January 28, 2013

Madawi Al-Rasheed: Gulf States Co-opt Women's Mobilization and Replace it with State Feminism

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed - Picture from Fria Tidningen

v  Maghrebi women proved they are not a homogeneous mass but are differentiated by class, education, and economic situation.
v  Saudi women have opted to bargain with the state because they were not able to unionize.
v  Arab uprisings led to breaking the taboo of women in the public sphere, demonstrating and asking for rights.
v  The Saudi regime wants us to believe that we only have a problem of women.
v  I cannot accept that because I am a woman I am only allowed to talk about women's issues.
v  Saudi youth need to learn lessons from Tunisian youth about how to seek rights by action.
Bil3afya: After the Arab Spring, how do you place women struggles in the Gulf and Maghreb regions?
Madawi Al-Rasheed: The Arab uprisings brought about the well-known struggles of women in both the Gulf and the Maghreb that was fermenting in the twentieth century. In the Maghreb, women were part of national struggles for liberation throughout the anti-colonial struggles but failed to gain rights after decolonization with the exception of some measures under the discourse of modernization and nationalism. They were disappointed with the patronage of male national elites and felt betrayed by the state feminism that dominated the policies of many Maghreb governments. They participated in the recent uprisings throughout North Africa from Cairo to Rabat, moving beyond slogans that touch them as women to national politics, and demonstrating the limits of state feminism under dictatorships. They proved that they are not a homogenous mass but differentiated by class, education and economic situation. They showed diversity in solutions they sought to improve the conditions of the entire nation rather than simply one section of society. They were Islamists, liberals and ideologically non-committed individuals who simply wanted freedom, dignity and justice. After the success of the revolts, they reverted back to their niches as activists grounded in one position, which threatens to divide not only the cause of emancipation but also the nation itself. I hope the opening of the political systems allows women of all political persuasions to voice their dissent without the threat of arrest or even death.

In the Gulf, we have old examples of Kuwaiti and Bahraini women being at the forefront of old national struggles and emancipation. Unfortunately, governments in these countries managed to co-opt women's mobilization and replace it with state feminism, which reflects the move to making women more visible but without power to change their situation and that of their society. Authoritarian rulers thought that a woman's face give dictatorship a soft internationally appreciated look. Hence women were appointed to high positions but without the whole nation having reached the level of political representations and elected governments. In the Saudi situation, women have been late comers to the struggle and unfortunately because the government wanted to co-opt them they became a token for the improvement of authoritarian rule.  Women in Saudi Arabia are weak at the level of organization as they are denied the right to establish their own civil society, or women student associations, trade unions or similar civil society. Also society still resists granting women more rights. So in this situation, women have opted to bargain with the state, accept the roles of the game and hope that they will have a window of opportunity. Having said that, women are beginning to develop a consciousness that is articulated in their writings, blogs, novels and other mediums. Some women have participated in demonstrations seeking freedom and justice for political prisoners. Like men, they have become targets and attacked and imprisoned by security forces.

In general, the Arab uprisings led to breaking the taboo of women in the public sphere demonstrating and asking for rights. Women across the Arab world are sharing their experiences and images of revolt that will spread this consciousness beyond national borders.

Bil3afya: The two regions are almost alien to each other; do you see value in a shared dialogue?
Madawi Al-Rasheed: The Maghreb and the Gulf have never been alien to each other in old and recent times. Families from the Maghreb have lived in the Hijaz for example for generations and people from the Gulf have travelled to the Maghreb for years. The two regions have a lot in common but also have many differences. These are social, linguistic and cultural, in addition to the differences that were introduced by colonial powers, the French in the Maghreb and the British and later Americans in the Gulf.  While governments have their own reasons for dialogue, mainly economic and security concerns, people also have their interests revolving around economic opportunities, education, tourism, and other shared interests. The remaining Arab countries without a serious Arab Spring will have to get rid of the structures of authoritarian rule before they can actually benefit from the opening of the public sphere in the post Arab Spring countries. The exchanges are already taking place in conferences and intellectual forums. 

Bil3afya: You always emphasize that a woman struggle in "Saudi Arabia" cannot succeed if separated from the general political struggle. Don't you see your approach problematic as it discourages women from stepping in?
Madawi Al-Rasheed: Women will never get full recognition if their struggle remains an isolated women's issue. No society can proceed with all its people oppressed but with one half more oppressed than the other half. The Saudi regime wants us to believe that we only have a problem of women but in fact there is a serious problem with how both men and women are oppressed and remain without political participation and formal representative institutions. I cannot accept that because I am a woman I am only allowed to talk about women's issues, which some Saudi women have accepted. This remains their choice and their bargain with the oppressive regime. As I am abroad, I am not under any pressure to reach a bargain with a regime that does not only oppress me but oppress my brother, father, etc.

Bil3afya: Tell us some of your observations after your recent visits to Tunisia and Morocco?
Madawi Al-Rasheed: On my two visits to Tunisia and Morocco recently, I noticed one troubling fact, the sheer number of young men and women roaming the streets, sitting in cafes doing nothing apart from watching the world go by. I am talking here about the economic situation which is really bad. Unemployment is the enemy of youth and must be dealt with as soon as possible. But at the same time, I saw defiant youth, proud and self-assured, convinced of their ability to change their world by action. They deserve to be proud unlike their counterparts in for example Saudi Arabia where consumption and illusions have dominated their thinking and have led to them begging jobs and waiting for royal largesses. Saudi youth need to learn lessons from Tunisian youth about how to seek rights by action rather than simply from the luxury of twitter on the IPAD. I am proud of other young men in Bahrain and Kuwait as they proved to be political actors who cannot be fooled by royal promises. One day, Saudi men and women will join them in celebrating their emancipation and empowerment.
Bil3afya: What do you think of the GCC's attempts to make a union of monarchies that includes Morocco and Jordan?
Madawi Al-Rasheed: Gulf monarchies especially Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait must listen to their own people before staging the illusion of unions that only serve security purposes. There is an Arab unity that the Arab Spring enhanced at the level of society and youth culture but the governments are so far behind as always. We will continue to be one people with diverse cultures and social life but there is something beyond this diversity that refuses to go away, a feeling of common destiny! It is this destiny and brotherhood that makes me feel at home in Rabat, Tunis and Cairo. Dictators can never take that away from us Arabs or even circle it as a fake union that may not have real existence except among those who want to have solidarity against the people and their struggles for a better life.

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