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New Texts Out Now: Madawi Al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia

[Cover of Madawi Al-Rasheed, [Cover of Madawi Al-Rasheed, "A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia"

Madawi Al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Madawi Al-Rasheed (MAR): First, the banality of superficial opinions on Saudi women that is so pervasive. In the public sphere, especially in the West, Saudi women are either superstars or victims of their own society and religion. I felt it was time to contribute to this debate from an academic perspective. I do not want to write a book that celebrates the achievement of Saudi women, seeks pity, or even condemns them to the duality of victim/survivor. As a woman with a Saudi background, I feel that we share with other women a certain degree of discrimination and have our own grievances as Saudis. I also feel uncomfortable with the category of “women” as a homogeneous undifferentiated mass. Class, ethnicity, and religious affiliations cut across this category that is varied, stratified, and experiences discrimination in different ways. So the book reflects my own personal journey first, and second, my academic interests.

My previous work always had an awareness of the construction of gender, and the role of women in politics, society, and religion. Since my PhD research in the 1980s, I allowed women their place in my political and historical narratives about the Saudi past and present. More recently, in A History of Saudi Arabia (2002 and 2010), I demonstrated how women feature in the legitimacy narratives of the state and its quest to merge with society as a result of marriage. In A Most Masculine State, I gave this awareness the attention it deserves by situating gender at the center of debates about politics and religion. I have thought about this book for years. It became an urgent project as the Saudi “woman question” has ceased to be merely a local issue and has become a truly global concern. This was an outcome of Saudi internal challenges and external pressure, especially after 9/11, when Saudi Arabia came to the forefront, not simply as an oil producing territory, but as a contested country.

J: What particular topics, issues and literatures does it address?

MAR: The book tries to resolve the debate about whether society, culture, and religion are responsible for the extreme marginalization of Saudi women in the public sphere. I argue that neither Wahhabi Islam nor a tribal ethos is alone sufficient a variable for explaining inequality in Saudi Arabia. Instead, my argument situates this discrimination in the evolution of the state from one relying on religious revival to one anchored in religious nationalism. Under the state, Wahhabiyya became a religious nationalist movement, playing a similar role to that of secular nationalism in Arab countries where secular Arab nationalism was promoted. Nationalism in both situations tends to appropriate women, turn them into symbols, objectify them, and make them the criteria for measuring sometimes contradictory outcomes. Women are central to political and religious projects. In the process of serving the nation, they lose control over their destiny and become subject to other people’s projects.

I also problematize the role of oil in the book. It is true that the oil surplus allowed women education and welfare services, but it has also contributed to their further marginalization and exclusion from the labour force, and has even contributed to increasing state control through the use of surveillance technology and expansion of institutions such as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice. Without oil, the Saudi state would not have been able to maintain sex segregation, control, and surveillance in public spaces. Oil is therefore a mixed blessing.

At another level, as Saudi women’s organizations and civil society are still curtailed, I found myself using the abundant women’s literature, for example novels, in which women have found a niche to express dissent, resistance, and subversion of the status quo. I examined these novels from an anthropological rather than literary criticism perspective. Saudi women’s novels blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. This became clear when I started interviewing novelists and discussing issues wider than literature.

The book engages with academic work in gender studies, feminist theory, and politics. It also has a diachronic dimension to allow tracing change and continuity, especially in a country that has undergone dramatic social change over a short period. 

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

MAR: I consider the book as illustrating an approach I have adopted in my previous work. I always combine history and anthropology to understand the present. Yet the book differs from my earlier work in two ways: first, its subject matter (the centrality of gender relations); and second, its wide range of sources, such as textual documents, interviews, and even internet sources. The latter became important as women’s mobilization migrated or was forced to migrate to the virtual world. The internet has become a refuge for dissenting voices through Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube; all are incorporated in my analysis. These new sources represent a challenge to research, but together with other sources, they actually illuminate new areas, especially youth mobilization, resistance, and subversion.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MAR: As the book is written in English, its prime audiences are English speakers. Academics and students would obviously be the first to read it, but I hope that its topic and style will encourage policy makers, journalists, activists, and other interested civil society organizations to read it, too. The book offers an interpretive approach to understanding the complexity of Saudi society. I hope the book will be translated into Arabic, as my other books have been, so that it can reach Arabic speakers in general and Saudis in particular. They will find reflections on developments that they live in their everyday life, but written from afar. In particular, Saudi women of all political and ideological persuasions, from liberals to Islamists to undecided ones, will hear their voices in this book.

J: What methodologies did you use to gather information from Saudi women on questions of equality and recognition in the current public sphere?

MAR: My textual sources include government publications, novels, media interviews, and statistics from NGOs and international organizations.

