Women Transforming the Middle East, The New Normal: A Conversation with Isobel Coleman

Published: March 8, 2013

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Editor’s Note:

Dr. Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow, gave last year’s commencement remarks at Effat University, an all-women’s institution in Jeddah. She told the Class of 2012, “You are graduating at a time of great change, and tremendous potential, particularly for women in this country. In many ways your generation will set the pace of change going forward. That pace of change has only quickened in your lifetime and will probably continue to accelerate.” Last week the changes she talked about were marked by the seating of 30 women in the previously all-male Shura, or Consultative Assembly, of Saudi Arabia, the appointed advisory body of 150 leaders from around the Kingdom.

Dr. Isobel Coleman at Effat University.

In an exclusive interview following her Effat University visit she recounted her experiences there and explored women’s empowerment in the Kingdom, especially in the area of higher education, Coleman sounded an optimistic tone, telling SUSRIS, “There have always been some very accomplished Saudi women in all fields, but now that’s less the exception. It is a terrific development because, as I said in my commencement speech to the young girls, that is the new normal. These young women will have jobs and careers and be in the workplace. They have so many role models now. And I think that’s a wonderfully important and normal development.”

Today for your consideration we are pleased to share our latest conversation with Dr. Coleman where she talked about developments for women in Saudi Arabia, especially the participation of women in the Shura.

We also took time to learn about the updated version of her book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.” Of the book she said, “With the rise of Islamist governments in the wake of the Arab uprisings, the main theme of the book – how men and women across the region are using more progressive interpretations of Islam to create economic, political, and social opportunities for women – is now more important than ever.” The Economist noted, “Islam looms large, sometimes terrifyingly so, in the West’s vision of the Middle East.. ..Paradise Beneath her Feet offers a welcome challenge to such fears.. ..A nuanced view of Islam’s role in public life that is cautiously hopeful.” We commend it to your reading list and look forward to her next book which will be published next year.  It will examine the connections between youth, education and employment in the region with a focus on Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

SUSRIS spoke with Dr. Coleman by phone from her office on February 28, 2013.

Women Transforming the Middle East, The New Normal: A Conversation with Isobel Coleman

Empowering Women in Saudi Arabia

[SUSRIS] The headlines read, “Saudi King swears in women into Shura Council.” What is your reaction?

[Dr. Isobel Coleman] It’s a milestone in that it puts a stake in the ground for women’s public participation, their political participation, and there are still many people who still contest that in Saudi Arabia. So the fact that the King has come down on that side and said, yes, women should be part of the political conversations that happen in the country, in that sense, it is a milestone. Of course, it has been criticized by people who point out that the Shura Council itself does not have any real power in the country. It is just a forum for discussion. It doesn’t make actual decisions. These are incremental changes for women and the fact that it’s a first for women, it’s an important step. It helps move them forward.

[SUSRIS] Beyond the symbolic milestone what is the practical result of women serving in the Shura?

King Abdullah Swearing in New Shura Council Members, Feb 19, 2013. (Photo: SPA)

[Coleman] Because the Shura is a forum for discussion having women in the Shura will inevitably put a greater emphasis on issues that are important to women. You’ve already had a couple of them say that they are pretty determined to bring up the driving issue which has created a pretty strong backlash against some of the women and against the whole concept of having women in the Shura.

You’ve seen some vitriolic discussions going on through Twitter in Saudi Arabia. Some well-known clerics are using very derogatory language against the women in the Shura Council. One in particular has come out and called the women “filth,” referring to them as prostitutes. This has been taking place on Twitter. And you’ve seen strong counter denunciations on Twitter of that harsh language and those retrograde ideas.

Just by having women in the public sphere has been forcing debate and dialogue about the role of women in society to continue. It is not going to be resolved overnight, but now that you have women in the Shura invariably they are going to bring up controversial subjects that relate to the role of women in society.

[SUSRIS] How do you describe the two sides of the issue?

[Coleman] It is shifting ground when you talk about these opposing groups, those who believe that women should have a fuller role in society and those who want to keep women in a very traditional, homebound role. There are men and women on both sides of the issue whose views are changing. You have seen Saudis speak out more forcefully in support of women working, recognizing what women have achieved in education and that there is a need to do something productive with it.

