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mona eltahawy
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A columnist for Asharq Al Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper, Mona Eltahawy was born in Egypt and has lived in Saudi Arabia. Here, she discusses the film's continuing relevancy, portraying as it does the constricted lives of Saudi women "who live in an ultra-orthodox, extremely conservative environment that for all intents and purposes considers her half a human being." As to why so little progress has been made, she explains how women's liberation is one of the most threatening aspects of Westernization and modernization for Saudis: "It's this paradox. The more open and modernized you become, the tighter you must hold on to women, in particular, and children, to show what a good Saudi you are or what a good Muslim you are, because here again, you have Islam equated with tradition and culture." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 16, 2005.

Some of the things that happen in Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to conceive of how the world can stay silent, considering it's the year 2005.

You were in London at the time that the program first aired. Tell me your memory of the program and the controversy around it.

Well, I was quite young. I was about 13 years old. I lived in London with my parents and my brother. I remember when we saw the film it was quite shocking, because we hadn't heard of this incident. We were shocked that the princess and [her] lover were executed publicly. This wasn't something that we were used to, because in Egypt, where we're from, we don't have public executions, and we're Muslim.

So this was another side of Islamic practice that we weren't used to. And I remember vaguely at the time that there were political problems that evolved after the program between Britain and Saudi Arabia. And as I grew older I understood them more, because we moved to Saudi Arabia about two years after we saw the program. I eventually became a journalist, and following the news, particularly relations between the Saudis and the West, I began to understand exactly what kind of effect the film had on Saudi-British relations. ...

As an Arab woman, did the film itself ring true?

Looking back now, I can compare what I saw in the film with what I saw in Saudi Arabia and what I know of the country now from my research as a journalist and commentator. And it rang true in the sense that Saudi Arabia is a very secretive country. Even living there as an Arab Muslim woman, I had very little access to Saudis, because expats and Saudis are usually kept quite far apart.

But I had developed relationships with Saudis since I left the country. And one of the best things I liked about the film was the way it distinguished between the Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia and Islam in general, because I'm a Muslim. And in watching the film again, the producer went out of his way, and the people he interviewed went out of their way to say, "Look, there's an Islam that some of us practice, and there's an Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia," or, perhaps more accurately, the culture and tradition that in Saudi Arabia often finds basis in the Saudi interpretation of Islam.

This definitely rings true, because the Wahhabi school of thought that is followed in Saudi Arabia permeates throughout the film, permeates through my research and what Saudis tell me about the kind of life they lead, particularly the kind of lives women lead and the kind of restrictions on their lives that we see in Saudi Arabia to this day. ...

How is this specific story, the story of the princess, relevant to the status of the Arab woman circa 1980, when the film was aired?

I would distinguish this woman from the average Arab woman in that she was a member of the royal family, so she had advantages and disadvantages that many Arab women wouldn't have. I would also be very careful to generalize her case, because the way Saudi women lead their lives is very different than the way other Arab women lead their lives. ...

Her case, her plight, is indicative of the social pressures on Arab women in general in that, yes, they are expected to be very chaste and modest and to lead lives that are much more circumscribed than their male counterparts'. But I think at the time, that if you were to examine the way women, say, in Egypt or Morocco were leading their lives, then there would be some similarities, but a great number of differences as well.

I don't think the Saudi women are very indicative of the Arab women's plight. If anything, I would point to them and say that they're the ones who, through many of us who are writing, [we are] holding them up as examples of the way an extreme interpretation of Islam hinders their lives.

Basically what the Saudi government did afterwards is say that the film is humiliating our religion, the Islam tradition. What do you think the purpose of that was, and what do you think the truth behind it was?

I think the purpose is what the Saudis usually do, which is basically equate Islam with them and them with Islam, because Islam was born in the country that is now Saudi Arabia. There was no Saudi Arabia at the time, but Mecca and Medina are now, for all intents and purposes, within the borders of Saudi Arabia.

In the same way [that] Saudi Arabia gains its cachet on the international stage through oil, it gains its tremendous amount of clout on the Muslim stage through the fact that it has Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites for Muslims, within its borders. So in order to kind of gather the Muslim world around it and kind of call them up to its defense, it will naturally say, "You have insulted Islam."

But the film goes to great lengths to show that the Islam that the Saudis practice is not the Islam that the world's 1 billion Muslims practice. So there is a difference. So it is to their advantage to say, "You've embarrassed Islam," because of this very, very tight identification between [the] two, Saudi Arabia and Islam. ...

