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isobel coleman
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Isobel Coleman is director of a Council on Foreign Relations initiative on women and U.S. foreign policy and focuses on the role of women in economic and political development in the Middle East. In this interview, Coleman discusses the context in which to understand the Saudis' outrage about the film, the differences in how Islam is practiced in Saudi compared to the rest of the Arab world, how women's situation has and hasn't changed in the kingdom and…. This interview was conducted on March 16, 2005.

...the film goes to great lengths to show that the Islam that the Saudis practice is not the Islam that the worlds one billion Muslims practice.

... Tell me about the myth that has grown up around the film.

Well, I think it's a myth in that not that many people have actually seen it firsthand. I think more have read about it and heard about it than have actually seen it, and I'm one of those people. I've heard about it for many years. And when people start talking about different types of situations involving women in some of these very traditional societies -- there's a recent case right now about a woman in Pakistan who was gang-raped for a supposed crime that her brother committed. That was the punishment. It was a tribal ruling that the punishment should be that the sister's gang-raped. When you hear about these things that still go on today, this Saudi princess' story inevitably pops up. And people mention it to other people: "Oh, you know, the Saudi case and the death of the Saudi princess." And yet I'd never seen the film, so I was very curious to actually see what was included in it.

Why do you believe that the Saudi government reacted so intensely to the release of the film?

Well, having just watched the film, it does show some aspects of Saudi life, aspects of the royal family, in a not very positive way, and the Saudis care a lot about their image. I think they had an interest in not having the film shown. It's a very extreme version of some aspects of Saudi society. And I think the Saudis are very closed, and people don't have an opportunity to get inside the kingdom, and this movie shows the inside of the kingdom in a way that they wouldn't want a lot of people to see.

From your knowledge of folks in the Saudi community or experts that deal with Saudi Arabia or Arab affairs, what's the general opinion about the accuracy of the film?

I really haven't talked about the film with Saudi experts. It's more people who have read about it or seen about it who know very little about Saudi Arabia. Their understanding of Saudi Arabia comes from things like this film, which is one of the reasons, no doubt, the Saudis didn't want it shown, because people jump to conclusions and to stereotypes. The film confirms many of the worst stereotypes about Saudi Arabia, and I'm sure that's why the Saudis didn't want it shown.

And from your knowledge, are they the correct view of what takes place in terms of women in Saudi Arabia?

I think that the film was not incorrect for its time. This is 25 years ago. Saudi Arabia has gone through such incredible change in the past 60 years and in the past 25 years. I was just in Saudi Arabia and meeting with some members of the royal family. One young man, my age, has on his wall a photograph of his grandfather, King Abd al-Aziz, riding out of the desert on camels and on horseback. And you realize this is his grandfather, and it is not that long ago that King Abd al-Aziz united the kingdom and created what is today modern Saudi Arabia in "Lawrence of Arabia"-type style that we've read and heard about in these films.

So today the change has been so dramatic, and the change for women has been so dramatic. In one generation, the literacy rate for women has gone from 2 percent to over 90 percent. It's a huge change. It was only in the 1960s that girls started to go to school in Saudi Arabia. And so you're talking about huge social change, huge economic change, which we all know about. And the film captures it at a point in time where it was very traumatic for the country. I think it is still traumatic today.

I think the stereotypes of the women in the film may have been caricatures at the time to some degree, but also perhaps not incorrect. I'm sure that there were women who led incredibly sequestered lives as those women are shown in the movie to have, and quite frivolous lives. But having just returned from Saudi Arabia, I met with women who run businesses, women who are deans of colleges and universities, women lawyers, women doctors, members of the royal family, women who are more like to a dean from Oxford than to be sitting around like the princess in the film, just listening to music and smoking.

How relevant to the status of women in 1980 was this film?

I wasn't in Saudi Arabia in 1980, so it's very hard for me to generalize, but I suspect that in 1980, it was a time of, as I said, of enormous turmoil and change. The Saudi wealth was very recent. It really came during the '70s, Saudi wealth, through the first OPEC embargo [in 1973] and '79 oil crisis. That's when it, during the '70s, when the Saudis accumulated enormous and very instant wealth.

