Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Debunking the depiction of subjugated Arab women

Sabria S. Jawhar

THE other day I saw the face of American journalism and it wasn’t evil. It was just plain dumb. And that face belongs to Sally Quinn of the Washington Post.

Quinn managed in less than four minutes in an MSNBC television interview to insult every Arab woman with broad generalizations and stereotypes about who we are.Quinn, an editor and columnist for the Post and who runs the newspaper’s “On Faith” blog, is half of the American journalistic power couple of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.

Bradlee was the editor behind the historic news coverage of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1974. Journalists far and wide make pilgrimages to the Bradlee-Quinn household to hear their words of wisdom.

Quinn recently returned from Doha, Qatar, where she was a panelist in the three-day 6th US-Islamic World Economic Forum. Her attendance in Doha apparently makes her an expert on all things related to the Arab female.

It’s kind of like those Western journalists who visit Riyadh for eight hours, go to a mall, see the Hai’a strolling down the street, talk to their Pakistani cab driver and some low-level Saudi bureaucrat for 15 minutes, and then rush home to write a five-part series on the so-called Wahhabi threat to the Western world.

But Quinn is much more offensive. By virtue of her journalistic pedigree she should know better.In her MSNBC interview, Quinn said that “oil-rich” countries make Arab women lazy.“They can shop, they can gossip, they can go to lunch,” she told her fawning interviewer.

But apparently Arab girls can’t do much else. Since all Arabs are bathing in oil there are few manufacturing jobs available where women can find meaningful work, she said.Quinn adds that, “I think a lot of women, and this certainly goes for women in this country, too, would probably rather spend more time at home when they have little children and not have to work full-time.

But I think that most women would prefer a more fulfilling life than just siting around eating bon-bons all day.”Thanks, Ms. Quinn, for that image. Apparently the harem sits around all day trapped in a patriarchal society where we feed our husbands chocolate-covered dates, belly dance for him and his friends, and then cool them off by fanning them with palm branches on the veranda.

Quinn shores up her empty-headedness with the faulty 2007 study “Oil, Islam and Women” by Michael Ross, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who states that oil-producing countries make Arab women second-class citizens.

She also uses the United Nation Human Development report on female empowerment. Unfortunately, Quinn mangles her facts.She says countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman oppress their women.

Well, for one, Bahrain doesn’t produce much oil, so exactly how does it get lumped into making Bahraini women second-class citizens? She also neglects to mention that oil-soaked Oman has far more employment and academic opportunities for women than the oil-starved Yemen.

For another, the UN survey states that the UAE ranks 29th worldwide in female empowerment (jobs, education, etc.). That’s well above such countries as Poland, Mexico, Russia and Greece. And the UAE ranks just one notch below Israel.So this oil-equals-female-subjugation argument doesn’t fly.

Quinn also seems to forget the dynamics of human nature. If a Saudi woman is at home eating bon-bons and watching Oprah or Tyra Banks on TV while the nanny puts the kids down for a nap, does Quinn honestly think that Saudi mom will get her butt off the couch to work at a job making widgets for SR50 a day?

The MSNBC interviewer, probably using her extensive research on Wikipedia, announced solemnly that only 5 percent of Saudi women are employed in the Kingdom, forgetting somehow that unemployment among men across the entire Middle East region is extremely high.

And both the interviewer and Quinn ignore that cultural issues and family tradition – not oil – play a huge part in whether daughters, wives and sisters find meaningful employment. As repugnant as Westerners may find it, our culture places women in the home to care for the children.Never mind that is also the case for much of rural America.

And never mind that those cultural attitudes are undergoing a sea of change as more Arab women are earning their graduate and post-graduate degrees abroad.Many of my friends and colleagues believe there is a vast conspiracy in the Western media to destroy Islam and our culture.

I don’t believe it for a second because Western journalists are too lazy to make the effort. But liberal journalists like Sally Quinn can be dangerous. At least with American and British neoconservatives you know what you are getting.

They want to bring us democracy and their vapid Western culture even if it kills us.With liberals like Quinn, however, the danger is much more subtle. She wants to save the poor Arab girl through her 21st century version of colonialism.

If a Western woman wants to have kids and a job, well, then it must be true for the Arab woman. I have some advice for Ms. Quinn: Ikhrassi (shut up).Don’t do us any favors. Don’t call us, we will call you.


Bill said...

Yes, well if Quinn lived long enough she was always going to get round to condescending to Arab women. She's condescended to everyone else from her lofty Georgetown tower - including Hilary Clinton who, it is said, had the cheek to turn down one of her cocktail party invitations. (Sally maybe regretting that one now).

She also managed to pick the one thing about Sarah Palin that DIDN'T disqualify her for office - that she had brought up five kids. Quinn, giving an insight into her strangely distorted moral compass, said of Palin: "I don't see how you can make your family your first priority".

