Facts about Madawi Al-Rasheed

Madawi Al-Rasheed was born in Saudi Arabia in 1962 into an influential Saudi family. Today she is Professor of Anthropology at the theological institute of King’s College, London. She is a leading expert in the area of Saudi Arabian history and has contributed with a wealth of articles and books on the subject of the social, religious and political situation in post-September-11 Saudi Arabia.  
 

September 11, 2001 marked the birth of a new era. Although the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks undeniably played a role, this particular era has nothing to do with international politics, conflicts and terrorist actions. According to Saudi Madawi Al-Rasheed, professor in religious anthropology at King’s College, London, the date of September 11, 2001 marks the beginning of the era of new Saudi women’s literature. Her current research focuses specifically on the development of political/religious discourse in Saudi Arabia since this date.
The pressure in the wake of September 11 forced the Saudi regime into promoting the modern, independent woman and also forced it to relax the restrictions on freedom of speech. At least one unforeseen result of this was the sudden emergence of the female ‘Sex novel’.

The subject of ‘Women in the Middle East’ is one that the tabloid press in particular has written much about over the past few centuries. In recent years, however, something new has happened: the subject has become the focus of the academic world. As a result of this new academic study, which draws on anthropology, sociology and gender studies, new areas are being exposed. These areas, which had previously been overlooked or deemed important only for women, are proving to be of great importance to both women and men. A key player in this new academic field is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She was recently invited to Copenhagen by PEN in Denmark to talk about the background for the emergence of this new Saudi literature, and it was in connection with this visit that WoMen Dialogue caught up with her. All of Professor Al-Rasheed’s books are currently censured in Saudi Arabia. 

The cosmopolitan Saudi woman

Literature

  • Madawi Al-Rasheed: “Saudi Chick Lit – The Girls are doing It”  Le Monde diplomatique (5/2011)
  • Madawi Al-Rasheed: “Economies of Desire, Fictive Sexual Uprising” Le Monde diplomatique-English edition. May 2011. 
  • Madawi Al-Rasheed: “How stable is Saudi Arabia” 27.03.2011.  www.madawialrasheed.org
  • Madawi Al-Rasheed: “Yes, It Could Happen Here” 03.03. 2011. www.madawialrasheed.org
  • Yegenoglu, Meyda: Colonial fantasies. Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism. Cambridge 1998. 
  • Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers. (Eds.) Abubaker Bagader, Ava M. Heinrichsdorff, Deborah S. Akers. Three Continents Press 1997
  • Women and Words in Saudi Arabia: Politics of Literary Discourse. Saddeka Arebi. New York, Columbia University Press, 1994
  • Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Al Sanea. Penguin 2009
  • The Others Siba Al-Herz/Saba Hirz. New York, Seven Stories Press 2009

The pressure in the wake of September 11 forced the Saudi regime into promoting the modern, independent woman and also forced it to relax the restrictions on freedom of speech. At least one unforeseen result of this was the sudden emergence of the female ‘Sex novel’.
In order to counteract the Bin Laden-tainted image of Saudi Arabia as a fundamentalist regime and breeding ground for potential terrorists, it was imperative for the Saudi regime to portray the kingdom to the outside world as a modern country. One way for the regime to do this was to launch the ‘modern Saudi Woman’, which has since become an important milestone in an international political battle of values. Suddenly, state-run newspapers began running daily stories about the first woman professor in biochemistry, the first woman professor in astronomy, and the first woman professor in medicine. However, Madawi Al-Rasheed is quick to point out that this was purely a move intended to promote the new image. 
“There were lots of women professors before 11 September – you just never heard about them before then,” she explains.
The publication of a story about the first woman pilot is another example, apparently intended as a counterweight to the notorious Saudi ban on women drivers. After all, who wants to go by car to the shopping centre when you can go by helicopter?
“There were lots of women professors before 11 September – you just never heard about them before then”