And I think the film captures that tremendous disruption and the social dislocation that was going on [in a] very, very traditional, conservative society. Now, with enormous wealth, the princess -- it's referred to in the movie that she goes off to London for some period of time. Imagine all of these people in Saudi Arabia dealing with these dramatic changes. Imagine what her life must have been like, to go from her very secluded and sequestered existence and then go off and spend time in a city like London in the '70s. So I think that it was -- again, I wasn't there in the '80s, but I imagine that a lot of what's depicted in the film is actually pretty accurate.

The conditions in general for women in Saudi Arabia compared to other Arab nations at the time -- can you make a comparison for us?

In the 1970s, women in Saudi [Arabia], there were a lot of constraints on women. And there still are in Saudi Arabia. Women can't drive, and there are dress restrictions on women, and they just had a vote recently, and women were not allowed to participate, which is not the case for women in almost every other Arab country.

Yes, women in Kuwait still cannot vote, but women everywhere drive except in Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s, the situation -- the movie touches upon this -- in Beirut, [Lebanon], it was a very freewheeling environment; in Cairo, [Egypt], it was a very freewheeling environment; and even in Afghanistan, Kabul -- I spent time in Afghanistan, and today people remember all the women wearing miniskirts in the streets in Kabul in the 1970s.

The '70s were a very freewheeling time around the world. Think about the '70s in the United States. And it wasn't that much different in parts of the Middle East, [but] not in Saudi Arabia.

Explain why. What was going on in Saudi Arabia that made that the case?

Well, the Saudi kingdom is ruled by the Saudi family, which is what we call a Wahhabi country, a Wahhabist state. It has a very strong base in its religion, and it really keeps the shari'a [Islamic law] and the interpretation of the shari'a very strictly still today. And the religious conservatives have an enormous influence in the country, and a particularly enormous influence on the way that women lead their lives still today.

The political reality in Saudi Arabia -- can you talk about this reliance of the royal family on the cooperation of those in power on the religious side?

The royal family's legitimacy in many ways stems from its relationship with the religious leadership in the country. It's this symbiotic relationship that still exists today. I go back to a girl's education as an example of that pact. When King Faisal decided to institute education for girls in the 1960s, he met with tremendous resistance from the religious conservatives. So as a compromise, he said: "OK, girls can go to school; they don't have to go to school. And I'm going to send my own girls to school as an example."

To make his people feel comfortable, he said that the girls' education will not be run by the Ministry of Education. Instead it will be run out by the religious conservatives, by the religious establishment, which helped fathers and mothers feel comfortable that their girls were going to be treated in a religiously appropriate way in schools.

Part of the film talked a lot about this "Arab dilemma" -- dealing with modernity and moving forward at the same time as trying to deal with a tribal background and impulses of a lot of the leadership. Explain to me a little bit the dynamics of that.

One of the things that the film captures quite well is this intersection that has occurred in Saudi Arabia between -- it's almost like a mishmash of religion and tribal custom. And what the film gets at is -- at first, the journalist in the film is led to believe that it was a shari'a court that tried the girl and that it was all done based on shari'a law, and it is only at the end that he has an awareness that, in fact, that wasn't what happened, that she was just murdered based on some tribal practice or tribal custom.

I think that the world tends to conflate Islam and tribal custom. And in fact, in Saudi Arabia, they themselves have conflated aspects of Islam and tribal custom. And Islam is practiced very differently in other parts of the world than it is in Saudi Arabia. What you've got in Saudi Arabia is an overlay of tribal custom, and it's from hundreds of years in the desert, [a] very strict set of tribal rules and regulations, particularly with regard to women, that you don't see in other Islamic-majority countries.

How much of a sensitivity do you believe the Saudis would have felt on that one point, on the fact that there was no trial? Can you sort of evaluate for us how that point that is made very specifically in the film would have added to their anger over the film?

The Saudis are the keeper of the Holy Lands, of Mecca, Medina, and they remind the rest of the Islamic world about that all the time. And therefore I think it's in their interest to show that they behave responsibly as leaders of the Islamic Holy Land. And the film doesn't show that this was simply a clear-cut case of carrying out Islamic law.

In fact, the film concludes that that wasn't what happened at all; that, in fact, it was just a pretty clear case of tribal custom and practice winning out. And I think that undermines the Saudi Islamic legitimacy in some ways.

What was at stake here for the Saudis? What is the bigger picture on that, that would allow one to understand how vociferous they were about their complaints about the film?

