February 4, 2013

Saudi Feminism In The Social Realm: In Defense of Personal Revolutions

[Image of Loujain al-Hathloul. Screenshot taken from Youtube video.]

The following is a guest post written by Nora Abdulkarim. She tweets at @Ana3rabeya and blogs at Ana3rabeya.

“‘Cover up, you woman!’, [they say]. But I won’t cover, and your trashy way of offering religious advice won’t work with me”, proclaimed a Saudi woman named Loujain al-Hathloul in a video posted on her “keek” account. She then laughed, and began to show her “keek” followers various campus buildings at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where she studies French Literature. A day or two later, her video went viral among general Twitter users. She is now the #1 top-viewed Saudi user on "keek", and the #18 top-viewed user in All Countries

Understanding Authentic Acts & Defining “Personal Revolutions”

I admit; my first impression was that the video was juvenile, since it wasn't exactly the most serious attempt to start a debate on the interplay of societal pressure and religious practice. Many who are mainly focused on the political dismissed her videos outright as just reckless and pointless.

But, I am reminded of an old conversation I once had, in which I was asked simply, “why must every act have a point or a purpose in the grand scheme of things?” I remember, I’d never thought of it that way before, and soon came across Nietzsche’s warning against this same tendency in understanding human affairs, “mistrust all systematizes and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity”.

It does make sense, when one thinks about it. In all honesty, who has not had such frivolous moments? Who has not spontaneously poked at fire, seeking the thrill of watching its sparks fly? Life would be a bore without these bursts of valor, as silly as they may appear at first. As Heraclitus, one of the first Ancient Greek philosophers to favor rebellious thought, said, “Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play”. And so, in her playful seriousness, Loujain was asserting her Self. And socially, even the smallest of such authentic assertions can be considered personal revolutions.

Now, what do I mean by “personal revolutions”? I mean an assertion of Self through choice of action, irrespective of its alignment with society. In other words, I do not applaud Loujain’s act because she was uncovered in a video, there is nothing intrinsically better about forgoing hijab nor is there anything intrinsically worthy in defying society simply for the sake of defying society. Rather, I support her “personal revolution” in making a choice for herself, whatever it may be, and then displaying this choice before others. And since appearing authentically before others, such as individuals and more broadly society itself, is especially difficult, as all that is typically encouraged is timid obedience and homogeneity; that is why I deem any Self-made decision a sort of personal revolt.

The Range of Reactions to Loujain al-Hathloul's Videos

In the case of Loujain al-Hathlou’s “personal revolution”, reactions have ranged from harmless spoof videos, to the emergence of groupies and admirers of her looks, while many others pass judgment on her, either directly calling her a whore or at least insinuating it, and a few others hold her responsible for smearing the image of Saudi women who study abroad.

And before the Orientalists get overly excited to cite her story as a case of “conservatives of society versus Saudi women”, I will point to two prominent, yet drastically different reactions of conservatives. The first being a Saudi conservative who expressed his concern for Saudi women abroad, and asked for a “print” on her, which I can only translate to be a sort of societal background-check on Loujain and her family. He then offered that his brother in Canada would marry her, most likely in order to “fix” her supposedly immoral ways. This conservative was hashtagged, and later deleted his Twitter account. Many felt he had gone too far and some began arguing that it was no one’s business what she does or does not do. The second, on the other hand, was a well-known conservative named Shaik Twfeg al-Sayg who came to her defense in stating, “a woman is not a whore for simply being openly uncovered and beautified. It may be morally wrong, but this does not legitimize speaking ill of her reputation”.

The harshest reaction, however, was a widely circulated response video in which a Saudi man reiterated the most common issue any Saudi woman will face in both the social and political realm: her reputation. He tells Loujain, “do you know that you just lost your future?”, meaning, in posting her videos while uncovered, she just lost social respect, any prospect of marriage, and a “good life”. He went on to refer to her self-worth vis-à-vis her dowry price: “Did you know that with your niqab, you were worth 120,000 riyals. Now, you are worth 1400 or 1300 riyals--no more than an internet modem, 3 sticks of gum, and half a water bottle”.

