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Saudi Female Pluralism

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

The ‘female question’ in Saudi Arabia has attracted increasing interest in recent years. However as yet there are few works that address this question in the light of the internal dynamics, contradictions and paradoxes of a country which, although it has acquired a decidedly more incisive role at a global level, has to address urgent internal challenges. Madawi Al-Rasheed has the merit of offering a historical and cultural reading that allow us to have a better understanding of the role of Saudi women beyond existing stereotypes. Al-Rasheed’s analysis begins her analysis from the Saudi state model where religious nationalism interacts with social and cultural factors. The proclaimed special character (khusûsiyya) of Saudi Arabia is first of all explored through the centrality of certain female figures who are considered moral models.

 

 

Chapter after chapter in this volume, there is an outlining of the intimate relationship between gender, politics, religion and the state. Saudi women are not seen as victims, nor is too much emphasis placed upon their ‘exceptional’ condition in comparison with other realities. What emerges is rather both the plurality of their points of view and the multiplicity of actors and institutions have an impact on the role of women and are connected to a series of interests and projects that are by no means rarely in conflict with each other (religious institutions, economic forums, the media). All this has hitherto impeded the achievement of a substantial consensus regarding the most urgent reforms, argues the author.

 

 

The development of the ‘female question’ is followed over its chief stages, from a phase of rigid control and restrictions in the 1980’s, a stage that was also marked by a series of fatwa on women, to the process marked by 9/11. This process, following the international pressures to which the country was subjected, led to a renewal in the relations between the female universe and the state. The various tendencies and nuances that characterised ‘the world of women’ are ascribed to two principal groups: the ‘liberals’ and the ‘Islamists’. Both these categories, although they are profoundly different as regards lifestyles and aspirations, found in the state a defender of their requests.

 

 

The reading of this work is made pleasant by the ability of the author to enrich the analysis with descriptions of events and details which are almost always ignored outside the narrow circle of those who know Saudi Arabia from within, and with stimulating incursions into the world of Saudi fiction. This last constitutes an important point of reference for public opinion in the region, an aspect far from being of little importance in a political analysis: women to make their voices heard, have resorted to literature, and resort today to ‘new media’, as an alternative to the impossibility of acting through civil society organisations.

 

 

The world of ‘Islamist’ women is the subject of the seventh and last chapter which is devoted to the real confrontation that Saudi society has to address during the twenty-first century: not a struggle of marginalised and discriminated-against women against misogynous and authoritarian policies but a struggle between women who aim at imposing their own vision of the role of women in the public sphere. Against the background of all of this, the state, despite the continuation of a strong basic maschilism, has found itself forced to ‘feminise itself’ in order to strengthen its legitimacy. In the long term, the greatest challenge for women in Saudi Arabia will be to go beyond the feminism sponsored by the state, a process that cannot be separated from the involvement of the female workforce in the economy, and which, as Al-Rasheed concludes on a note of optimism, does not prevent us today from seeing ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’.

 

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