How much of the anger that the Saudis felt toward the film do you think was due to the exposure of the secrets of the royal family?

I would imagine that that was a large part of the anger, because they do lead quite secretive lives. We don't even have an accurate number of exactly how many members of the royal family there are. You hear 7,000; you hear 12,000. We don't even know how many there are. So I think they like to keep their secrets very well hidden and under wraps, and this was one of the few instances where somebody actually dared to take a camera into the palace.

One of the scenes that I would imagine caused them huge embarrassment also was of the princess who agreed at the end to recount her side of the story. So the producers of the film were getting the story from an insider, not just someone who [was] guessing about what happened, but someone who said: "I know what happened. I'm a member of the Saudi royal family. I'm a princess, so I can tell you exactly what goes on that the male members of the family won't tell you."

So the fact that it was docu-drama, though, how did that play into their argument?

Well, I'm sure they said, "This is exaggerated; this is typical of the West to do this and to do that." But it's a funny thing. Particularly since 9/11, you'll find that criticisms of the Muslim world kind of come in two [varieties]. You'll find the very Islamaphobic kind, which are, "Muslims are crazy, and they're raving lunatics, and they do anything, and no wonder they flew planes into buildings," which the majority of Muslims were horrified by.

But you will also find that many people will criticize only to a certain extent, and then they will just kind of pull back and say, "Well, it's their culture, and we can't touch it." And this kind of cultural relativism just feeds into the kind of human rights violations, particularly when it comes to women. But countries like Saudi Arabia now get away with [this] in the name of tradition, in the name of culture, in the name of religion, whatever their interpretation of their religion is.

I have no trouble at all feeling the Saudi royal family's pain. They are saying, "How dare you insult our culture and tradition," where many of us, the rest of us in the Muslim world are saying, "Show me where it says in my religion that you can take a woman in a public square and shoot her in the head."

The reluctance of the United States government, for instance, to be involved in pushing for human rights, and especially women's rights, in Saudi Arabia is related in some way to their political motivations[?]

For the U.S. administration, the Saudi Arabians play a tremendous role in the region. Not only are they sitting on the world's largest oil reserves, and in that sense can determine basically what the price of oil is because they are so influential in OPEC, but they also have managed in the way that many other Arab regimes have managed to do, [to] persuade successive administrations that "If we go, there is no guaranteeing who will take over. You are going to get extreme fanatic Muslims who will take over, and you'll be even worse. So we are better, the devil that you know." That is the reason I would imagine that many U.S. administrations have tolerated violations of human rights, particularly women's rights, in Saudi Arabia.

And what does this do for women? What role or what position are women in because of this, the world dynamics?

Well, women are caught between a rock and a hard place. There are dozens of groups in Saudi Arabia working to improve the plight of Saudi women. I'm personally involved with a recently formed listserv called Saudi Women's Rights Group that sends out messages and stories and tells people about conferences and that eventually wants to become more involved in bettering Saudi women's rights.

Now the dilemma for Saudi women is that they are lumped together in their country as this important ally for the U.S. government and Western governments in general, but the way that their own government treats them is completely ignored by the West. Some of the things that happen in Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to conceive of how the world can stay silent, considering it's the year 2005. It's beyond imagination that people do not speak out more.

So how today is this film still relevant?

I think it is very relevant, because it explores in a way that many people have no understanding [of] just what Saudi women face in their daily life. And this is a princess who doesn't even have to struggle with things like poverty -- and there are poor Saudis -- doesn't have to struggle with kind of day-to-day issues that the average Saudi has to struggle with, but has to struggle with the fact that she's a woman who lives in an ultra-orthodox, extremely conservative environment that for all intents and purposes considers her half a human being.

In Saudi Arabia, women -- not just the usual things that we hear of -- have to cover and cannot drive, but a woman cannot go to a hospital unless she gets the signature, the written approval of her male relative. She cannot leave the country unless her male relative approves her departure. She cannot file for divorce. If she files for divorce, she might have to give up custody of her children.

Just last year in Saudi Arabia, a gruesome case of domestic violence came to light when a famous Saudi female presenter very courageously went public with the brutal beating at the hands of her husband. And she allowed cameras to go to the hospital and film her bruised face. He left her for dead. She is lucky to be alive. And she said, on public television and to Saudi newspapers, that "I'm showing my face so that women understand that domestic violence is something you must speak out against." She sparked a huge debate about just how safe Saudi women will be if they do speak out against domestic violence.

