Category Archives: Gender in the Middle East

How One Girl and a Bicycle are Promoting Women’s Autonomy in Saudi Arabia

 Review of the film, Wadjda, by Haifaa al-Mansour

Lizz Grimsley

Ten-year old Saudi girl, Wadjda, is best friends with a boy, wears blue jeans and sneakers under her abaya, and longs for a bike. She is the subject of strikingly different kind of film about Saudi women, written and directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour. This film illustrates the influential role of the media on social institutions and the ways that it can impact how people view the world and think about their cultures.

Saudi Arabia is known for a strict interpretation of Sharia law that oppresses women by denying them the same freedoms and rights as men. As a result, Saudi women have had difficulty breaking out of the restrictive walls built around them. However, Haifaa al-Mansour, shows how the media is capable of challenging oppressive gender roles. It follows the story of a young girl who is interested in purchasing a bicycle that she has seen at a store in her town. Though she is faced with criticism from her family and peers, it does not deter Wadjda from finding ways to save money to purchase the bike. We are also shown an interesting friendship dynamic between her and Abdullah, a young neighbor boy with whom she spends a great amount of time with throughout the movie. As the film progresses, she navigates though her relationships with authority figures in her attempt to understand the world around her. As a result, Wadjda is placed in many situations that alert her to the roles and behaviors traditional Saudi culture views as appropriate for women and girls.

Saudi women have been oppressed by legislation that has denied them the same freedoms and rights as men. This form of systematic oppression has also been responsible for the harsh gender roles and the general mistreatment of women. As a result, Saudi women have little autonomy over themselves or their family units. However, the tides appear to be turning. Windsor reports that In September of 2017, women in the kingdom were finally granted the right drive, and in March of 2018, women who have been divorced were given the right to retain custody of their children without needing to file a lawsuit. But these changes alone are not enough in the fight for equality.

To show audiences the true nature of oppression that exists in Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour uses symbolism throughout the film. One example of this, according to al-Mansour herself, is the bicycle: it is an object that is meant to represent freedom. It is the freedom of adulthood and the freedom of women as separate beings from their male guardians. Thus, Wadjda’s attempts to purchase the bicycle are attempts to gain freedom and control within her own life. By creating an ending where Wadjda owns the bicycle, al-Mansour leaves the audience with a message of hope that things can change for women in Saudi Arabia. Though this is only one interpretation of the film, it has seemed to have a positive impact on the Saudi people. Nikki Baughan quoted al-Mansour in her article, The Reel World, saying “I have a lot of positive feedback from young Saudi women; it means so much to me when they say how much they loved and related to the film.”

As a Saudi woman, al-Mansour had the best knowledge on how to approach the issue of promoting women’s rights. She stated in an interview with Nikki Baughan, “If you try to be confrontational or scream at them about how stupid you think they are, you aren’t going to get through to them. You have to be respectful of the world they come from and present your ideas through that prism.” She said that she wanted her film to reach the average Saudi person, and she knew that she would have to organize her methods in a way that would not deter them. Al-Mansour emphasizes the importance of approaching this social issue with caution instead of as an outsider. Her identity was beneficial in that it allowed Saudi people to trust her and the message she was trying to portray in her film.

Thankfully, her hard work has paid off. Saudi women flocked to watch the film upon its release in 2012 by traveling outside the country. Al-Mansour’s sisters thought the film was “authentic” in the way it depicted the average life in Saudi Arabia. If the goal of the film was to change the perceptions of women and break away from traditional views of women, then Wadjda did just that. As the world inevitably progresses, so do countries like Saudi Arabia. Through social media and educational programs that send their citizens abroad, Saudi people have the opportunity to witness other cultures on a global scale. These interactions will inevitably cause ripples that will disrupt the traditional views imbedded in Saudi cultural practices. Women are being represented in government, legislation is changing, women are being represented in films that point out the flaws of their society. Change may come slowly and with resistance, but with people like al-Mansour advocating for women and girls, their voices are being given a platform that they have never had before.

