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Reading Claudia Ricci’s scatterbrained piece in The Huffington Post about text message divorcing was not only infuriating, but also a reminder of many of the things, which I hate about attitudes towards women’s issues in the Middle East.
The article opens with a snarky line about men being able to marry four women, and then moving to Ricci’s disgust with a man being able to divorce his wife through text messages. Ricci then discusses the advocacy work of the Saudi Arabian Wajeha Al-Huwaider. She lists Al-Huwaider’s impressive work with the country’s driving ban, but portrays her as a rare voice in the Saudi world. While women advocates are brave, they are successful because they speak as a part of the group, rather than as a patronizing protector.
Ricci introduces Al-Huwaider, and then embarks upon a tangent in which she describes women in abayas that she encounters at Whole Foods as looking like “Darth Vader in flowing tents”. It is significant to analyze the role of clothing in the lives of Muslim women. However, it is very important to create a safe and respectful space in which to do that. Ricci asks,
But I wonder what combination of values, pressures and internalized oppression would make women want to dress in clothing that narrows their band of vision on the world to one that is barely as thick as a pencil? Why would they choose clothing that restricts their breathing and keeps them from feeling a breeze on their cheek, or the sun on their forehead and arms?
Reducing these women to a silent sea of black abayas is oppressive in itself. In the way that she asked that question, I felt that she was saying more about a lack of understanding of the cultural differences that play into these issues. Maybe the more appropriate question that Ricci wanted to ask is why would these women reject living life as she does?
I am infuriated by the same kinds of inequalities that Ricci discusses, but I am even more infuriated by her attitude. Ricci does not look at the situation critically. Ironically, she alienates the very people she wants to defend, by marginalizing them and treating their decisions as less than her own because they are different. In taking a critical eye to women’s issues in the Muslim world, one also needs to listen to the voices of those who are actually oppressed by these laws.
Most disheartening about Ricci’s piece was the fact that Al-Huwaider’s work was completely sidetracked by her ignorant tirade. Al-Huwaider has done a great deal of advocacy work to question restrictions placed upon the lives of Saudi women. It is easy to sensationalize injustices such as child brides or laws that restrict women’s freedoms. However, if the purpose is to be an agent of change, Ricci would hardly reach the women in the Middle East with a patronizing rhetoric such as that featured in her post. Her attitude does not encourage a dialogue.