But you’ve seen some very harsh and intransigent views against women’s participation. We don’t have polls to know what percent of the population comes down on different sides of these issues, but it is very interesting to watch these debates on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

You see a wide range of perspectives out there. There are Saudis who believe that women should be educated. They should work. They should participate politically. But they draw the line at driving. Why? Well they believe it is a step that they should not take. They feel it would undermine their traditions in too many ways. It would be too disruptive to society. But then you talk to people who say they used to think that way, but they’ve changed their minds. These are shifting and evolving perspectives, just as many controversial social issues in other countries shift. Look, for example, at the rapid shift in America at the attitudes toward gay marriage.

[SUSRIS] How do you characterize the leadership of King Abdullah in the progress that has been made?

King Abdullah presided over swearing in ceremony for new Consultative Council members, including 30 women, on Feb. 19.

[Coleman] I think King Abdullah has been a “committed incrementalist.” He recognizes the importance of women to Saudi society and has made a number of efforts to promote women in society. However, he has not been willing to take actions that some in the West would expect: bolder moves to unilaterally force the driving issue, to more aggressively break down barriers to women in the work force, to open new professions to women, to more quickly break down gender segregation and to roll back some of the laws that legally restrict women. He has not been willing to do those things; rather he has taken a more incremental path. He has strongly promoted women’s education. He has included women in international delegations. Then there is this milestone development of women in the Shura Council. He is on the record in allowing women to vote in Municipal elections in 2015. He has helped break down gender segregation at places like KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

All of these steps have not been uncontroversial. They have been highly controversial. The King nevertheless has moved forward. It has been too fast for some in his society, and too slow for others.

[SUSRIS] Where do changes in the environment for women fit in with other changes in Saudi society?

[Coleman] While it’s important to keep in mind that these are incremental steps you have to remember that Saudi Arabia has a very young population. There is a massive youth bulge coming through the system. The largest cohort in terms of population in Saudi Arabia is in the age group between 10 and 16. This youth bulge is growing up in a world where they now see that women can be on the Shura Council. They see women having much more prominent positions in society. It begins to change the way people think. So although an incremental approach is disappointing, certainly disappointing to many people, these things will progress more quickly for women as this younger generation grows up in a different environment.

It’s the new normal that young people are growing up with. It sets the goal posts in a different place. I think it also sets a different expectation of gender relations for young men and young women.

[SUSRIS] Change in many societies comes at the hands of organized movements. As you examine women as agents of change in Saudi society have you discerned structures, even if informally, of common interests?

[Coleman] One of the reasons that it’s difficult to think of a women’s movement in Saudi Arabia is because there hasn’t been a coalescing around one singular issue or a highly visible leader of a women’s movement. Over the years I have been traveling to and observing the country – going on a decade now – I’ve had women tell me emphatically that while we in the West may be hung up on this driving issue it is simply not their priority. That was in the earlier experiences I had. Today, however, with this younger generation of women in Saudi, I hear more of them saying, “No, it is a priority for us.” There is a group of women who have worked on that issue in the last few years. Meanwhile other women say they are going to focus on economic change because they are going to meet less headwind there. It’s going to be less contentious and they are going to get more out of it. You have seen other women say they are going to take on the guardianship issue, or to focus on some of the legal restrictions.

So you haven’t really seen a coalescing around a particular issue. That hinders the emergence of a true women’s movement in Saudi Arabia but it also allows for more women to become engaged in their own way on topics that appeal to them. It’s not all bad. But it does mean that you don’t have as much of a focused, organized movement for change. In the end there is a wide range of people who I look at as change agents in their own way.

Paradise Beneath Her Feet

[SUSRIS] Let’s talk about your book. The Los Angeles Times called the updated version of your book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet” “Outstanding.” It said, “Isobel Coleman takes us into remote villages and urban bureaucracies to find the brave men and women working to create change in the Middle East.” Tell us what to expect.

