Margaret Drake: A U.S. Feminist In Saudi Arabia

I had been working on this two days before the announcement from King Abdullah’s speech on the 25 September. On that day, while awaiting Margaret’s final approval to publish the post, I was proofreading the rough draft and thought how relevant it was to one part of his statement: “‘Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice.’ King Abdullah then gave examples from the times of Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] in the seventh century. During the era of the Prophet some women acted as lawyers and people would go to them with complex legal issues, there were female scholars and in general women participated in the society as equals.” (Blue Abaya)

I am so glad that I didn’t publish this post until now because it allowed me to add more relevant content…

Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms.” “Modern feminist theory has been criticized as being predominantly, but not exclusively, associated with Western middle-class academia. Feminist activism, however, is a grass-roots movement that seeks to cross boundaries based on social class, race, culture, and religion. It is culturally specific and addresses issues relevant to the women of that society.”

There are different types of feminism and let me make this clear that I do not support the views of man-hating “feminazis”. One type of feminism I enjoy learning about is Islamic feminism.

Islamic Feminism is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism advocates women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice using Islamic discourse as its paramount discourse, though not necessarily its only one.”

Even men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist!

Speaking of male feminism, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) can be likened to a feminist. How? He was a staunch defender of equality, teaching that both men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah as stated in the Qur’an. Under his leadership, women enjoyed equal opportunities politically, economically and socially.

“It would be anachronistic to claim that Muhammad was a feminist in our modern sense. Yet the same present-day barriers to women’s equality prevailed in 7th century Arabia, and he opposed them. Because in his own lifetime Muhammad improved women’s position in society, many modern Muslims continue to value his example, which they cite when pressing for women’s rights.” (Muhammad: Legacy Of A Prophet)

“When I read prophet’s biographies…I was struck by how much of a feminist he was as he was surrounded by women all his life. Prophet Muhammad’s soul had a deeply feminine nature within. When his Companions asked him whom he loved most in the whole world, he answered it was his wife, ‘Â’ishah. They were surprised to hear him announce love for a woman, as this was a new concept to them; they had been thinking in terms of the manly camaraderie between warriors. So they asked him which man he loved most. He answered Abû Bakr, ‘Â’ishah’s father, a gentleman who was known for his sensitive personality. These answers confounded the Companions who until then had been brought up on patriarchal values. The Prophet was introducing reverence for the feminine to them for the first time.” (Prophet Muhammad As A Feminist)

With the recent announcement by King Abdullah that Saudi women now have the right to join the Shoura Council and cast a vote, I hope this is an optimistic sign that Saudi Arabia is finally restoring those very rights that were given to them 1400+ years ago.

Margaret’s book “describes the experiences of a single American woman teaching in a university in Saudi Arabia between 1980 and 1982, just as the Islamic world was experiencing a reversal of previously achieved steps toward women’s rights.”

This book is a step back into the past for those who did not experience that era. Whoever reads it and compares it to the 2000s, would appreciate the small leaps and bounds that women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have made since then.

Thank you Margaret! Tara Umm Omar

BOOK QUESTIONS

What inspired you to write “A U.S. Feminist In Saudi Arabia”? I had been desirous of overseas experience since my first year in college. When I turned 40, I decided it was time to seek out that experience. I have always been a fair letter/journal writer so when I got home after my two years in Saudi Arabia, I sat down and wrote the book as a kind of readjustment to being back in the USA.

How did you decide on the title? When I wrote the book in 1982, I had been a resident of California for more than twenty years in two different periods. Consequently, I titled the book “A California Woman Sees behind the Veil.” However, I have not been a resident of California since 1983; it no longer seemed the appropriate title for the book. I asked a number of my female friends and relatives for suggestions. Some of them were:

Seeing beyond the Veil
Wahabi Woman
Behind the Veil, Saudi Arabia 1980-1982
Looking Beyond the Veil, Saudi Arabia 1980-1982
Feminist among the Wahabis, an OT Perspective
The Wahine and the Wahabis
A Feminist in Saudi Arabia
An American Feminist in Saudi Arabia (1980-1982)
The Shrouded Feminist: Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia
Veiled: A Western Woman’s View of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia: A Western Woman’s First Hand Experience
Behind the Veil: A Western Woman’s Experience
An American Occupational Therapist Teaching Nursing in Saudi Arabia in
1980-1982.
Three of the women indicated the title “A US Feminist in Saudia Arabia:
1980-1982” so I chose that title.