Another video response was then posted by a man (it is unclear whether he is Saudi or Kuwaiti),  in which he shows himself throwing stacks of money onto his car dashboard, claiming that he is ready to pay 1.4 Million riyals as dowry to marry Loujain. I was perplexed by this last reaction, was it a compliment that he was willing to pay such a high amount to marry her? Frankly, even if he meant well, the imagery of his throwing so much money onto a car dashboard was just too similar to throwing money at a pole for me to find it as anything but derogatory.

The Need to Revolt Against Restrictive Social Reputation & Materialized Self-Worth

The prevalent theme in negative reactions to Loujain al-Hathlol was those that labeled her irreligious and morally corrupt. The subsequent focus on her dowry emphasized how, as a tactic against Difference, a woman’s worth and reputation is monetized, reduced to the material. I found it appalling, and I think this illustrates how important it is that we ought not take our political goals so seriously that we do not allow space for social revolts to take place against, in this case, material visualizations of women and their worth. I do not mean to say that every political feminist must partake in these “personal revolutions” in the social realm, but they ought to at least refrain from tearing down those women who choose to.

From my own observation and experience as a Saudi woman, each is born with a theoretical price tag, i.e. social reputation, and an actual price tag, i.e. her dowry amount. The higher the price, the more prestige and self-worth she can claim for herself socially as a woman. The price is initially dictated by arbitrary factors: what economic class she is born into, the standing of her family name, and the degree of her natural beauty, to name a few. These factors will in themselves allocate an initial range for her price tag. The price will then go up or down based on how she conducts herself in public and whether she decides to maintain and/or improve her appearance. For this reason, public appearances can sometimes take on a whole other, inauthentic dimension: that of selling herself.

And I understand the rationalization of some who view the dowry in more rosy terms, as simply a symbolic gift from a new husband, or a practical method to give a new wife initial financial independence. I personally intend to accept no dowry, as I simply do not find these rationalizations persuasive enough, nor do I wish to contribute to the larger modern trend of materialization of human interactions.

Needless to say, growing up with this both imaginary and real price tag on you that fluctuates based on how appear to others can be quite daunting. Almost as daunting as the prospects of being pitied for the rest of your life if no one accepts your price, and you end up a spinster. And so, it takes real bravery to live against these ideals and upset society’s norms. It is not an imagined feat; it takes courage to be accomplished.

"Personal Revolutions" As Self-Ownership & Rejection of Social Hypocrisy

Like most social issues in Saudi, this is not so much a moral vs. immoral debate as it is a debate between the authentic vs. the hypocritical. In my opinion, it was not Loujain’s decision to post the video that was of any significance, since she could not have known that it would go viral. Instead, it was that she did not disappear afterwards and kept posting videos, despite the reactions received. This authentic ownership of self and acts is noteworthy.

In the subsequent videos she posted after the viral one, she proceeded to confuse stereotypes about what a Muslim Saudi woman ought to do, as she recited Quran while she was uncovered and emphasized that although she didn't cover, she respected women who did. She even tweeted about her father’s approval of her actions; further confusing some who thought her family would “handle her” had they known she was posting videos online. And while there may have been a hint of eurocentrism in a few of her videos in which she flaunts her knowledge of the French language and in her drawing comparison to the arts in “uplifted” European societies, she balanced this by her being the head of her university’s Arab Students Association, as she spoke in a few of her videos on future projects planned with its Department of Middle Eastern Studies. This is at least less self-hating than what so-called Saudi liberals who tend to utilize righteous, Orientalist rhetoric when asserting their Selves.

The negative reactions to Loujain's videos did not result from Saudi society being uniquely conservative, as some might mistakenly understand. Anyone familiar with it will know of the far from conservative acts that occur away from the public eye. Rather, it functions as any other society: it creates norms, and seeks to hold all of its members to the unified standard of behavior these norms perpetuate.

Perhaps what makes Saudi society feel different to Saudis is that these norms are not often challenged openly, as it is simply easier to be done quietly, resulting in what most Saudis know as social hypocrisy. This also explains the recent rumors that Loujain al-Hathloul is of Indian descent, since, as some in Saudi society like to pretend, nothing different from the standard behavior could ever be committed by the “actual” Saudis, and so the only solution to those troublesome Saudis who are openly different is to simply deny that they are Saudi at all.

