” society in which there is a single set of rules for both sexes with women assuming more traditional male roles. Al-Farugi wrote, “The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and despised.” 
The Western feminist ideal of the roles of men and women counters the deep-seated belief among Muslims, especially Saudis, that men and women are separate but equal. This is evidenced in the Qur’anic verse 33.35: “For men who submit (to God) and for women who submit (to God), for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember—for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.” 
Although Western and Saudi-Islamic feminism are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of women’s rights, a balance, as argued by Radwan, is possible. Arranged marriages should be abolished and a woman’s right to marry the partner of her choice should be honored, but family participation and advice in that choice should not be ignored 
No Appropriate Saudi Leader
The question that remains, however, is how to shape the movement and what kind of image it will project. Seeking role models is not a habit that Saudi women indulge. Saudi female filmmakers, racecar drivers and pilots hold little appeal to young women because they are perceived as pursuing these professions at the expense of Islam. Their role models are generally confined to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. Aisha greatly influenced the Prophet’s thinking and he praised her in an often-quoted hadith, “Learn half of your religion from that red-headed one!” Aisha is said to be responsible for a great many hadiths, which are the sayings and deeds of the Prophet. Khadijah was a successful businesswoman before and after her marriage to Muhammad.
Several Muslim women have picked up the cause of Saudi women’s equal rights. Egyptian-born and Saudi-raised journalist Mona Eltahawy has struck a strident tone in recent years in advocating against the oppression of Saudi women. Saudi Wajeha Al-Huwaider founded the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and waged a “No to the Oppression of Women” campaign to bring attention to domestic violence. Mai Yamani, a London academic and expert on Islamic feminism, is a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam and its treatment of women.   
None of these women, however, has garnered a following in Saudi Arabia because they are perceived as speaking to a Western audience and not Saudis. Eltahawy advocates a west-leaning feminism and supports France’s ban on the burqa.  Saudi women perceive Al-Huwaider and Yamai as too strident in their condemnation of Saudi society.  But the prevailing theme in numerous interviews with Saudi women is that Eltahawy, Al-Huwaider and Yamani do not wear the hijab. These activists do not present the image of how Saudi women perceive themselves. One Saudi journalist remarked, “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”
In addition, young university students are reluctant to pick up the mantle for fear they will be perceived as engaging in un-Islamic behavior of vanity and pride.
Interpretations of Sharia
Yet even if a Saudi-Islamic movement takes root and the Saudi government’s reform agenda includes programs to level the playing field among men and women, much tougher issues stand in the way. For example, a major bone of contention among Saudi women is how domestic courts administer rulings.
The Saudi judicial system follows Sharia, a malleable set of guidelines that govern the daily lives of Muslims and dispenses justice in criminal and civil affairs. Sharia is widely interpreted by Islamic scholars, most of whom are graduates of Saudi Arabia’s Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh. Yet Saudi judges often interpret Sharia based on their own personal experiences and views. Tribal customs and traditions also play a central part in many rulings. Tribal issues, in particular, seriously impact divorce and child custody issues to protect a tribe. Women often see favorable rulings going to husbands, brothers and fathers. 
The Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s consultative body, has been working since 2007 to codify Sharia to give consistency in criminal and domestic cases. This allows the courts to establish case precedents, thus taking away much of the power of judges who must refer to the rule of law instead of tribal customs and their own personal opinions. 
While codification of Sharia will be a giant leap forward in Saudi judicial reform, it also might be a case of being careful for what women activists wish for. Who interprets Sharia and how it is interpreted will have a long-term impact on the future of Saudi women. Middle East scholar Coleman notes: “Islam guarantees women many rights, but ultimately there are limits in interpretation. There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women. Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”
Coleman added that what “rights Islam grants women is contentious subject—one that progressives and conservatives debate.” 
Saudi women do not necessarily want to debate every aspect of Sharia but lay claim to the undisputed basics in the Qur’an and Sunna: the right to an education, inheritance and not to be subject to forced marriage. Radwan said a common law would prevent male family members who disagree with the choices of sisters or other female relatives, choices that are their rights in the first place. 
Saudi feminists have wisely steered clear of overtly incorporating Western feminist themes in discussions of a movement. The backlash among religious conservatives would be swift and damaging to efforts to engage Saudi society in meaningful dialogue about women’s rights. By the same token, Western feminists have generally displayed remarkable restraint by not demanding instant change in Saudi Arabia despite exhortations from some human rights groups. Saudi women recognize they are walking on a fine line between exerting pressure to achieve equality and radicalism. Yet it is not possible to separate Western and Islamic feminism. Saudi women can learn organizational methods and promote the less threatening aspects of the Western movement, such as employment and education, without compromising their religion or culture. The key to attracting Saudi men as supporters is to leave the Western rhetoric behind.
This also means advocating for leadership positions in government, law and business, but ignoring calls from some Islamic feminists to lead prayer and become muftis because it’s contrary to how Saudi women view Islam.
It has never been a major issue as to who speaks for Muslim women in the campaign for equal rights, but few Saudis would disagree that often appearances are everything in Saudi society. Without a powerful male figure in a ministerial position as a vocal ally, and without young hijab-wearing women speaking the same language as their male counterparts on a religious and cultural level, a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement is unlikely to get off the ground.
Rob L. Wagner is an independent journalist and former managing editor of the English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He divides his residences between Newcastle, England, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He frequently writes on Arab/Islamic issues for several Middle East publications.