The cosmopolitan women authors and their heroines 

The new women’s novels are written by young women authors whose heroines sip champagne in London, smoke hookahs in Beirut, meet secret lovers in Paris, and whose gilded cages are on full display to all the world.
The 2005 novel Girls of Riyadh is one such work available in English. Author Rajaa Al Saneaa (who was only 23when she wrote the book) has written a novel in the form of a collection of e-mails about the lives of four girlfriends. The main character is a woman in her 20s, who anonymously sends out e-mails to a growing flock of readers about her own and her friends’ lives. Much of the plot centres on relationships with men. 
“Cosmopolitanism is for appearance only, definitely not something to be adopted.”
Twenty years ago, there was very little contact between men and women in Saudi Arabia, but modern technology, such as mobile telephones, has changed all that. Most recently, the internet has made the task of keeping women and their thoughts shut away impossible. Rajaa Al Saneaa’s heroines are rich, well-educated and beautiful women who are connected (both virtually and physically) to the outside world –in Arabic as well as in English. This ‘connectivity’ is reflected in the novel, which is peppered with colloquial Saudi language, English phrases and expressions, and Facebook slang.  
The book was initially banned in Saudi Arabia and had to be published in Lebanon, from where black-market copies were then smuggled into Saudi Arabia. According to Madawi, this shows that the ruling powers’ promotion of cosmopolitanism is purely superficial.
“Cosmopolitanism is for appearance only, definitely not something to be adopted.”
“For me, whether or not the books are good or bad works of literature is of secondary importance. What’s interesting is the anthropological aspect to these books, because this provides a key to understanding the movements that are underway in Saudi Arabia.” 
The new, young women’s literature from Saudi Arabia has been branded both trashy and banal. It has also been criticized by the renowned Kuwaiti author, Layla Uthman, who accuses it of exaggerating sex scenes and inflating the way taboos are broken purely and simply with the aim of creating sensation and winning fame. She adds that the publishers are extremely keen to publish women writers – so much so that men have begun writing under female pseudonyms in order to gain an advantage.  
“She may have a point about the quality of this literature, but in this case I’m not interested in these books from a literary perspective,” tells Madawi Al-Rasheed in comment to the criticism. She goes on to add, “For me, whether or not the books are good or bad works of literature is of secondary importance. What’s interesting is the anthropological aspect to these books, because this provides a key to understanding the movements that are underway in Saudi Arabia.” 
In response to the question whether these are some sort of ‘Sex and the City’ novels, Madawi Al-Rasheed is definite in her reply. “Yes, absolutely. These are stories of the well-to-do and beautiful heroine on her never-ending shopping and sex adventures.”
But there is much more to these books than mere ‘Sex and the City’. They deal with the issue of repression of women and religious and ethnic minorities. In the wake of Girls of Riyadh, a torrent of novels written by young women was published, all of which were immensely popular across the entire Middle East. As these books would never get past the state censorship in Saudi Arabia, they were published in either Beirut or Cairo and then sent back to Saudi Arabia with little problem. The publishing houses of the Middle East know all too well that Saudi Arabia sells. Rajaa Al Saneaa’s Girls of Riyadh opened the floodgates to what many are calling a tsunami.     
But there is much more to these books than mere ‘Sex and the City’. They deal with the issue of repression of women and religious and ethnic minorities. 
Another book to emerge from this inundation is Seba Hirz’s 2007 novel The Others – a novel that also clearly aims at breaking taboos. The topics on the agenda in this book include lesbian love and the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia. The novel describes a teenage girl at a girls’ school in Saudi Arabia’s eastern Shiite province. Like all the other girls in her class, she has no contact with men outside her closest family, and when the stylish Dai attempts to seduce her she is overwhelmed by a lust for erotic intimacy. She is introduced to a lesbian clique in which she finds herself torn between erotic obsession and deep shame.  
Another good example of an author who tries to break taboos is Samar Al-Muqrin. In her short 2008 novel Nisâ’ al-munkar [The Women of Abomination] (not translated from Arabic), she describes the suffering of a Saudi woman when she is arrested by the police for meeting with a man at a restaurant. It is a story of a woman who through eight years has attempted to divorce her husband and escape from her unhappy, forced marriage. Again, the book is much more than a mere depiction of unhappy love; it is also a study of Saudi women’s prisons. When it was published, the book became a bestseller across the Arab world. 