Well, there was a lot at stake for the Saudis on many different levels. The film touches upon what is widely perceived as the kind of decadence and corruption of certain members in the royal family. So there is the reputation of the royal family itself at stake. There's also the Saudi reputation internationally. Saudi Arabia, in a very short amount of time, had really entered large on the world stage.

Its oil minister [Sheikh Yamani] was a very high-profile individual and became a household name during the '70s because of the OPEC crises and what was going on. And Saudi money was very influential, particularly in Great Britain at the time. And the Saudis were buying up a lot of property in London. You saw Saudi men and women shopping at Harrods [department store] and all over London. Saudi money was very influential at the time.

And I think there was a sense that they were trying to cultivate a more modern image and a more responsible image. And then this film comes out that doesn't portray the Saudis in the best light.

Give me a [sense] historically what was going on at this point in time that increased the sensitivities of the Saudis, of the British, of the Americans in the Middle East.

The particular context in 1980 was very sensitive. In 1979, you had just had one of the most emotional terrorist events in Saudi Arabia, the takeover of the Grand Mosque. And you also almost simultaneously had the revolution in Iran where religious fundamentalists came to power in Iran. And you had the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. You had a number of events happening at once.

And there was enormous pressure in Saudi Arabia to react to that by becoming even more religious, becoming even more fundamentalist in many ways. And I think that the movie comes out of the time when the Saudis are really grappling with a fast-changing geopolitical environment and a lot of challenges to their own religious legitimacy.

And as far as the British and the Americans, how was this playing out for them, and why, because they were concerned as well about the film. Why? What's the background? What was going on?

At the time, and particularly with Saudi-British relations and Saudi-U.S. relations, you had the oil issue. It was a very important issue. The Saudis were seen as perhaps a moderating influence within OPEC, a way to help. The Saudis have, and still [have] today, the ability to turn on or turn off the oil spigot.

And U.S. and the Brits were very concerned about oil prices at the time and also how the petrodollars from Saudi Arabia were being recycled both into U.S. treasury and into sterling. So where the flow of the petrodollars was, how it was coming back into those countries, was also quite a sensitive issue.

You have a lot of things going on at the time. You have the whole Israel-Palestine question that was very sensitive and tender during the '70s. You have the Iran hostage crisis. And the whole region seemed to be in some ways bursting into flames, and the Saudis were the stable ally. And the U.S. and the British had an interest in maintaining strong relations with the Saudis.

So the intuition would be [to] keep the status quo; don't rock the boat.

Well, at the time, I think the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is also a huge issue that was just going on then, too. And the Saudis were a key partner for the U.S. in the early '80s, right when this movie [came out]. ...

So it's not too surprising that when the hubbub begins about the film, the British government doesn't do anything to stop the broadcast ... [but] is quite apologetic. That doesn't seem so odd when one understands the historic background.

It doesn't seem odd at all. The Saudis were a key ally for the U.S. and for the British. And as I said, the Saudi petrodollars were an important component of both, particularly for the British economy at the time. And geopolitically for the United States, the Saudis were incredibly important, and there was a sense of wanting to maintain good relations.

Now, I understand why the British were sensitive about the whole issue. Had they not aired it, had they pulled it, I think that would have been even more astounding.


Given free speech, how could you do that? My understanding is that it's not as if the Saudis were saying that the film was inaccurate or denying that it had happened. It was more that they just didn't want their dirty linen aired. And the British rightly said, "We don't have control over that; our journalists have made this movie, and therefore it will show." And likewise in the United States, the same thing. ...

Take us back to this Arab dilemma of dealing with the modern world, wanting to be part of the modern world, at the same point [coupled with] its reliance on the cooperation of the Wahhabi sect, the religious sect, the conservative side of this somewhat tribal community.

The Saudi dilemma I think is a little different from the Arab dilemma. The Arab dilemma is how to combine both the modern with the traditional, how to maintain the Arab identity, how to make the transition that has been apparently so difficult in that part of the world from authoritarian regimes to a more democratic, even capitalist system. This is what many of the countries in the region are struggling with today.

And you've seen Arab nationalism, led by [former Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-]Nasser in the '60s and '70s, and even in the '80s, as an antidote to all of this. This is the answer: Arab nationalism. And for a whole variety of reasons, Arab nationalism died. I think you've seen Islamic fundamentalism as another answer to this Arab dilemma. And I think that, too, will probably prove empty and die, because I don't think both Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism can deliver what people really want.

