- A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia by Madawi Al-Rasheed
A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia examines the Saudi “woman question” through analysis of different categories of Saudi women and their varied modes of expression: education, consumption, literature, demonstrations, and religious interpretation (and reinterpretation). The book provides an overview of both the challenges and opportunities Saudi women have experienced since 9/11 and highlights the complex interplays between gender, religion, tradition, and the state.
Al-Rasheed delivers some insightful analyses, insisting that Saudi women be viewed not only through the standard lens of “religion” (which she shatters as a monolithic category), but also through their interactions with contemporary capitalism, the state as both patron and patriarch, and social media. She acknowledges the critical role of the state in promoting reforms related to women, while noting that the state has a vested interest in doing so as the “woman question” has plagued the Saudi state in much the same manner as the 9/11 hijackers in terms of international opinion. The state is presented as women’s champion, serving as a buffer against individual male control over education, employment opportunities, and personal status. Yet, Al-Rasheed also cautions against a myopic, benevolent view of the state, given that it serves essentially as a substitute patriarch for the family patriarch, so that women still remain dependent upon a masculine provider and protector, however feminized it may be becoming.
Al-Rasheed draws upon a variety of sources, ranging from contemporary novels to newspaper articles, social media postings, websites, and reports from NGOs and governments. At times, the analysis is brilliant and creative, such as her discussion of the impact of consumerism on changing images of Saudi women, both by themselves and others. At others, many details and summaries of events or writings are provided, yet analysis of what they mean is limited to critique of the worldview as overly theoretical and idealized, rather than addressing the contribution to the conversation. For example, in pp. 263–70, she provides an outline of selected writings of Jawahir Al Shaykh, asserting that she glorifies Islam, the state, and society while blaming failures on individuals with weak personal qualities and psychological defects. Al-Rasheed chastises this approach as failing to challenge the predetermination of gender roles as prescribed by the religious nation, revealing her own agenda, rather than analyzing the importance of the insertion of the female voice into public religious interpretation or how this approach serves to redirect the conversation by using traditional roles, categories, and texts to work for change from within.
In one of her most profound contributions, Al-Rasheed examines Saudi women’s literary production, particularly by “celebrity novelists” who have come to redefine the public image of the Saudi woman as cosmopolitan, elegant, sophisticated, and educated (pp. 212–43). Although she appreciates the deconstruction of the prior depictions of Saudi women through the exclusive lens of religion, she cautions against the assumption that fictional characters are any more “representative” of Saudi women, given that those portrayed are typically of the elite and the behaviors suggested or described would be unlikely to occur outside of fictionalized or virtual space. She warns against the tendency of celebrity women novelists to engage in self-Orientalization by purportedly unmasking and unveiling the secret, hidden bodies and sex lives of Saudi women for public consumption. [End Page 651]
Perhaps symptomatic of her own personal frustration with the ongoing failure of political reform in the Kingdom, Al-Rasheed gives credit to the shorter term vision and objectives of evolutionary reform focusing on substantive issues related to women’s personal and legal status and access to public space, rather than the more superficial Western obsessions with veiling and driving rights, while reserving political reform as the ultimate goal toward which she believes Saudi society should be moving. Here, as in some of her other works, Al-Rasheed occasionally slips from descriptive to prescriptive mode. In the process...