[Coleman] This new release to the book has a updated preface that positions the themes of the book within the context of the Arab uprisings. When the book originally came out a couple of years ago I talked about the secular authoritarian regimes as surviving on life support. Those secular authoritarian regimes are now gone. They have been swept away by the Arab revolutions. Left in their places are struggling democracies that have brought to power, through the vote, Islamist dominated governments. It emphasizes the importance of continued progress on women’s rights while reconciling popular demands for Sharia. That’s a major theme of the book. In the preface I make the point that it’s more relevant in this newly configured Middle East than it was before. Now you have more governments trying to struggle through the challenges of reconciling women’s rights with popular demands for Sharia.

[SUSRIS] The Amazon listing describes “Paradise” as an introduction to “influential Islamic feminist thinkers and successful grassroots activists working to create economic, political, and educational opportunities for women.” That sounds like a journey filled with stereotype-busting encounters. What were the most surprising aspects of your book research?

[Coleman] The whole tenor of the book is stereotype-busting because there is a very strong stereotype in the West of the docile, victimized, oppressed women of the Middle East and this book is chock full of stories of remarkable change agents across the region. They are hugely courageous, determined, highly educated and engaged in reforming their societies.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague with Shura Member Dr Nihad Al Jashi (Photo: Gov.UK)

When I give talks about the book people ask, “How did you find these women?”, as if I found needles in a haystack. I would answer that it’s not about finding the women, it’s about choosing among the thousands of remarkable women to write about, who to profile. Anyone who has traveled to that part of the world quickly recognized that women are very much change agents. They are on the front lines of change in their societies.

I think the book is easier to understand now that the Arab revolutions have happened and women have been very much out in front during those revolutions and continue to be out in front. Whether it’s leading demonstrations or writing about it, blogging about it, reporting on it, taking a role politically in the aftermath of these revolutions, you see a very highly visible role for women. You also can see how contentious these issues are. In the two years since the Arab revolutions started, there have been a number of incidents fought along gender lines that have brought to the forefront how very deeply contentious these issues about women’s rights are in all of these societies.

What was surprising about the research? I think it was the breadth of activity that is going on in the region among women in terms of: political change, social change, economic change and religious change. The way women are engaging in religious debates and dialogues over what it means to be a person of faith, a good Muslim and yet to push for rights within that context. You see a lot of men and women deeply engaged in arguments about these issues.

Last week I was in Denver to give a talk to a group of international students, mostly Saudi students, and a young man raised his hand and said, “You have to understand that our religion dictates that women cannot leave the home without a man’s permission.” He was referring to the guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia, “These rules must be in place because of our religion and you must respect that.” Before I could respond a Saudi woman said that is absolutely incorrect, that is not what our religion says at all. The two of them had this debate right there. And for me it was fascinating because that is exactly what my book is about.

[SUSRIS] What else will we learn in “Paradise Beneath Her Feet”?

[Coleman] In addition to the updated preface that roots the themes of the book in the context of the Arab revolutions the new afterword looks at the five countries that are the focus of the book: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It tracks how women have done in those countries in the last couple of years. The picture I would say is mixed.

You know it’s going to be one step forward, one step back in some cases. It’s just not going to be a straight line change for women. But of all of the countries I have looked at the progress of women in Saudi Arabia has been the most consistent and the most clear cut. You just have progress after progress there compared to other countries where you have seen progress and set backs.

[SUSRIS] Thank you for taking time to talk about women in Saudi Arabia and your updated book, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet.”

About Dr. Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. She is the director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative. She is also the director of the Council’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include democratization, economic development, gender issues, educational reform, and the political economy of the Middle East. She is the author and co-author of numerous publications, including Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East (Random House, 2010), Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (Hoover Press, 2006). Her writings have also appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, and online venues such as the CNN.com and TheAtlantic.com. She is a frequent speaker at academic, business, and policy conferences.

Prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Coleman was CEO of a healthcare services company and a partner with McKinsey & Co. in New York. A Marshall Scholar, she holds a DPhil and MPhil in international relations from Oxford University and a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University. She serves on several non-profit boards, including Plan USA and Student Sponsor Partners.

For more information about Dr. Coleman and her work visit www.isobelcoleman.com and follow her on Twitter @Isobel_Coleman

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