 

Lizz Grimsley is a senior at ECU majoring in Sociology and minoring in Anthropology. She plans on graduating in May and has hopes to join the Peace Corps shortly afterwards. She is particularly interested in social issues and understanding how different media sources influence social norms and beliefs surrounding marginalized groups of people.

Saudi Women Gain Custody Rights

A couple of students in the anthropology class are writing about images of women in Saudi film and about progress in women’s education in Saudi Arabia. It was just announced a couple of days ago that Saudi women will not have to go to court to petition for custody of their children in event of a divorce. These petitions in the past could take years to be decided. This is a major step forward, but it does not negate the underlying rule, based on tradition, that custodianship goes to the father by default. Nonetheless it is progress and it comes in the wake of the earlier decision to allow women the right to drive. We may not think these changes are happening fast enough, but Saudi women have been working hard to make them happen.    –Holly Mathews

 

https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/12/middleeast/saudi-arabia-custody-law-intl/index.html

Working towards ending FGM

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50015&Kw1=Genital+Mutilation&Kw2=Women&Kw3=#.VfDCr_lViko

February 6 of each year is “The International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.” This article highlights efforts of the UN in educating communities about the myths and negative outcomes of this procedure still common in several African and Middle Easter countries in both Muslim and Christian communities.

FGM has many serious short – and long-term health consequences for girls and women. This year’s theme was “ending the ‘medicalization’ of the procedure.” FGM, even when conducted by a medical workers, is harmful to girls and women; however, as these workers become better educated about the negative consequences of FGM, some are beginning to refuse conducting the procedure.

I “just” wanted to point this out…

As students — many of whom will be scouring the job market for opportunities in the near future — we are often preoccupied with the written and spoken language that we use; not solely for the numerous research papers, essays and presentations we are responsible for producing over the course of our educational careers, but because we are aware of the value judgments people make about our dialect and our prose.

How many of you have dedicated an immense amount of time to making sure the carefully-crafted letters and e-mails you send to peers, colleagues and future employers are “just right” before pressing send? We check and double check spelling and grammar, we make sure we use tone that’s appropriate for the intended recipient, and we fire away. Whether we speak on the phone or in person, we tend to be more careful about the words we use because unlike written language — which we are typically free to edit until we are satisfied with the final result — there’s no “taking back” spoken words (or the inflection behind them) when you’re trying to quickly convey a message or attempting to prove yourself worthy to someone whose approval matters to you. We think about our word choices — some people even code-switch between the dialect they use naturally versus the dialect they use in a professional setting — and hope that we aren’t coming across in a way that misconstrues our intent or puts us at risk of negative evaluation.

However, have you ever considered that even the subtle, seemingly innocent word choices you make may be stripping your words of their full power?  Ellen Leanse thinks so.  In her latest article — It’s time to stop using ‘just’ in your writing and speaking (published today at Ragan.com and in its original version located at Women2.com) — Leanse charges women with using the word ‘just’ as “a ‘permission’ word.”

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such, it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that “just” didn’t make sense. … I began to notice that “just” wasn’t about being polite. It was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.”

Upon noticing the prevalence of the word “just” in the e-mails sent by women at her company, Leanse decided to conduct an informal experiment in which observers listened to a six-minute conversation between a man and a woman about their respective business startups — each had three minutes to speak — while the observers tallied the amount of times they each used the word “just.”  The man used it once; the woman used it either five or six times.  As Leanse states, this experiment was “not research: it’s a test that likely merits more inquiry.”  Until a formal experiment is conducted, I urge you to inquire within yourselves.

Look through your e-mails and text messages.  How often have you used the word “just” in an attempt to sound friendlier or non-demanding?  You may be unconsciously asking permission for your thoughts and words to be validated by others, which can diminish the impact behind them.  Ladies: it is time to stop diluting our convictions, our lofty goals, and our grandest plans with the constant use of what otherwise would continue to be considered an innocuous four-letter word in a sea of written and spoken communication.  I “just” thought you should be aware of your own authority and the power it holds when you wield it with confidence.  Laura Redman

