Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Let’s Talk about Love — Saudi Style

Yesterday’s issue of the New York Times featured a look at romance among the youth of Saudi Arabia. It’s not the first time the Times has addressed this topic. The Western media has an intense fascination when it comes to Saudi Arabia and romance, if Valentine’s Day coverage is any clue.

Yesterday’s coverage includes separate articles for the female and male perspectives, along with a slideshow of “youth in the kingdom” — all of whom are men. Good job making women invisible. Isn’t that supposed to be the Saudis’ job, media? I guess it doesn’t just take an abaya after all. We’ll focus on the article about women, “Love on Girls’ Side of the Saudi Divide.”

The problems start as early as the photo. Accompanying the article is a picture of “Shaden.” Her face covered in black cloth, she sits between her younger sister (whose face and head are bare, as though to contrast with her sister), and her father. Shaden is gesturing with her hands, and her sister looks solemn. Good way to make the father look like a bad guy right off the bat. The caption only identifies Shaden as “veiled at 17.” Interesting wording. First, “veiled” is imprecise. Not all women who “veil” cover all of, or even any of, their faces. (The only photo including a women’s face shows Sara al-Tukhaifi — looking depressed, of course. Unlike the slideshow of laughing men, there are no photos of happy women.)

Second, the photo makes it obvious what Shaden is wearing. What does the caption add by emphasizing her clothing? Well, the passive voice makes it sound like “veiling” was something done to Shaden, and the placement of “at 17” — instead of, say, “Shaden, 17, spoke with her father” — hints at the classic Orientalist tragedy. Veiled at 17, married off at 18 — you know the rest. (I don’t want to deny the reality of this experience, because it does happen. But as far as this article is concerned, it’s not Shaden’s story, so it’s not relevant.)

The Times has a tendency towards Orientalist portrayals of Saudi Arabia. The women interviewed are introduced as

swaying and gyrating, without the slightest self-consciousness, among overstuffed sofas, heavy draperies, tables larded with figurines and ornately-covered tissue boxes… their head-to-toe abayas, balled up and tossed onto chairs, … like black cloth puddles.

Really, do the sofas, drapes, and “ornately-covered” tissue boxes have anything to do with the lives of teenage Saudi girls? I think not. Instead, they help to set the “exotic” scene — women liberated from their “black puddles” become gyrating dancers. Come on; you don’t even need to have heard of Edward Said to call this Orientalism.

You see, in the mysterious desert kingdom — articles rarely forget to emphasize the sand, the wind, the backwards glamour of it all! — women aren’t quite the same as women here in the United States. It’s not that the government limits their rights and society is more conservative. That’s clear, of course. It’s that the women themselves are of a different sort — or so the article implies.

Women are characterized as children. They “falter,” “sway slightly on high heels,” “totter,” and “nod earnestly, dark ringlets bouncing” (Shirley Temple, anyone?). Oh, and the standard female stereotypes, of course: they “giggle,” “shriek” and “burst into tears.” You’d think the possibility of talking to a man drives every single Saudi women to nervous collapse.

This image of women is reminiscent of Jane Austen, and indeed, the article ends on that note: Shaden sighs deeply, and references the Pride and Prejudice film: “When Darcy comes to Elizabeth and says ‘I love you’ — that’s exactly the kind of love I want,” she says.

Nineteenth-century British romance is presented as an impossible ideal, the kind of thing Saudi women can only long for. The NYT tells us that for Saudi women, progress is what we in the United States consider history. It’s an affirmation of the superiority of the English-speaking world. The journalist leaves out the fact that it’s not just Saudi women who sigh over Mr. Darcy. American author Shannon Hale wrote an entire novel about the Mr. Darcy complex in modern-day American women (and she wasn’t the only one to do so). But the message comes across differently when it’s a Saudi women, her restrictions already explained, sighing over a romance from foreign cinema.

The nature of same-sex relationships also undergoes a transformation when Saudi women are involved. Journalist Katherine Zoepf references a “supposed increase in same-sex love affairs among young people frustrated at the strict division between the genders.” As though gender division is a good enough reason to explain all same-sex “love affairs.” But, wait, that’s not the only cause:

Ms. Tukhaifi and Shaden know of girls in their college who have passionate friendships, possibly even love affairs, with other girls but they say that this, like the cross-dressing, is just a “game” born of frustration, something that will inevitably end when the girls in question become engaged.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems a bit off that “frustration” would lead to “passionate” friendships. Eventual engagements may end same-sex relationships, but that doesn’t mean the women were only playacting. Never in the article is there any acknowledge that homosexuality can and does exist even in conservative parts of the world. This does an excellent job enforcing the (false) idea that not only is homosexuality a choice, but it’s specifically a product of Western liberal society. We know that Saudi society does not accept homosexuality. Therefore, Saudi women can’t actually be gay — they’re only straight women playing “games” because they’re bored. It’s unfortunate that Zoepf relies only on hearsay to discuss this topic. The phrase “love affair” further belittles same-sex relationships.

Zoepf does a decent job not presenting Islam as a strict monolith. She notes distinctions between culture and religion and describes Saudi Islam as but one interpretation of Islam. Nevertheless, some ultraconservative interpretations are thrown in as undisputed facts. Zoepf quotes Tukhaifi as saying “Islam forbids a stranger to hear your voice,” and she never explains further. This rule is certainly not a universally held fact of Islam. And it leaves the reader wondering — how does a woman ask for something in a shop? How does she communicate with her teachers? How are these women talking to Zoepf, a journalist? The clarification “male” would have helped, but it still raises questions that are never answered in the story. At another point, music is referenced as haram, but this is not explained either, even though the introduction describes the women dancing to music.

Another issue with the story is the lack of class diversity. The women interviewed appear to be at least upper middle class. They all have leisure time and access to new technology; money does not seem to be a concern. Contrary to stereotypes, this isn’t the situation for all Saudis. It would have been interesting to hear about the lives of lower-class Saudi women, who cannot be as easily “spirited around the city,” and how their pursuit of romance differs from that of wealthier Saudi women.

According to the sidebar with the subhead “Through a Veil, Lightly,” this article is the fourth installment of the series “Generation Faithful,” composed of “articles examining the lives of youth across the Muslim world at a time of religious revival.” While the article addresses the issues institutionalized religion create, it never explores the personal faith of the women interviewed. Close enough, I guess?

One reader commented on the story, “It’s humanizing and relieving to understand that, despite the severity of their oppression, these women still have joy and desires.” Really. Is this what journalism aims for? Showing that Saudi women are still human beings, still have “joys and desires”? Alas. That was obvious, I thought. Do people really think Saudi women are robots under their abayas and face covers? Oh my. We still have a long way to go.

Photo from the New York Times.