- A Society of Young Women: Opportunities of Place, Power, and Reform in Saudi Arabia by Amélie Le Renard
Amélie Le Renard
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014
224 pages. isbn 9780804785440
There is perhaps no group of people so ubiquitous and yet so silenced in Western academic scholarship about gender in the Middle East as Saudi women. They symbolize for the Western imagination the most oppressed women in the world, as well as a country that, though a political and economic ally of North America and Europe, is supposedly their antithesis. In particular, the intense gender segregation that Saudi Arabia imposes, the ban on women driving, and the expectation that women cover their faces and bodies in public have become tropes for the country’s “backwardness.” Saudi women themselves, and their opinions and experiences, are rarely heard in Western academic circles, and when they are, they are heavily mediated to prop up preexisting understandings of their oppression. In contrast, Amélie Le Renard’s groundbreaking ethnography provides a richly layered look into the diversity of young Saudi women’s lives in Riyadh. The book overturns ideas about Saudi society as closed or backward by highlighting how the production of homosocial spaces and the limitations placed on Saudi women’s mobility are entirely modern conventions tied to rapid urbanization, oil wealth, and the presence of a large foreign resident population. Le Renard found in her fieldwork in the “archipelago of public spaces” (2) where young women spend their daily lives in Riyadh—malls, workplaces, university campuses, and religious organizations—that homosociality, rather than constraining them, enables certain forms of empowerment and identification for Saudi women that they could not have in heterosocial settings. In these spaces women from different family, class, and social backgrounds—who normally would not have a chance to meet each other—interact and negotiate the parameters of femininity and what it means to be a “Saudi woman.”
Le Renard rewrote her book (rather than simply translated it) primarily for an American audience from a book she published in French in 2011. In the introduction she discusses the “reform period” in Saudi Arabia since 2000, when national women were [End Page 340] specifically targeted by the state as central to projects of economic development and modernization and especially to the project of Saudization, which aimed to replace foreign workers with nationals. Reform discourse solidified a category—the “Saudi woman”—that became the object of development and modernization policies, which included greater opportunities for higher education and employment. Because of strict ideas about “protecting” women from unrelated men, women’s development required the production of a parallel public sphere. This time period also coincided with an influx of Western goods into Saudi Arabia, the rise of shopping malls, and greater use of the Internet. In these spaces young women encountered competing expectations of femininity, including reform/state, Islamist, and consumer, that they combined with the norms of their own families to produce a sense of being “Saudi” while also creating hierarchies of national belonging. In many ways the gender limitations placed on Saudi women also defined them against non-Saudi women, producing a “national distinction” (29) that was visualized on their abaya- and niqab-clad bodies as a symbol of their privileged and protected status in the country.
The ethnographic chapters, based on over one hundred interviews in Arabic and hours spent in women’s spaces, explore in great detail women’s daily negotiations of femininity and how these produced both solidarity and difference. Le Renard explores, for example, the various family and other negotiations that women have to manage on a daily basis to be mobile in the city. They cannot drive, and their national distinction makes it improper for them to take taxis (unlike migrant women), so they are often beholden either to male family members or to careers that provide income to maintain a car and a driver as well as a reason to leave home. Women use many tactics to argue that mobility will not damage their reputations or those of their families, including...