top, Leila Trabelsi in Saudi Arabia; bottom, Leila Trabelsi with Ben Ali in Tunis, pre-Jasmine Revolution

The West has long had a fascination with Muslim women, from the Oriental harem beauties of Ottoman seraglios to immigrants who wear niqab in Europe. As some critics have noted, perhaps those who laud or victimize the role of women in Islam (as though there could be “the” role), should look at the patriarchy in their own societies. The ability to go out in public with less of the body covered may be a sign of freedom in mobility, but it is not automatically symbolic of equality in economic or political terms. Ethnographic study for almost a century has illustrated the kinds of social contexts in which women and men are closer to being egalitarian, but there is no one factor (including religion) that is causal. The books and commentaries on women in Islam continue to proliferate and will into the foreseeable future. But what about the situation today within Islamic countries?

By today, I mean the totally unscientific sense of an arbitrary internet experience. In checking out several websites this morning to see what I might comment upon, several items caught my attention. First, a Yemeni website shows a photograph of Leila Trabelsi, the wife of the exiled Tunisian president Ben Ali; both are now living in Saudi Arabia (top picture, above). The picture is pregnant with interpretive possibilities. The former elegant first lady is now regaled in hijab while mouse-clicking her way through cyberspace. In that vast digital archive, she can easily come across previous pictures of herself, like the one shown below her new Saudi makeover look. So is one of these pictures of Leila more Islamic than the other? Does the veil indicate intent; does living in Saudi Arabia signify a closer relationship to Allah? Perhaps if we knew what websites she was surfing, we would have more clues.

The second story that caught my eye is a newly released video by the captors of a Saudi diplomat from Aden in Yemen. Captured by al-Qaeda militants in March, he is being held in exchange for the Saudis releasing all their women prisoners. Here again is a story that begs to be deconstructed. Al-Qaeda is not known for being a women’s liberation outfit, so I think we can rule out any sympathy they have for violation of women’s rights. This is a story that was bizarre enough to make the NY Daily News Desi version (the fact that there is a Desi version of the NY Daily News is news too). The perpetrator, a Saudi named Mashaal Rasheed al-Shawdakhi, is number one on the terrorist-most-wanted hit list of the Saudis.

Speaking of the Saudis, the traditional Wahhabi denial of a woman’s right to drive is driving some women to protest. On June 10 an organization called “My Right to Dignity” sent a letter to King ‘Abd Allah asking him to lift the ban. The letter itself, available in English translation, is as diplomatic as it can be. After praising the king for his support of improving the education and job opportunities for women, the letter concludes:

Your majesty is well aware that the simple yet essentially important request to allow women to drive is practiced easily by all women in the world. Hence lifting the driving ban should not be difficult here in the country of security and safety and under your wise leadership. With sincere efforts we are confident that our wise leadership will realize the ban lift in our compassionate and gracious nation for the benefit of our sons and daughters.

We pray that your majesty will remain our pride, strength, and empowerment and that God grant you and the nation perseverance and blessedness.

This would seem to be a less dangerous request to grant than the demands of the kidnappers for release of their diplomat in Yemen. But do read the comments to the posted translation. The first is by a woman named Elaine, who says “It’s so sad to see women having to grovel to a dictator to get basic rights.” Umm Hussein then adds: “Just think if SA was a democracy, women would not have to ask one person for permission or to advocate their permission to to drive.” The idea of a democracy may be more difficult than cutting a deal with kidnappers. Then there is Nakid, who observes: “It feels really strange. Here in Bangladesh, which is the 4th most populous Muslim country, the Communications Ministry has been encouraging more women to drive because by nature men are aggressive and hence responsible for the many accidents that take lives regularly. And plus it saves the additional cost for a family of hiring a driver. So I can’t understand why KSA is hindering women from driving.”

So far, so good for those who support women’s rights, but now Maqsood Khan enters the scene:

“Is a poor country like Bangladesh the role model for Saudi Arabia? In one country you have flooding and famine, and in the other you hae one of the worlds highest standards of living and where crime rate is negligible. Needless to say Bangladeshis come to Saudi Arabia to work and not other way round, so there is no comparison. Saudi Arabia is a unique country and probably the only country that follows Shariah. Please stop comparing every other country in Asia that does not know the ABCs of Islam with Saudi Arabia. May Allah protect the Kingdom from those who are intent on spoiling it.”

Mueen chimes in his support of the royals:

“Saudi Arabia is an pure Islamic country it holds 2 Holy Grand Masjids by which it has got importance in Muslim World.Saudi Arabia is developed in all spheres as compared to other countries.Democracy has failed in all countries where ever it was/has been adopted because it is misused Whileas saudi government has adopted a system that has developed saudi Arabia from 0. Allowing or not allowing women to drive is a big question because it has advantages and disadvantages. Women is not made for subjecting to harsh conditions like changing puntured car wheels, driving oil tanker etc.If women starts driving ,there will be many backdraws which sweety Manal is not counting.”

Which prompts Juma to respond:

““Saudi Arabia is an pure Islamic country ” – so no bad things happen in saudi? saudi men don’t drink, and hang out with women? they don’t lie, cheat and steal??? and the givt workd per pure islamic law for the welfare of ALL it’s citizens ????

“Saudi Arabia is developed in all spheres as compared to other countries” — what spheres? ha ha ha

“saudi government has adopted a system that has developed saudi Arabia from 0″ — oh you mean dictatorship where the princes get the pil profits and the rest suffer 🙂 ha ha ha .. great country if youa re a prince. else too bad .
“Women is not made for subjecting to harsh conditions like changing puntured car wheels, driving oil tanker etc” — so men in saudi daily drive oil tankers and have punctured wheels? how many times will your wheel get punctured daily – 2,10,15???

“there will be many backdraws which sweety Manal is not counting.” – i somehow doubt you will have the courage to call manal a sweety to her face, she doesn’t look like she’ll take kindly to a pious man calling her this :-0

arghhhh…. apparently education does NOTHING ….”

Arghhhh indeed.