In Saudi Arabia you have another dilemma, which is this Wahhabism, as we call it over here. That poses an extra set of challenges for Saudi Arabia in particular. Aspects of Wahhabism are viewed within the Islamic world as very extreme. And how can you manage that in a more modern environment today? ...

So, with an understanding of what this dilemma is and dealing with the extremism and how it dawned on us more so after 9/11, when one looks at this film now, with the eyes of 2005, what can one draw from it? How does it remain relevant in some ways today? And what does it tell us about affairs in Saudi Arabia that perhaps we have been a bit blind to?

I thought the film was remarkably relevant still in some ways. It was interesting to see how the juxtaposition of Saudi Arabia, say, versus the more freewheeling environment of Beirut is still [relevant] today. The property prices in Beirut have been driven sky high by Saudis who look at Beirut now post-civil war as a local playground in some ways and a nice spot where they can get out of the more restrictive environment of Saudi Arabia and own a seaside villa and enjoy the freer atmosphere in Beirut. So that still exists today.

I was in Saudi Arabia when [Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri was assassinated. All of the conspiracy theories that the Saudis still today are talking about and the role of Israel and the United States -- again, that's apparent in the movie 25 years ago. Some things seem to be so similar today [to what] they were 25 years ago. The rapid building that you see everywhere in the movie going on -- it was in 1980, right after the first surge of petrodollars.

But still, Saudi Arabia is a country under construction in so many different ways, and I think the movie captures the very difficult transition that the country is going through at that particular time.

And I think it is going through another incredibly different and related, very difficult transition again today. When the movie occurred in 1980, it was a time of a lot of flux -- Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, the OPEC moves in the '70s and the instant oil wells. And today you've got Iraq; you've got 9/11; you've got terrorism within the kingdom; you've got an unprecedented level of scrutiny, international scrutiny, on this country. What is going on in Saudi Arabia? It remains quite opaque.

I think one of the interesting things about the movie is the re-creation of this journalist's search for the truth. And you get different versions of truth. And still today, you get different versions of truth about Saudi Arabia, because the country is very conflicted. And you get one version depending on if you speak to one person and a very different version if you speak to somebody else.

[In] the Arab dilemma, the Saudis' dilemma that you've defined so well, where do women lie, how women can deal in the society, the rights of women?

One thing that the movie unfortunately does is perpetuate this myth of Saudi women. And maybe 25 years ago it wasn't so much of a myth. I don't know; I wasn't in Saudi Arabia 25 years ago. But today it is a myth. It's a myth that Arab women are repressed. It's a myth that Arab women are confined to the home.

It's particularly a myth, I think, with the Saudis, because Americans focus on the fact that the Saudi women can't drive; and yes, in the recent election they can't vote; and they're forced to wear the abaya, and the Mutawa [religious police] can even come around and whack the women or haul them off to prison if they are not appropriately dressed. OK, that's all true.

But the fact is that women are really pushing against the constraints on them in Saudi Arabia. Women are very active today in the health field, increasingly active as journalists, as lawyers, certainly as businesspeople. Somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of financial assets are owned and directed by Saudi women. Saudi banks are now catering much more to women because there's a recognition that they control a lot of the financial assets. There are some very, very prominent Saudi businesswomen. One of the largest companies in Saudi Arabia is run by a woman, Lubna Olayan. She was just put on the board of a bank there. She's a very prominent businessperson, forget about being a woman.

And I think there's a myth that unfortunately is perpetuated by the movie, if people see it today and if that's what they take away from Saudi Arabia today, because it's a very different situation today.

Also for the royal family? A lot of the women that were being talked about or the conditions they were living under were members of the royal family.

Especially for the royal family. The royal family consists of, I don't know, I've heard anywhere from between 4,000 and 20,000 members. I can't say that I've met even a tiny fraction of them, but those members of the royal family I have met, they're more likely to have a Ph.D. and to be running something quite impressive, be it an NGO [non-governmental organization], a nonprofit organization, a dean of a college, trying to start their own business. They're doing all sorts of different things. The princess depicted in the film, I certainly haven't met anyone like that.

What is your final take on this royal princess, who is in an arranged marriage, an unsatisfactory arranged marriage, with a husband who is not there, who falls in love with someone? The situation she got herself in, could something like that happen today?