I complemented those with interviews. I have travelled in the Middle East to meet Saudi women and interview them. When this was not possible, we talked on Skype and exchanged emails and tweets. Sometimes, women themselves contacted me, seeking to inset their stories in the book as soon as I published short articles while still researching the topic. They sent me documents in which evidence of their plight was documented. Some women wrote their own life histories and sent them to me. I even met women royals and wives of princes who wanted to talk about certain issues. Of course, I could not have used all this material, as it can be confidential, but the stories informed my understanding of gender relations in my own country.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MAR: At the moment, I am recovering from writing a Most Masculine State and enjoying the company of my students after two years of absence under the Leverhulme Research Fellowship.

I have plans to start a new research project on topics that have become urgent with the Arab uprisings: for example, the body and political dissent. The body as a weapon, consent, and dissent appeal to me as ways to trace historical shifts and contemporary transformations.

Excerpt from A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia

Authoritarian States and Women: Low Cost, High Profit

Weaving the story of Saudi women’s exclusion together with religion and politics opens new avenues for contextualizing and interpreting why authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia champion women’s causes. While in the past Saudi religious nationalism dictated the position of women and insisted on their seclusion, today the state promotes women’s empowerment. The cost of this about-face remains low compared with the high cost of losing international legitimacy, internal political dissent, and, eventually, revolution. Women’s empowerment under King Abdullah coincided with the advent of many new challenges, both internal and external, to the Saudi state. Terrorism, strained relations with the United States—the guarantor of the security of the regime—rising unemployment, an agitated youth bulge, and more recently a changed Arab world where friendly dictators may appear a thing of the past are but a few of the real threats facing the ageing Saudi leadership. And, through both real and virtual mobilization, women themselves are challenging the state to act on their many grievances. International human rights reports continue to embarrass Saudi Arabia in the global community, not to mention sensational stories about women flogged for driving or victims of rape stoned while their attackers go unpunished. The state can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of Islamic specificity, as many women themselves are aware that Islam alone does not explain their persistent marginalization.

In this changed context, the king has shifted the legitimacy of the ruling family to a new level, seeking to feminize the masculine state. From the point of view of the state, women are needed as a group in order to fight political dissent (by men) and appease the West. The state is playing on women’s aspirations and co-opting their mobilization to achieve new local and external legitimacy. Faced with new mobilization around several campaigns, from driving to employment rights, as discussed above, it has pre-empted the outcome by patronizing women and channelling their activism towards state-controlled objectives. This culminated in promising women the right to vote in the future and to be appointed to state institutions, all announced during the Arab Spring.

Moreover, women’s causes do not directly challenge authoritarian rule. When the state decided that its religious nationalism had become a burden on state security and survival, it immediately championed women’s causes as a means to defeat those Islamists who challenge it using both peaceful and violent means. It reached out to new liberal and democratic political constituencies, consisting of both men and women, that have emerged in the country over the last decade. In this respect, the authoritarian state kills two birds with one woman. It contrasts itself with the radical backward and conservative elements in society while appealing to dissenting liberal voices. As such, the Saudi state has been compelled to champion women’s causes to achieve its local and international objectives. Since 2005 King Abdullah has joined past rulers in the Arab and Muslim world to become a gender reformer, seeking new legitimacy through the women’s question. The king’s old age and marginality within the royal circles of power also prompted him to seek new loyal subjects, who had been marginalized in the past. Women have proved to be receptive. 

If the authoritarian state benefits from championing women’s causes, why do women ally themselves with authoritarian patriarchal structures to achieve more rights and visibility while others invite the state to maintain the status quo? Saudi women have not been able to gain the consensus of their society behind their emancipation. In fact, some women resist the idea, and seek greater restrictions on what they consider to be threatening their own interest as women. Given such a lack of unity, weak groups such as liberal women seek state intervention and protection to avoid reprisals from society. This is compounded by the fact that women are denied the right to organize themselves into an autonomous pressure group. In fact, Saudi Arabia remains one of the countries where civil society is curtailed by a legal system that does not leave great space for non-governmental organizations to operate outside state control. Even women’s charities are heavily controlled by the state through extensive princely patronage networks. Saudi women of all persuasions look for the state to increase its policing of men, restrain their excesses, and force them to fulfil their obligations and responsibilities towards women. In such a political context, Saudi women are left with limited choices. An authoritarian state proved to be willing to endorse some of their demands, increase their visibility, and free them from the many restrictions that they are subjected to. The power of the state and its wealth have proved too good to resist. 

This book showed that a most masculine state is today, at critical moments of historical crisis, compelled to espouse its own feminization. It is not possible to maintain a purely masculine state, continuing to ignore feminine voices. By championing women’s causes the authoritarian Saudi state may in the short term have succeeded in containing women’s mobilisation. But in the long term no doubt Saudi women like other women in the world will try to move beyond state-sponsored feminism and achieve their dream of becoming full citizens. The journey may be long and arduous, but it has certainly started. The voices of the many Saudi women discussed in this book represent light at the end of the tunnel. This book was an attempt to capture this light.

[Excerpted from A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia, by Madawi Al-Rasheed, by permission of the author. © 2013 Madawi Al-Rasheed. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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