Not that Bradlee is exactly a poster boy for defending a woman's right to be taken seriously for her abilities alone. His own memoirs recount how at first he didn't want to give Quinn a job at the Post because "anyone that attractive could make work difficult" - a truly enlightened couple!

Anonymous said...

Worst than hate is ignorance. And ignorance and stereotype are in both sides...
Like: Arab=Muslims=Terrorists=Abusers or
No peace till ALL OF US respect EACH OTHERS!
To bad you fell in the same "sin" that what you wanted to denounce!

Anonymous said...

fun to read but I think that you should have waited till the next day before posting

Bill said...

I fail to see the connection, Emma, I'm afraid. While the West is not involved in physical colonialist conquest as it was during the great expansion of the European empires, it is dedicated to a cultural and intellectual colonialism that is equally pernicious.

By demanding non-western countries modernise on western terms alone is the height of arrogance. Not every western country developed in the same way and similarly not all Middle Eatsern countries have developed or will develop in the same way as the west - or even as each other.

That is Sabria's point surely. As long as human rights are respected and a society's intentions are peaceful it is not for pundits from either side to lecture others on how those societies are formed or reformed.

In the current case, Quinn's pronouncements might be half-way acceptable were she to have lived for years in the Middle East and studied the language and cultures there but this blow-in, blow-out instant expert stuff is really offensive.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say I didn't agree with Sabria...on most of her points.
I said ignorance and prejudice go both ways, just surf on the Web.
as a european I also feel many time culturally colonized by the american way of life... So you see "Westerner " is a relative concept and THAT was my point. I just hate "blocks": The Westerners, The Arabs, The Muslims, The Christians.... Reality is far more complex than that.

Sami said...

I think as Emma hinted at, you might want to reread your first paragraph in the light of your second. You manage to do exactly what you accuse Quinn of doing but in about four seconds rather than four minutes.
Secondly,accusing someone of something for which you have no evidence i.e obtaining her statistics from Wikipedia, seems a cheap way of avoiding an issue.
Whatever the details of Quinn's points, your response - "Shut up!" - is also little disturbing, and revealing on many levels.

Trey said...

Hmm...I agree with you Sabria in theory - I abhor junket journalism too. I think you do some damage to your argument though by playing fast and loose with a number of facts in your zeal to discredit Quinn. I also take anon's point - "vapid Western culture."

And I think Bill's "pernicious cultural and intellectual imperialism" is a little severe. I have lived in the Middle East for many years and it is not my experience that "Western culture" has been force fed - quite the opposite (at this point I would call it capitalist culture more than Western). Saudi nationals are not required to attend Western universities. Be careful you don't take your Boas too far, lest you argue for moral relativity.

To Sabria's point, I think the liberal women - especially feminists - in the West have long had internal conflict with the Arab female experience...the classic battles of constructivism.

Najeeb said...

"She says countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman oppress their women."

Isn't that true? Funny how you yourself basically say the same thing in your latest blog entry:

"Yet the social realities are that Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem are the exceptions, not the rule, of what Saudi women face in the future. For every Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem there are 100 Khamisa Sawadis. For every female Saudi graduate student studying abroad, there are 100 other Saudi women denied their right to divorce abusive husbands or to gain custody of their children."

But when a foreigner points it out, you feel all insulted. When I read your latest blog entry, I was happy. Because I was like, here is a Saudi woman who stands up to the patriarchal society and publicizes abuse and mistreatment of women. Great.

But when an American woman points out the same things, you get all indignant. Why is that? Arabs will sit all day and point out the evils of liberal Western society, but when Westerners point out the mistreatment of women in Arab countries, not only do we not like it, but we also falsely refute it, even though we might point out the mistreatment ourselves!

What's up with that?

Sabria jawhar said...

Dear Najeeb,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. My latest blog entry regarding Khamisa Sawadi and the Sally Quinn comments address two separate issues here. Quinn argues that oil-rich countries, due to their enormous wealth, somehow are responsible for denying Arab women jobs and in effect make them lazy (i.e., lunching, gossiping, sitting around all day). This is ridculous and has no factual basis. Not to mention her research is based on a single three-day visit to Doha. The Khamisa Sawadi column addresses the social issues facing women, not jobs. The paragraph above the one you quote clearly states that women have made advancements in government jobs. I have been consistent for years now that women have made gains in education and employment, although the pace could be picked up by the Saudi government. However, regarding marriage, freedom of travel, divorce and other social concerns, there continues to be discrimination. If Quinn addressed the social problems facing Saudi women today, she would not get an argument from me, but she didn't. She discussed the oppression of women because they are denied employment because they live in countries rich in oil. There is no connection between the two. My other objection to Quinn is simply she needs to do her homework before going on television. She didn't.