Unfortunately it could. I think that the result wouldn't be the same today. It's hard for me to say. You hear about these cases still today, still in places like Saudi Arabia, certainly in Pakistan, and countries around the world you hear about tragic cases of women who are the victims of honor killings.

And adultery at this point, the view of adultery?

Well, adultery is viewed as a sin in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

But can you still be stoned for it?

Yes, under the rules of shari'a. The movie quite clearly shows that if there are four male witnesses and/or you admit to adultery in Islamic court three times, there are very clear-cut rules. In practice, it's very hard to actually carry out under the rules of Islam, under the rules of shari'a, a sentence like that. But it still happens today in some countries.

In Nigeria we had a recent case of a woman who was [sentenced] to death by stoning. And the sentence was eventually overturned. But as soon as she finished nursing her baby, the stoning sentence was to be carried out. So these things do happen around the world.

It is said that Saudis found the film insulting in a way that a Westerner would probably not be able to understand. Can you explain that?

I'm sure the Saudis found the film insulting because of the way that their lives were depicted and generalized in a negative light. I find that in Saudi Arabia, Saudis have some gross misconceptions of American life. And I find those insulting -- that every American is divorced; we don't care about family; American women are only concerned about careers and sexual freedom. They have a caricature of us, and likewise we have a caricature of them, and those caricatures are portrayed in the movie. And in this one case, they may or may not have been relevant. I don't know the people involved in the film, but I'm sure that they were relevant for some part of the population at that time. But to generalize broadly is insulting. ...

Part of the Saudi complaints was that the film used sensationalism and shock value to attack culture in Islam. Explain why they would have that point of view.

I think it is shocking to think of these very traditional, conservative women driving out in the desert and picking up men. That would be shocking in our society. It is shocking. To have a movie that was going to be seen by millions and millions of people, and to leave them with the impression that all Saudis are like that, I can understand that they can be upset.

Now, on the other hand, the Saudis don't give people a lot of opportunity to visit their country and to get to know what Saudi Arabia is like, really, inside. And so part of the blame is with the Saudis for keeping people out and having one of the touch points be simply this film. The ability for sensational[ism] is partly created by the Saudis by keeping their society so closed. ..

The sexual secrets of the Saudi royal women, how specifically sensitive an issue was this because of the need for the royal family to keep face, to remain in control, to keep their connections and relationship with the religious side?

I suppose that [with] this movie, that they were concerned as much about what the British or American viewer took away as they were about what potentially people in their own country viewing this [film] took away from it. The Saudi royal family has come under enormous criticism internally for not being legitimate, for being corrupt. And certain Saudi rulers are known to live a pretty high lifestyle and a pretty decadent lifestyle by any standard, be it in the casinos in the south of France -- the rumors abound about all sorts of things that would not fly for an American leader and certainly [would] really compromise the position of a Saudi leader who was supposed to be abiding by certain religious principles which, according to the rumors, certain of them are not.

So the danger of these events being portrayed to the public, what was the effect that they were worried about?

I'm sure that they were worried about their reputation both abroad and domestically. I can't imagine too many Saudis have seen this film. They may have seen it. A lot of Saudis were going back and forth at that time, so the Saudis may have seen it in London, and they may have gotten a videotape and watched it. And I'm sure that the [royal family] would have been really upset about that prospect. ...

[Can you describe the] special relationship between the Saudis and the United States?

... They've come to the United States to educate themselves, to educate their children. They own property here. They have financial assets in the U.S. They come to the U.S. for their medical treatment. I heard one story just recently in Saudi Arabia about how people, to get their visas, would send their maid. This is the type of relationship we had. They sent their maid down to the consulate to pick up the visa. It's so different today.

And I'm sure when the film came out that there was a sense, given our special relationship, "How is it that you can't somehow sweep this whole thing under the carpet ...? This is embarrassing for the royal family. The grandfather of the young princess is the brother of the king, so this really means something to us. It's embarrassing for us. We don't want this aired. Can't you do something about it? And why can't you do something about it?"

And I think that today you think of that special relationship. People have made hay about the fact that post-9/11, one of the first planes to take off was a private jet taking the bin Laden family back to Saudi Arabia. Well, that speaks to that special relationship that still exists today.

And so I'm sure that it was very troubling at the time of the film that this dirty laundry was being aired, and on a public television station, PBS, with government support -- that the U.S. government didn't stop it or the British government didn't stop it.

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posted april 19, 2005

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