Who designed the book’s cover and what is the significance of the picture? I chose the photo of myself with the camel as a symbol of the desert life.

Who is the targeted audience of your book? Originally, the book was aimed as an account for my family, but when I rewrote it on the computer almost 30 years later, it was aimed at other women who over these decades have asked what it was like there.

What benefits or messages do you expect readers to get out of your book, if any? I think the message I want to give is that one does not have to try to make everything be to their own liking, but rather to attempt to
understand other peoples’ experience of life.

Did you learn anything from writing your book? Please explain: I learned that despite cell phones and the internet, that the constrictions for Saudi women have changed a little but not a lot over these 30 years.

What has been the reception in Saudi Arabia and internationally towards “A U.S. Feminist In Saudi Arabia”? I do not know of any Saudis who have read the book. My American colleagues with whom I taught there, have expressed enjoyment in reliving our experiences together.

Share any links or synopsis of book reviews here: There may be some one amazon.com but I have not looked recently.

What are your hopes for “A U.S. Feminist In Saudi Arabia” in the future? I hope that any single women about to take employment in the Middle East might find helpful information about adapting to life in that area of the world.

Is your book also available in Arabic or any other languages? No.

Is your book sold in Saudi Arabia? If someone is able to order it on amazon.com I suppose it might be
acquired there.

Is your book available on Kindle or iTunes? Yes, all my books except the textbook are available in digital format. [Kindle edition located here http://amzn.to/o7GR1r]

Enter the URL address for a website, blog, Facebook/Twitter fan page, etc: Books By Margaret Drake

PERSONAL QUESTIONS

Your nationality and country of residence: I am a USA citizen residing in Hawaii.

What are the things you like/liked about living in Saudi Arabia? It was the adventure of my life. In Riyadh there were people from all over the world. I was exposed to so many different cultures.

What are the things you dislike/disliked about living in Saudi Arabia? I disliked feeling afraid which I often was for fear of breaking some law of which I was not aware. I feared the mutawas in a way I never feared officers of the law in the USA.

What would you like to see improved in Saudi Arabia? I would like women all over the world to have the rights and privileges I have.

How was your experience as a feminist living/working in Saudi Arabia? I kept my feminism to myself while working there except to discuss some situations with other expatriate colleagues teaching in the University. Since I went for adventure rather than to try to change anything, it was not an issue usually.

Did you find it hard to adjust/adapt in such a restrictive and male dominant society? My memory of it is that the Western men with whom I mostly spent time rather than Saudi or Middle Eastern men were unusually sympathetic to my situation. They were just grateful to have a Western woman to talk to. I was glad to hear about their experience and they reciprocated that interest.

Do you think other feminists in Saudi Arabia serve as an example of strength for other women and empower them with her activism? I certainly admire the Saudi Arabian women who have the courage to try to change their society for themselves and their children. I agree that they are exemplary.

Do you think non-Saudis should change anything about themselves in order to fit into Saudi society? I believe that anyone entering another’s culture and society, should attempt to keep their judgments to themselves as much as possible as it will allow for a richer experience. Natives of the country will be more open to those whom they perceive to be non-judgmental.

Do you think a non-Saudi man/woman can be happy in Saudi Arabia? Oh certainly. I met many happy people there. The healthcare there is wonderful! Their national wealth makes many things possible that are unavailable in other countries.

Do you think a non-Saudi woman can live alone in Saudi Arabia without a husband or her family? It is difficult to live there without a male sponsor as a reader will see in my book.

What do you think non-Saudis should know about Saudis? I believe that non-Saudis should know how Islam has benefits not publicized in the Western press, such as the calmness and predictability of regular prayer times, the bodily flexibility maintained by getting up and down off the floor or ground five times per day.

Use this space to write anything else you would like to say: I think that it is often difficult for those growing up in the USA who expect many freedoms and privileges to adapt to the restrictions in Saudi Arabia for both men and women.

Dear FHWS readers: What do you think of a feminist living/working in Saudi Arabia? Would she find it hard to adjust/adapt in such a restrictive and male dominant society? Would she be an example of strength for other women and empower them with her activism?

Photo Credit: Margaret Drake (more of her personal pictures will be posted later)

FURTHER READING

Hala Al-Dosari: Saudi Women Rights
Saudi Women Embrace Feminism – On Their Own Terms
The Faces Of Saudi Feminists

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Published by

Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

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