Identity exclusion via intimidation and shame are common societal tactics to force conformity. And yes, you may argue that one could avoid it by simply conforming, and thus, if you chose to act differently, it is “your own fault” in a sense. But, while it is true that one should reasonably expect negative reactions from some judgmental types, it does not make it feel anymore fair, or any less hurtful. I sympathize with what Loujain al-Hathloul is experiencing, as her followers shot up from around 11,000 to over 41,000 within a week, reading all that is being said of her on Twitter, and even hearing her and her family discussed briefly on a Rotana radio station.

I’ve recently spoken with other Saudi women who use their names and pictures as avatars in Twitter. Those who write under their full name typically chose to cover, due to either genuine religious choice or social pressure. They explained that same sorts of moral judgments Loujain has received are passed on them for not covering their face. But they continue to do so, as their own sort of "personal revolution".

I, too, have occasionally been criticized. I recall the moment a few of my “friends” realized I did so on Twitter, by their reaction, you’d think they’d just seen me in an x-rated movie! Or the time a few relatives discovered I spoke on politics, oh the shock I caused. But it was only once when I found myself in an only mildly similar situation to that of Loujain. Seemingly out of the blue, I was in a conversation with a woman who told me that a respectable Saudi family would never allow their son to marry me because I was active on Twitter and used my own picture as an avatar. It was only once that this happened, but it stuck with me. It hurt to hear I was apparently not the "right kind of girl" and supposedly failed to meet some virtuous criteria, and as a result found myself wearing a Scarlet Letter.

The Political Relevance of 'Personal Revolutions'

Sometimes, maneuvering the social realm can be just as much a challenge as the political realm. And on a personal level, I realize that social revolts can take just as much bravery that ought to be appreciated, not taunted.

Every Saudi woman ought to be able to define her womanhood and its relation to morality and religion as she sees fit. And she must practice doing this for herself while learning to disregard the little voice implanted in her head by others that repeats, “you will ‘lose your future’ if you choose to do this or that, rather than obey what we dictate to you”.

And as she does this, political feminists ought not make it their aim to decry these acts that may appear in the social realm by overriding them as “untimely”, “inappropriate”, or, “bad for the cause”. For if political feminists begin to demand that every woman who makes a public appearance be on her “best behavior” at all times, than, frankly, they have simply assumed the role of patriarchy over a fellow female. A woman's ability to appear before others ought not hinge on what they judge of her character.

Feminism is about the right to choice: that each woman determine the meaning of her own Womanhood, regardless of what social constructions may inform her of her own identity. And political feminists ought to welcome this choice when it manifests itself socially, rather than seek to impose their own set of norms on how a woman “ought” to act publicly to advance the political feminist goals. It is important that in our focus on battling it out in the political realm, that we not belittle these skirmishes that take place in the social realm. To each woman her own revolution.

“I am proud to be a woman. I am proud of my identity. This is my face, and this is my name, and these are all of my actions. They appear before you all, hypocrisy is foreign to me. But I was born in a society that only knows superficial virtue.”
--Loujain al-Hathloul



  1. And what price would you say was the price of the unfortunate deformed perhaps even Downs syndrome Saudi woman?
    The poor one that no one wants and sees no beauty in?
    How sad to read this kind of thing. How very sad that a woman accepts a price on her beauty! How totally unislamic. How deviant and low and shallow can a person get. Coquetry is not a desirable thing in Allahs eyes. How very sad and shallow Saudi men and women have become.

  2. Thank you Nora- thank you for your perspective which you have related beautifully! I am so very heartened and glad that women in the Arab world are speaking out. I am also glad I get to hear your voices as you grow stronger and stronger!

  3. "Coquetry" de qui ? homme ou femme ?
    la coquetterie est "unislamic" si l'homme ou la femme se regarde lui même à travers les autres. ce qui est non désirable aux yeux de Dieu est l'intolérance et la perte de liberté des femmes et des hommes enfermés dans un dogme qu'il soit islamique, catholique ou bouddhiste.
    la femme est un être de Dieu comme l'homme et doit être respecté!
    je suis femme et fière d'être libre de ce que je suis et je n'aurai de compte à rendre qu'à Dieu quand ce sera mon tour!

  4. Intelligent writing providing commentary and insight on a culture other than my own. Thank you.