by Linda S. Heard | Arab News | 23 December 2003
Wasn’t it kind of the British prime minister’s wife Cherie Blair — a busy barrister and mother — to take such a personal interest in the Kingdom’s overseas image during a recent dinner in the House of Lords, also attended by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Britain?
Addressing the prince, she said: “I am so delighted that his Royal Highness came from Saudi Arabia because, as I said to your wife when I met her Sir, Saudi Arabia’s image in the world is appalling and we (note the ‘we’) need to do something about it.”
Oblivious to any public embarrassment she might be causing the prince, she continued: “Part of the reason it’s appalling is the perception that you treat your women like they are not equals but some sort of ‘other’.”
Those misinformed souls who perceive Saudi women or any Arab women for that matter as “some sort of other” are under a misapprehension. The perception that the average Arab woman is a simpering sycophantic violet hanging on to the pearls of wisdom pouring forth from the mouth of her husband is false.
It’s not for nothing that macho Arab men often quiver before their mothers’ scolds not out of fear but from deep love and respect, while when it comes to the home and children, wives very often represent the wise guiding hand. Throughout the Arab world the woman is the pivot of family life and upholding her honor and dignity is the duty of the entire family unit.
If Mrs. Blair thinks that Saudi women are generally chomping at the bit to swap places with their British or American sisters, she may be in for a shock. While it is true that there is currently a lively discussion in the Kingdom as to whether women should drive or be given access to a greater diversity of career paths, I am sure that most Saudi women would agree that the way of the West is not for them. The prime minister’s wife appears to spend a lot of time mulling over the plight of women in other countries. During the invasion of Afghanistan she complained that Afghan women under the Taleban were forced to don the burqa, which she maintained symbolized the oppression of women. However, since Hamid Karzai was handed the keys to his office, Blair has been strangely silent as to the plight of Afghan womanhood despite the fact Afghan women still sport the burqa but, nowadays, out of self-preservation.
A leading member of the Revolutionary Association of the Woman of Afghanistan (RAWA) told writer and filmmaker John Pilger: “During the Taleban (era) we were living in a graveyard but we were secure. The laws may have changed but women dare not leave their homes without the burqa.”
“The women in Afghanistan are entitled, as women in every country are, to have the same hopes and aspirations as ourselves, and our daughters,” said Blair back then with passion.
The problem here is neither Afghan women, nor most Arab and Muslim women, share the same hopes and aspirations as their British or American counterparts. While there are Arab women who are keen to pursue a career, there are far more who consider the most important career they could have is one of homemaker and mother, a vocation, which has been seriously devalued in Western countries.
Before Mrs. Blair goes to all that trouble of assisting the Kingdom with its “appalling image” — as welcome as that might be — she might first like to turn her attention to far more pressing societal problems at home. Which societal problems? For one thing, violent crime, including murder, rose by seven percent in 2003 while a crime involving guns takes place every 55 minutes. Several children and teenaged girls were abducted and killed, and it’s little wonder that the days when children were allowed to play in the street are long gone, while few women feel safe to wander Britain’s roads alone after dark.
Another Blair titbit expounded at that same House of Lords dinner was: “There is this idea that somehow Muslim women are all poor, sad creatures who are oppressed and who really do not understand what it is to be a liberated woman.” What exactly is a “liberated woman”? Is it one, who after finishing her studies, is expected to work, marry, look after children, clean house and present as a confident, positive coiffed and manicured fashion plate all at the same time, as so many television ads imply?
Does the term “liberated woman” include one of the burgeoning casualties of divorce (In 1999 there was one divorce for every two marriages in Britain, which has the second highest divorce rate in the EU) or one of the growing numbers of female single parents in the UK? An article in The Times (Sept. 27, 2002) reports that single parents head a quarter of all British families.
This isn’t to say that the majority of Western woman aren’t happy, healthy and fulfilled. But there is a lot more to liberation than meets the eye. There are pressures on American and British women which don’t exist in the Arab world and vice versa.
In the West the parameters of right and wrong, morality and immorality, ethical and non-ethical are fudged, with the individual left to sift through the gray areas. The more gray those areas become, the more confused he or she can get.
Muslims grow up with a more defined moral certitude based on their culture, traditions and religion. Saudi women don’t want to be “saved” by Cherie Blair or anyone else. In their own quiet and determined way they will decide their own direction in their own fashion at a time of their choosing. What goals they are or how they are implemented is an internal Saudi matter and nobody else’s business.
— Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Mideast affairs and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org