- A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia by Madawi Al-Rasheed
In her new book, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia, Madawi Al-Rasheed engages with the post-September 11 context in which the women’s issue in Saudi Arabia has, due to both internal and external pressure, become a global concern. Academically, the work connects with existing literature and debates on religious nationalism and gender studies in general and with Saudi women’s lives and identities in particular. The work is unique in using religious nationalism as a framework for exploring gender in Saudi Arabia.
In the first chapters of her book, Al-Rasheed argues that the inequality of Saudi women to Saudi men is not sufficiently explained by [End Page 131] the role of tradition, culture, and religion, but much more so by the interplay and entanglement of gender with historical, political, and religious forces. In this context, she particularly explores the development of wahabbiyya from a religious revivalist movement into a religious nationalist movement, which she argues played a similar role in Saudi Arabia as did secular Arab nationalism in Egypt. In both the secular nationalist and the religious nationalist projects, she puts forward, women are appropriated as political symbols.
As a work of historical scholarship, A Most Masculine State traces the development of Saudi Arabia’s religious nationalism and the centrality of women therein to find its relevance today. In the first chapters of the book, Al-Rasheed explores how under the religious nationalist appropriation of women by the Saudi state, women today have become symbols in and of political projects that on the one hand aim to reinforce Saudi women’s piety, while on the other hand attempt to demonstrate their modernity. This illustrates the Saudi state’s attempt to incorporate modernity while preserving Islamic authenticity.
In this process, both liberal and Islamist women have come to rely on the authoritarian state for the protection of their interests. While liberal women demand that the government give them more rights and protection, Islamist women look to the government to preserve the status quo concerning the position of women as a way to protect their interests. In Chapters 7 and 8 Al-Rasheed illustrates the positions of liberal women by an analysis of literature written by Saudi female novelists, and those of Islamist women by an analysis of messages of multazimat (religiously committed) women preachers and activists.
In doing this, Al-Rasheed combines a historical with an anthropological analysis. Her anthropological rather than literary examination and analysis of several novels written by female Saudi novelist illustrates how female novelists, through the fictitious reality of their books, try to reclaim space and go against their status quo in society. Her analysis of multazimat women preachers and activists, who offer an alternative message to that of liberal women, shows that by creating space through their religious assertion these women defend their own interests as women in a patriarchal society. Both groups of women respond to the challenges of modernity.
Al-Rasheed bases her arguments on a wide range of sources, such [End Page 132] as academic literature, novels, interviews, newspaper articles, state documents, and the Internet (i.e. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter). The author has a dense yet accessible writing style, supported by her clear and well-organized argumentation. Due to the clear structure of the book, the reader can opt to read the full book but also easily choose separate chapters without losing track of the author’s overall argument. The book’s excellent index is helpful to the reader.
However, a shortcoming of the book is that, while using the labels carefully, Al-Rasheed’s focus lies solely on Islamist and liberal women, therewith foregoing the perhaps slightly more complex diversity of Saudi women. Also, while one of Al-Rasheed’s sources seems to be a wealth of interviews with Saudi women, their voices do not resound much throughout her work. Furthermore, Al-Rasheed, extensively...