This case was in the newspapers, in the television. And my Saudi friends were debating it for months on end. This was one of the few instances when a Saudi woman was brave enough to step forward and say, "This is how we're treated."

So therefore what has changed? This program aired 25 years ago. From what you know, how have things changed?

I think one of the biggest ways that life has changed for Saudi women is they are now more educated. According to recent statistics, 55 percent of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, but at the same time, only 5 percent of the workforce is female. So while things continue to change and evolve in some areas of life for Saudi women, many have stayed the same.

I know from communications with Saudi friends and Saudi journalists that I know that they're increasingly ambitious, and they do speak out against their government. And one instance maybe, a positive thing that I can point to, last year as part of what is called the National Dialogue that Crown Prince Abdullah launched, after the Saudis finally acknowledged that militancy, Islamic militancy, is a homegrown problem and not something that has been brought in from outside, [the] crown prince launched something called the National Dialogue so he could bring together people in Saudi Arabia, intellectuals -- including women, members of the Shi'ite minority, liberals, reformers -- to discuss issues that were important to the country and basically to question, "How can we fight this militant trend?"

And the third National Dialogue that they held was on women. Now, this was the first time ever that, on a public level, Saudis were discussing women's issues in their country. And at the end of the two or three days of meetings, the women came up with a list of demands that they have forwarded on to Crown Prince Abdullah.

But again, in another instance of the more things change the more they stay the same, although this was a groundbreaking meeting in which Saudis for the first time ever discussed women's issues, an ultraconservative member of the National Dialogue team got up and chastised women who had been educated abroad and said that they were bringing to Saudi Arabia Western ideas that they wanted to infect the minds of Saudi children with.

Now, this doesn't help the debate on women's issues, and this just kind of falls into old ideas that any discussion that has to do with women's rights has to be Western, has to be evil and is not Islamic. ...

So compare the role of women in Saudi Arabia to other Arab nations. What are the differences? What are the things that are the same?

Well, the differences are vast depending on the country you go to, because there are huge differences between many Arab countries. And I think one of the prevailing stereotypes is that most Arab women lead lives that are very similar to Saudi women, and that isn't the case.

If you go to Egypt, if you go to Morocco, if you go to Syria, women drive. Women can leave the house by themselves. They can travel alone. In some countries they can initiate divorce and marry on their own without a guardian. It really depends on the Arab country that you are talking about.

But there are some restrictions that Saudi women face that are common to many other Arab countries, and they include things like so-called honor killings, which are not just specific to Muslims in Arab countries, but Christians in Arab countries, too. This is a problem that has been well documented in Jordan, in Egypt and other countries in the region.

Looking back at the film as an Arab woman yourself, does it still ring true?

It rings true in the sense that I read a story just a few weeks ago about a father who has recently returned to Kuwait from, I think he was studying in a university in Saudi Arabia. [He had] heard a rumor that his 14-year-old daughter was no longer a virgin and slit her throat without even asking, and tests afterwards proved that she was still a virgin. So in [the] sense that honor killings are a huge problem in the Arab world, it does ring true.

It is said that the Saudis found the film insulting in a way a Westerner would probably never be able to understand. Explain that.

I have a hard time understanding it myself to say that only we can understand why this is embarrassing, because when a government uses that kind of excuse to chastise criticism, it just feeds into the continuing oppression of women, because it uses all these arguments about tradition and customs and "You don't understand our culture." But what kind of culture allows you to drag a woman into the street and shoot her in the head? That is not a culture that I'm going to respect.

And the same applies to, for example, something that as an Egyptian I have written and spoken about countless times, female genital mutilation, which is a problem in Egypt. Many people in Egypt who defend this terrible practice will say that, "But this is our culture." It's practiced by Muslims and Christians, but as an Egyptian woman, I reject any argument that this is our culture, and we have to keep quiet, and that it is embarrassing to speak about it.

What kind of culture allows for the mutilation of the genitals of a little girl? This is not an argument that in the year 2005 we can honestly and intellectually respect. We can sit down with the Saudis or any other government that wants to use these arguments and say, "You cannot abuse women in the name of culture and tradition, and we refuse to practice cultural relativism." ...

What's the most important thing a Westerner can learn about Saudi Arabia from viewing the film at this date, which is 25 years after it first aired?

I think there are several lessons that we can learn from watching this film 25 years later after it was originally broadcast. The main one would be that there was a difference between the kind of Islam or the Islamic thought that is practiced in Saudi Arabia and the kind of Islam or the kinds -- because there are many -- of Islam that are followed throughout the Muslim world.