Nothing to do and unlimited consumption 

As is true for the majority of other Middle East countries, the demography of Saudi Arabia is noteworthy for the fact that two-thirds of the population are under the age of 30. In Saudi Arabia, the younger generation is generally well educated – often from universities in Europe and the USA. Nevertheless, almost 40 percent of young Saudis are unemployed. Saudi employers often avoid taking on expensive-to-employ Saudis, preferring instead to take on much cheaper labour from abroad. For women in particular, finding a job is very difficult. This means that many of those who have a university education are unable to use it. Over 75 percent of all unemployed women in Saudi Arabia are academics.   
(…)As well as for chocolate, Saudis have also gained a taste for democracy, freedom and civil rights. 
The result of all this is a very peculiar society characterised by a youth population with an incredible amount of spare time on their hands and, for many, with an equally incredible amount of pocket money at their disposal. The phrase ‘pocket money’ is conscious choice here as it has been part of the ruling regime’s strategy to satisfy and saturate the Saudi people with financial gifts. The most recent example occurred on 23 February when, after a long period of illness and convalescence in the USA, King Abdullah returned home with a $36-billion welfare package in the hope of sweeping the Arab Spring revolution under the carpet. 

A revolution smouldering on laptops 

In the 1970s, the country’s oil wealth gave Saudis a taste for cars, air-conditioning and designer labels, but since then the population’s tastes have become more refined. “The last time I was in Saudi Arabia,” tells Madawi Al-Rasheed, “a girlfriend of mine drove me all around town to find some chocolate. You can get delicious chocolate everywhere, but it was important for my friend to find precisely the shop with that particularly exquisite chocolate that was the chocolate of choice of some Saudi princess or other.” 

It is true that he Saudis are to be found in the shopping centres on the hunt for luxuries. But as well as for chocolate, Saudis have also gained a taste for democracy, freedom and civil rights. Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, there have been repeated calls for political reform in Saudi Arabia. These demands have been met with arrests, which since 11 September as a part of its ‘terror prevention’ initiatives the Saudi regime has been completely unhindered in carrying out. And this is a situation which makes it currently very difficult for the opposition to take action. 
These young people are both well articulated and frustrated, and they can no longer be fobbed off with Gucci handbags and Chanel scarves. They want a political system that lives up to their high levels of education and high ambitions, and which does not lag behind the political systems that exist elsewhere.
Nevertheless, descent and much disquiet does exist within the conservative Saudi society, though is yet to be found within the traditional political sphere – there is, for example, no sign of this unrest in the printed newspapers, in parliament or on the streets. According to Madawi Al-Rasheed, the revolution is going on under the surface, in the virtual universe and in fiction novels. And the activists here are often young women. 
These young women are welcoming readers in behind the facade, into a new and unknown Saudi Arabia where time after time they explode the myth of the bountiful and god-fearing land. They are rising up against the religious nationalism that has ruled throughout the kingdom for the past 100 years, and they are exploiting the Saudi kingdom’s newly adopted cosmopolitan front to expose society.  
Today, many young Saudis are well oriented via their laptops and through global media on the Internet, such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, and local news agencies covering the revolutions in the neighbouring countries. According to Madawi Al-Rasheed, these young people are both well articulated and frustrated, and they can no longer be fobbed off with Gucci handbags and Chanel scarves. They want a political system that lives up to their high levels of education and high ambitions, and which does not lag behind the political systems that exist elsewhere.

Measuring up to the West

Politically, the West now plays a significant role in Saudi Arabia, but is the West’s role equally as significant when it comes to influencing the new wave of Saudi women’s literature?
“Absolutely,” replies Madawi Al-Rasheed. “The West plays a crucial role when it comes to this new Saudi women’s literature because comparisons are constantly being made between us and the West.”
 “They tell me that men from the West always help with the housework, treat women as equals, and respect well-educated women. They are fantastic in bed, attentive, loving, and devoted – the exact opposite of Saudi men, who just sit watching the television and thinking of their Mothers” 
The West’s centuries-long interest for the Muslim woman (which has often dwelled on harems, sex and repression) is still flourishing, and it is apparently a key factor behind the breakthrough of young female Saudi authors onto the international scene. Whether our expectations are of horror or delight, they are finally delivering what people have been crying out for for years – the revelation of what’s behind the veil.

