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Last Wednesday, the BBC’s World Service radio program World Have Your Say discussed the topic, “Do Muslims treat women badly?” in light of the recent report from Human Rights Watch on the status of Saudi Arabian women.
Peter van Dyk from the show graciously invited me to speak on the program; however, due to scheduling conflicts, I was unavailable. So I’ll do the next best thing: critique!
I was incredibly pleased that all the speakers were Muslim and at least half of those were women. The panelists consisted of Baroness Uddin (the first British Muslim woman in Parliament), Muhammad & Yousef (Muhammad was a former diplomat; we are not given these men’s surnames or their relevance to the topic past this introduction), and Saeed Khan (instructor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit). Dr. May Yamani (Saudi political analyst) and Yvonne Ridley (high-profile British convert to Islam and journalist) also participated heavily in the conversation via phone. Also, the show’s callers were Saudi Arabian women.
The calls from Saudi women impressed me most: letting these women give their own perspective about a report that details their treatment in their own country is not something that many other media outlets would do, regrettably. It should be a cardinal rule of journalism: let subjects speak for themselves!
These callers all put in invaluable contributions (except a few I took issue with, which I’ll discuss later) to the debate. But the debate itself is a problem: the question “Do Muslims treat women badly?” is the wrong question. Asking whether a certain religious/ethnic/etc. group treats another group badly is implying that the treatment of the latter group is an inherent feature of the former group. Asking if Muslims treat women badly attaches the idea that treating women badly is a “Muslim” thing to do, rather than a human thing to do; the question makes it seem like it’s a tenet of Islam to mistreat women. It is a function of all patriarchal societies to treat women badly, and patriarchal interpretations of religion are a facet of patriarchal society. It’s unfair to single out Muslims when you’re trying to lay blame for the mistreatment of women.
The question itself is also a very leading one: it implies a “yes” or “no” answer. As with all religious interpretations, cultural practices, etc., there are no black-and-white answers. But, since the question was placed in context of the recent report on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia (moderator Chloe Tilley threw in other negative examples of a considered ban on mingling between sexes and the death sentence for a journalist who obtained an article online that questioned women’s role in Islam—both in Afghanistan), it seems as if the program wanted to elicit a “Yes.” Since the BBC presents itself as respectable, objective journalism, giving negative examples that only illustrate one side of the story is reprehensible, especially since these are the only faces of Muslims that many non-Muslim listeners hear about.
Also, putting this question primarily in the context of the report on Saudi women confuses Muslims with Saudi Arabians, as if all Muslim women are forbidden by Islamic rather than Saudi law to drive and must have permissions from their male guardians (or mahram) to do things. This is how stereotypes are made, people. During their brief segment on the program, Muhammad & Yousef cautioned listeners against doing just this.
Another thing that irritated me about the moderator was her unwillingness to make comparisons between the state of women in the west and women in Saudi Arabia: Tilley interrupted Baroness Uddin in the middle of a statement about the unfairness of criticizing the state of Saudi Arabian women when figures for abuses of women in the west aren’t comparably pretty, which Yvonne Ridley also posed. Dr. Yamani made the excellent comment that abuses against women in the west are usually not legally sanctioned, while in Saudi Arabia, they usually are. This is an important distinction to make. But I get very tired of people refusing to admit that women everywhere have it badly because of a cultural superiority inherent in the “We’re not like them” mindset. Let me say it again: women everywhere have it badly; the dangers we face simply come under different names. So can we please stop the “I’m so much freer than you are” garbage?
That being said, the Saudi speakers were the most helpful and enlightening. I want to stress how important it is that Saudi Arabian women speak on the issue of treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. Yvonne Ridley’s comments on chauffeuring in Saudi Arabia manifested this. Her comparison of Saudi women being chauffeured to Bill Gates being chauffeured wasn’t an apt one, and showed a lack of understanding in regard to the problems (sexual assault by drivers, lack of practicality, inability to afford a driver, etc.) that Saudi women face by being unable to drive. Of course there are Saudi women who would agree with her that having a chauffeur is a status symbol; but there are many who don’t, evidenced by the fact that several of them have an ongoing petition to the government for the right to drive. On issues like these, it’s best to get the perspectives straight from the Saudi’s mouth.
Finally, I want to look briefly at the blog post for the broadcast. While the on-air episode may be considered something of a success, the blog post definitely won’t be. The entire post and all of the comments talk about Muslim women, but at the time of our comment, only two out of 137 commenters were Muslim women.
This brings me to the question: Why do any opinions other than Muslim women’s opinions matter in this debate?