Another would be that you have Saudi women who courageously speak out against the system regardless of the confines and obstacles that they face daily, and those women continue to courageously speak out. You have the driving demonstration that took place shortly after the first Gulf War in which I think around 40 Saudi women just decided to get into their cars in Riyadh, the capital, and drive, just to make a statement about how ludicrous it was that they couldn't drive.

Granted, those women were arrested. Their names and addresses were published in the newspapers, and they faced an onslaught of criticism. But they took a stand, and it's important for Western viewers in particular to understand that Saudi women continue to take a stand today. And they're not asking for an invasion of Saudi Arabia; they're not asking for Western intervention. They're asking for us to pay attention to the kinds of violations that they're fighting against, and they're asking for our support. So seeing this film is one way to acknowledge these violations that they have courageously been speaking out against. ...

They have very little say in the justice system. They were only allowed to have their own identification papers just two or three years ago. The very first kind of nationwide municipal elections which took place at the beginning of 2005 were for men only.

And I do acknowledge that the Saudis have been talking about reform and are trying to get some kind of reform going in their country, because they understand the importance of reform in this kind of growing Islamic militancy. But even in this first instance of baby steps towards elections and democracy, women were barred. And it makes no sense to me as an Arab Muslim woman. Why in the year 2005 do you only allow half of your population to take part in that reform and then present it to the world as "Look, we're reforming; we do believe in democracy"?

One of the other groups involved after the film aired that came out and complained about the film was Mobil Oil, which had some pressure to bring on PBS because they are a big donor. How surprising was it that Mobil Oil or the oil industry would have become players in the controversy that surround this film when it first aired?

It's not surprising at all that Mobil Oil would have complained, because they understood what they stood to lose if the Saudis had suddenly turned against the West and said something close to, say, what happened in 1973 with the oil embargo. The world at large, particularly the oil companies, understand very well what the Saudis represent and how important Saudis are.

The fact that Saudi Arabia sits on the world's largest oil reserves is basically the green light for them and gives them a pass, almost without question, to do anything they want. And if you've got oil companies defending them, then it's no surprise that you have governments also understanding the political importance as well as the financial importance of Saudi Arabia who will also defend them, or at least turn a blind eye to the kind of human rights violations that both Saudis and non-Saudis for decades have been asking the world to pay attention to.

Modernization at that point was viewed as a real threat. Just explain specifically why at the time of the event, of the executions, modernization was seen as such a threat. And does it therefore define how the Saudis reacted to the film?

Modernization in the external sense came very quickly for Saudi Arabia, because shortly after the discovery of oil, the country was awash in money. So you had highways; you had fancy buildings; you had telephones; you had huge American cars. You had all the trappings of a modern country, but you had a populace that many Saudi officials liked to say went from zero to 60 very quickly in terms of the kind of cultural and societal developments that modernization brings.

And in this sense, I think Saudi Arabia is also very similar to other Muslim countries in that -- [in] my country, for example, Egypt, the justice system in Egypt runs according to Napoleonic law. It is basically a secular justice system with the exception of family law, in which cases of divorce, inheritance and anything to do with women and children takes place in family court. And that is left to Islamic law, shari'a, and in Egypt, in the case of Christians, according to the Christian law.

Saudi Arabia is like that in the sense that it looks like a modern society. It has all these kind of trappings and bloomings of modernization, but when it comes to women, when it comes to the family, this is the one area where it will point to and say, "Look, we might be awash in money; we might have satellite dishes; we might have the Internet. But we still keep our families closely, and our women are chaste and virginal, and they have not gone the Western way," because anything Western in those debates about modernization and tradition is considered bad, is considered evil and, in the case of women, considered loose. You had an ultraconservative man get up at the National Dialogue on Women, which was unprecedented in Saudi history, and accuse Saudi women who had been educated abroad and who returned to their country to educate future generations of infecting the minds of young Saudis with Western ideas, as if Western ideas were some kind of disease.

So when it comes to modernization, it's OK to take the trappings of the West -- the highways, the telephone systems, mobile phones and the Internet -- but it's not OK to take "modern" or "Western" ways of life or living for women. So it's this paradox. The more open and modernized you become, the tighter you must hold on to women, in particular, and children to show what a good Saudi you are or what a good Muslim you are, because here again, you have Islam equated with tradition and with culture. And unfortunately, it's women who often pay.

So the fear of modernization that existed 25 years ago that this film symbolizes is still alive today.