However, Madawi Al-Rasheed explains that many of the Saudi women authors with whom she has spoken have an unrealistic, rose-tinted perception of the West and western men. “They tell me that men from the West always help with the housework, treat women as equals, and respect well-educated women. They are fantastic in bed, attentive, loving, and devoted – the exact opposite of Saudi men, who just sit watching the television and thinking of their Mothers,” laughs Madawi sarcastically. 

Oil creates gender

According to Madawi Al-Rasheed, the oil income has had, and still has, an increasing influence on gender relations in Saudi Arabia. Firstly, the oil industry is a male-dominated industry as regards the labour force, with extremely few women actually being involved in the production process. Secondly, it has only been possible to create the current Saudi Arabian society (in which women and men are highly segregated) as a result of the billion-dollar earnings from the oil industry – segregation does not come cheap.
It costs a lot of money to build shopping centres and malls that have segregated men’s areas and a women’s areas. And it is even more expensive to have an entire education system with universities that not only have gender segregated departments, but operate as two completely separate universities. Lastly, there is financing for the ubiquitous and all-seeing Mutawas or ‘morality police’, who monitor cafés and restaurants in the hunt for men and women who are not closely related and who are meeting unchaperoned. Be this as it may, gender segregation or not, the hot topic among both young men and young women in Saudi Arabia today is sex.  
It costs a lot of money to build shopping centres and malls that have segregated men’s areas and a women’s areas. And it is even more expensive to have an entire education system with universities that not only have gender segregated departments, but operate as two completely separate universities. 

”Sex is everywhere”

“Sex is the topic on everybody’s lips – it permeates the entire Saudi society,” explains Madawi Al-Rasheed.  
People are talking about sex on television, where, for example, Ulamas (educated Muslim legal scholars) answer such candid questions from women as how they can please their men in bed, or how they can tell the difference between different bodily fluids. Recently, a question was asked about whether or not cosmetic vaginal surgery was ‘halal’ (permitted) or ‘haram’ (forbidden) according to Islam, and whether or not it can enrich or prolong a woman’s sex life. The religious specialists, who soberly and rationally sit and answer these questions on television, are now known as ‘Periods and births Ulamas’.
It is permissible for married women to talk about the most detailed intimate issues because there is a practical, marital reason for them to learn more, whereas there is no reason for unmarried women to know about that side of life whatsoever. 
With the existence of surprisingly frank discussions about sexuality on the one side, and strong condemnation and censorship of erotic descriptions in the literature of young girls on the other, it seems reasonable to surmise that there is something highly incongruent about Saudi society. 
The key to this apparent contradiction is understanding the fact that it is permissible for married women to talk about the most detailed intimate issues because there is a practical, marital reason for them to learn more, whereas there is no reason for unmarried women to know about that side of life whatsoever. 

New versions of marriage

Justification now has been found in the Islamic holy scriptures for a number of various new types of marriage, which includes the sanctioning of long-term and short-term sexual partners. Such new types of marriage include the  ‘Boyfriend Marriage’, the ‘Travel Marriage’ and the ‘Visit Marriage’ as well as the more traditional life-long marriages. The Misyar or ‘Visit Marriage’, which has always been a vilified marriage form as it exclusively takes into account the sexual needs of the man without providing any financial security for the wife or children, is now a form of marriage used by both men and women. Women who favour this marriage form are mainly rich women who want to have their sexual needs fulfilled but who do not need to be supported, or women who want to remain living where they are without having to move in and live together with the man.    
“There’s talk of sex everywhere – also among young girls. This is though something that the Saudis can live with, as long as the girls are only talking about it. The problem comes when they begin writing it down – then it becomes scandalous” 

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According to Madawi Al-Rasheed, these different lifestyles and personal needs are a result of new economic, social and demographic conditions, which have made such temporary marriages necessary. 
“There’s talk of sex everywhere – also among young girls. This is though something that the Saudis can live with, as long as the girls are only talking about it. The problem comes when they begin writing it down – then it becomes scandalous,” tells Madawi.
For the young people in Saudi Arabia, sex has become a symbol of freedom that represents the West, modernity and dynamism – a stereotype that stands in stark contrast to the equally oversimplified perceptions that exist of the narrow-minded, stagnant and repressive countries from where they come.