Women in Saudi Arabia Today

By Eickelman, Christine | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Women in Saudi Arabia Today


Eickelman, Christine, The Middle East Journal


Women in Saudi Arabia Today, by Mona AlMunajjed. London and New York: Macmillan

Press and St. Martin's Press, 1997. vii + 107 pages. Bibl. to p. 141. Index to p. 153. $59.95. Reviewed by Christine Eickelman

A sociologist by training and a writer/journalist by career, Mona AlMunajjed presents to a Western audience, whose knowledge of Saudi Arabia and Islam is often slim, the ways in which Islam, culture, and historical events have shaped the present educational system and employment opportunities of Saudi women. She discusses how Saudi women perceive gender roles, veiling, sexual segregation, and work outside the household. Her book is part of an ongoing debate, often highly explosive, between Saudi Muslim liberals and more conservative elements as to how to integrate women into the process of national development while preserving a "traditional Saudi identity" (p. 6). This debate was silenced temporarily because of the 1991 Gulf War. Indeed, AlMunajjed's extensive interviews, and most of the official Saudi publications and Arabic newspapers and magazines she utilizes, date from before the war.

AlMunajjed's message is clear, forceful and timely: Islam recognizes that women have an independent status from men and gives women equal (although not always identical) legal, political, economic, and social rights. The main obstacle that prevents women from fully participating in nation building is not Islam but a "rigid clinging to the Saudi traditional way of life in the face of the pressures of the Western challenge" (p. 106). She calls for regular, periodic reassessments of the roles suitable for women in the kingdom, for compulsory education for girls, literacy programs in rural areas, vocational training, improved public transportation, and an expansion of women's banking services.

AlMunajjed bases her message on the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and on an examination of the political, economic and intellectual accomplishments of Muslim women living in the early days of Islam. Like other contemporary Muslim intellectuals, she distinguishes between the message of Islam as a religion and way of life, and historically rooted social practices, such as face veiling and women's seclusion. She provides a lively narrative of early Muslim women who participated with men in public discussions, led prayers for congregations of men and women, managed businesses, helped to construct mosques, and fought battles. …

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