Oh, absolutely. And in this sense, this is something that all Arab Muslim countries have, this dilemma between modernization and traditionalism and where does that particular Muslim country want to stand. ...

The cruising-in-the-desert scene was extremely flammable. What was at stake, and why was the sexuality of the princesses so key to that?

It's a whole honor thing. In many parts of the Arab world, there are very traditional notions of honor that basically say that a family's honor is completely dependent on a woman's sexuality. Female sexuality and how a woman decides to practice sex can shatter a family's honor.

These are notions that you will find in many traditional societies. And in Saudi Arabia in particular, where it came to this princess, you'll see as the film evolves that it started off with, first there was a trial. And yes, she went before a judge, and all these excuses were given. But when push came to shove, and the narrator of the story kind of kept trying to get at exactly what happened, it became obvious that the grandfather, the patriarch of the family, felt that the honor was completely shattered. The family's honor was shattered by this princess's active sex life.

Now, this is basically what it's all about, that a woman and the way she expresses her sexuality can bring down the entire family's honor. This is what is at stake, their honor, not just within their circle but also in the country, because in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family has presented itself as the keepers of the Muslim sites in Saudi Arabia. You have Islam's two holy sites in what is now Saudi Arabia. Several years after the film was broadcast, King Fahd took on the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Although he took on this title after the film was broadcast, this is the way the Saudi royal family has always considered itself, the guardians of the Muslim holy sites. So if they see that their honor has been violated by this princess, and quietly they could have turned a blind eye, but this honor now and the way it was violated was [public].

She tried to escape, and she was caught trying to escape with her lover, so it could have become public knowledge. So not only does it put into question the allegiance that the Saudi royal family pays to the way it practices Islam, but it also allows Saudis, ordinary Saudis, to question: "Just exactly how religious are you? Just what kind of Muslims are you? Are you good Muslims?" And it is that kind of good Muslim that has allowed the Saudi royal family to gain legitimacy from the Wahhabi clerics that run the religious and educational sectors in the country. In return for that legitimacy, they allow them to set the curriculum, to set the kind of religious studies that Saudis learn.

If that ultra-orthodox clergy feels that the Saudi royal family have not been good Muslims, then that tips the balance there. That tips the scale. They might not get that kind of legitimacy that they use politically and religiously. And it's not just used within Saudi Arabia; it is also used on the larger Islamic stage.

So whether her death was correct according to Muslim law or not -- and honor killings are not a Muslim or Christian thing; they are a customary thing that is practiced in traditional societies -- the Saudis, I would imagine, particularly the grandfather, thought they had to sacrifice this woman to show: "Look, we've closed whatever shame has been kind of imposed on our honor. We are good Muslims."

And they were counting on the silence of the majority of the Muslim world, I would say, that would not go head to head with the Saudis and say, "This is not the way Islam teaches us to deal with these things, that women's sex lives are not what our honor depends upon, and what you're doing is not Islamic."

Many Muslims, quite frankly, are scared to confront the Saudi royal family. So this touches upon not just kind of ordinary notions of honor, but it touches upon how powerful the Saudi royal family perceives itself as being and the kind of religious and political legitimacy that allows it to continue to stay in power in Saudi Arabia.

So is it potentially the reason why the Saudi government reacted so strongly to [the film], to some extent? The key point of it is, in fact, that no trial took place.

Because what that did was, it exposed the sham of their excuses or any kind of reason they gave for the execution of the princess and her lover. And if at first they used the excuse of "Well, this was according to an Islamic court; therefore you cannot argue with it," they were trying to give this the veneer of Islam. They were trying to give this the veneer of "Look, we follow the shari'a -- or Islamic law -- and we've done everything right," which is why I think it is really important that the film made the distinction between the kind of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and the kind of Islam practiced elsewhere. So when it became apparent that this had not gone through an Islamic court, that this was a [familial] thing, a [familial] problem, a problem within the Saudi royal family that was conducted on such a public stage, then it was doubly embarrassing for the Saudi royal family.

Not only did it come to light that a member of their family was a, trying to escape, b, with her lover, c, we don't know what's going on with her husband, if she was still married or not, but we also got to learn things about the sex lives of the Saudi royal family that the Saudis never would want you to hear. So they were embarrassed on many, many levels.

But again, even though it came to light that she was never taken to court or never faced whatever they call Islamic justice, I honestly don't think that they worried about the Muslim world's speaking out, because to this day I know Muslims will say: "No, no, no, we cannot criticize the Saudis. They may not give a visa to go on pilgrimage."

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posted april 19, 2005

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