Egypt’s Brotherhood Blasts UN Women’s Document

Sarah El Deeb’s article discusses the opposition that a UN Women’s document has received from the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. The group has opposed this document because of clauses within it that they consider incompatible with the tenants of Islam. Actual details of the document have yet to be released pending negotiations. Officials are remaining optimistic that the document will pas, but there is speculation that Egypt will seek the choice to opt out of sections of the document before passing it. Libya has also publicly rejected the document. Egypt has called for an amendment to the document before they would approve it. Issues lie in the differences in interpretations of ideologies of Islamic law. The rise in Fundamentalist groups as a result of protests and political upheavals in the region has led to more traditional interpretations as well as an increase in violence against women. Women activists have responded on both sides, some agreeing with the document and others with those who have challenged it. Issues between differences in interpretations have created contention amongst Politicians and activist who have called for stronger protection and enforcement of rights for women. Shannon

Article

Mona el-Tahawy on Lack of Women’s Progress and the Firestorm that followed

Here is an article that appeared in Foreign Policy, which sent Twitter, FB, and all forms of social media buzzing:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/why_do_they_hate_us?page=0,0 discussing “the real war on women.”

For an example of a response, see http://neocolonialthoughts.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/a-response-to-mona-el-tahawy/

A Self Proclaimed Hero in Leila Khaled’s My People Shall Live

In Leila Khaled’s My People Shall Live, Khaled tells of her journey as a Palestinian soldier on a mission to bring justice to her people from the Israelis.  As the narrator, Khaled tells the story in such a way that she seems to be trying to convince the readers that she was justified in the actions she took for her people’s independence. For many years, the Israelis controlled Palestine and forced Khaled and many others into exile.  Leila Khaled was a Palestinian soldier who took on the challenge to complete a mission on an El-Al flight, as well as on a TWA 840 flight. The intention of the missions was to show the Israelis that Palestine shall be liberated, and Khaled did so by, what she thought of as, performing a “revolutionary duty against the enemy” (146). Khaled narrates the story to portray the idea that she is inherently causing others no pain through the actions she chooses to take in order to liberate Palestine; however, Khaled fails to recognize that although she is not causing any physical pain, she is causing emotional pain at the expense of her enemy.

During the El-Al mission with Patrick, although Khaled and Patrick were the ‘terrorists’, they were very clearly putting themselves in a dangerous situation, as well as the passengers. At one instance, Khaled informs the passengers on the flight that the mission is to bring the Palestinians back to the country they rightly deserve. Although Khaled’s intention is to calm the passengers down and allow them to realize that she is not going to blow up the plane, she has also already shown them the weapons in their possession; Khaled “had two hand grenades; Patrick had one hand grenade and a pistol” (187). As a passenger, danger was undoubtedly seen no matter what Khaled and Patrick told them was happening. Khaled is not necessarily causing any physical harm to the passengers at this time, but the emotional pain that they endure as the plane they are on is hijacked is an incomparable feeling to the physical pain they were expecting to have been subjected to.

After the plane had landed and Khaled was taken into custody at the prison, she was quoted many times speaking is such a way as to justify her previous actions. Personally, I do not feel that the actions taken were necessary to get the point of wanting complete liberation of Palestine across to the enemy. Although the hijacking definitely got people’s attention, bringing weapons such as hand grenades and pistols on board and telling the passengers that the intent was not to harm them is not so convincing, or necessary, in my opinion. Khaled said “my people, my land, my Palestine! For thee I shall resist, for your honor I shall accept pain” (149). Although the Zionists forced Khaled and her people into exile, essentially causing them pain, the actions Khaled executed on the missions were not justified. Pain was returned to the enemy for the pain Khaled had been given, but the method of “an eye for an eye” is not always the best way to solve such situations.

Khaled believed that she was doing a favor for her country by hijacking the plane and blowing it up once it had been evacuated. If her true intention was not to harm anyone, she would not have felt the need to take weapons on board with her. If anything had gone wrong during the mission, the plane still could have blown up from the hand grenades and everyone would have died. Khaled’s actions were not justified for the goal she was trying to achieve; she ultimately caused pain to all of those who were involved, even if it was not physical pain.

 Lindsey Westphal

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