A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power, and Reform in Saudi Arabia

A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power, and Reform in Saudi Arabia

A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power, and Reform in Saudi Arabia

A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power, and Reform in Saudi Arabia

Synopsis

The cities of Saudi Arabia are among the most gender segregated in the world. In recent years the Saudi government has felt increasing international pressure to offer greater roles for women in society. Implicit in these calls for reform, however, is an assumption that the only "real" society is male society. Little consideration has been given to the rapidly evolving activities within women's spaces. This book joins young urban women in their daily lives-in the workplace, on the female university campus, at the mall-to show how these women are transforming Saudi cities from within and creating their own urban, professional, consumerist lifestyles.

As young Saudi women are emerging as an increasingly visible social group, they are shaping new social norms. Their shared urban spaces offer women the opportunity to shed certain constraints and imagine themselves in new roles. But to feel included in this peer group, women must adhere to new constraints: to be sophisticated, fashionable, feminine, and modern. The position of "other" women-poor, rural, or non-Saudi women-is increasingly marginalized. While young urban women may embody the image of a "reformed" Saudi nation, the reform project ultimately remains incomplete, drawing new hierarchies and lines of exclusion among women.

Excerpt

When I began my research in Riyadh in 2005, I knew little about the way in which postcolonial feminist scholars had deconstructed and problematized Western discourses on gender in the Middle East. I was already committed to the struggle against the occupation of Palestinian territories and felt concerned more broadly about issues of imperialism in the Middle East. I was deeply critical of the way the media dealt with the issue of women’s position in Saudi Arabia—that is, treating them as necessarily oppressed and sequestered as women. The tone commentators adopted most often fell between victimization and irony, between romantic calls to save Saudi women from their fellow men and sarcasms about the “customs and bans” of this society, implicitly mocked as ridiculous, backward, bizarre. Such mockery also sometimes both sexualized them and showed them as deviant: in fall 2012, I was surprised by how caricatures in two French publications with very different political lines depicted the new Saudi “women-only city” (in fact, a business and working area [in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf]) whose creation had just been announced. In the first caricature, the women are fully veiled (even though the logic of women-only spaces is precisely to provide a space where they do not need to be veiled); in the second one, the women are naked. In both caricatures, allusions to sexuality suggest that men are lacking in this regard and that women among themselves are bored. The comments insist on the supposedly absurd project of creating a “women-only city,” comparing it to a Bantustan, or all-black enclave in apartheid South Africa. Such press coverage signals the anxiety that the separation of men and women and homosociality provoke in France, where gender mixing is a central norm, a goal of public policy, and a sign of progress and modernity, according to public debates and official discourse. More generally, in the United States as in Europe, press articles often consider women’s participation in society—to borrow a term used by such articles as well as by the Saudi government—as automatically limited because of . . .

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