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Last Updated: 05/03/2010An Opinion About Everything: A Conversation with Sabria Jawhar
Sabria Jawhar is an outspoken and influential Saudi journalist perhaps best known for her passionate contention that human rights for Muslim women should be sought within the Islamic tradition. In this interview, Sabria speaks with Rob Wagner about her life and work, the friction and cohesion of cultural values, and the power of Saudi writers to overcome prejudices and set the record straight.
Sabria Salama Jawhar is a columnist for the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Gazette newspaper and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and Arabisto.com. She is the only Saudi woman journalist who writes specifically for Western readers. She was named in March as one of the “most influential Arabs” on the Dubai-based Arabian Business magazine’s 2010 “Power 100” list. In recent years she has gained a following among Muslim women for advocating for women’s rights as defined in the Holy Qur’an, a stark contrast to most international human rights organizations that seek Muslim women’s rights in the context of Western democratic ideals. Her opinions have alienated many Saudis who complained her advocacy is at the expense of Saudi customs and traditions. Western readers comment that her position on women’s rights is too narrow because it’s defined only by Islam.
Interview conducted by Rob Wagner.
Rob Wagner: Tell me about your background and where you grew up.
Sabria Jawhar: I was born in the holy city of Madinah. Even today it’s a small and close-knit city where everybody knows their neighbors. Of course it’s the home of the Prophet’s Mosque, which has great religious significance to Muslims since Madinah was home of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. I’m the youngest daughter of 11 children, six brothers and four sisters. My family was originally from Yanbu, a small farming town on the Red Sea. My dad was chief of a prison in Madinah after he and my mother moved there. My dad is retired now. I grew up in a religious home but my parents were very liberal by Saudi standards. As a kid I was allowed to make my own choices. I wore the abaya at an early age, although it was not required until puberty. I couldn’t wait to wear it, I suppose, because it was a symbol of maturity and adulthood. I loved and still love reading the Holy Qur’an and I memorized many verses when I was very small. In fact, I was more religious than most of my family members and one time my mother expressed concern that I was too religious. I learned English from television, especially cartoons, and usually often on my own separate from my schooling.
RW: Where did you go to school?
SJ: I earned my bachelor of arts degree at King Abdul Aziz University in Madinah and my master’s in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. I am now studying for my doctorate in applied linguistics at Newcastle University at Newcastle Upon Tyne in England. I should complete my studies in 2011. Basically, I am studying how English as a second language is taught to Arab-speaking students.
RW: A doctorate in applied linguistics is a far cry from journalism. How did you get from academia to being a journalist?
SJ: I was teaching high school but doing a lot of commuting. I mean hours and hours to and from school. Teaching high school was not particularly challenging to me and I wanted something different. I saw an advert in the Saudi Gazette, which is an English-language newspaper in Jeddah, that offered journalism courses to Saudi men and women. I signed up and was accepted. This was in 2003, I think. The course was taught by a Palestinian-American and covered the basics of journalism. You know, the who, what, where, when and why. How to conduct an interview. Record searches, although that’s impossible in Saudi Arabia. Journalism ethics. That sort of thing. I also took a course sponsored by the Lebanese Al-Naha Institute and the Professionals Institute, both in Jeddah. I completed the courses and was offered a job as a reporter. I was later promoted to supervisor of the Ladies Department. A Ladies Department probably sounds odd to some people, but most workplaces in Saudi Arabia, as well as public places like restaurants, are segregated by gender. It’s part of Saudi culture to keep men and women separate until marriage. In the Ladies Department I supervised sometimes up to a dozen or so women reporters – Saudis and Indian and Pakistani expatriates mostly.
RW: How did being separated from the main newsroom affect your job as a journalist?
SJ: There was no impact at all. We did our job in our office. We had free access to the newsroom. I participated in all editorial meetings, including the daily story budget meetings. Eventually I supervised male reporters. The Saudi Gazette, at least by Saudi standards, is pretty progressive in treating men and women the same and allowing us to work together. Now other Saudi newspapers do it, but it was fairly uncommon five years ago.
RW: What kind of stories did you cover?
SJ: I came to the Saudi Gazette right at the time that extremists were committing so much violence in Saudi Arabia, not only against Westerners and other expats, but Saudis as well. They attacked Western residential compounds, the US Consulate in Jeddah, kidnapped and killed one American. It was a disaster and was devastating to Saudis. It was a terrible time. I have many contacts in the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for internal security, and covered their efforts to capture these guys. I also covered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and interviewed along with other Arab journalists Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and other foreign officials who met with the King and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal in Jeddah.
RW: But you are not known as a reporter, but kind of a rabble-rousing opinion writer.
SJ: You mean a rabble-rouser as in a trouble maker? No, not at all. At the end of 2004 or early 2005, my editors found out that I had an opinion about everything and couldn’t shut me up. They thought a column would calm me down. So I started writing opinion pieces and it grew into a weekly column. Remember, the Saudi Gazette is an English language newspaper read by English-speaking expatriate workers, so Saudis didn’t, and still don’t, pay much attention to me. My audience is mostly Westerners so I write mostly for them. The column eventually turned into a platform to educate Western readers about Saudi culture and Islam because there is so much disinformation out there. Old stereotypes, generalizations and the perceived link between Saudi Arabia and terrorism -- as opposed to the link of individuals who are Saudi and terrorism -- still exist. I try to chip away at those myths. It’s true that some Saudis criticize me for thinking like a Westerner and abandoning the customs and traditions of Saudi Arabia. It’s not true, but I understand how that perception developed. My training is in Western style journalism and with opinion writing I occasionally use Western idioms, slang and humor to get a point across. This usually translates very badly into Arabic. I didn’t notice how badly until I started writing for the Huffington Post last year. Suddenly Arabic news websites and blogs started picking up the column and translating it into Arabic. Sometimes the translations were spot on and captured the nuances of the English version, but mostly the translations were too literal or there just wasn’t the right Arabic word or phrase to convey my message. At the end of the day, I kind of looked a little silly or disrespectful to Arabs. But it can’t be helped.
RW: In fact, your columns seem to indicate you are an equal opportunity critic of both the West and Saudi Arabia?
SJ: Yes, of course. They both deserve criticism, but praise as well when they get things right.
RW: So what is the message that you are trying to convey?
SJ: At the end of the day all Saudis and most Arabs, not to mention South Asians, are Muslims. We live our lives as Muslims and are guided by the Holy Qur’an. It will never change no matter how badly people of other cultures and religions want it to change. It’s important to point out that Saudi women, for example, want their basic human rights. We don’t want rights as defined by a Western politician, activist or an NGO. We want our rights as outlined in the Qur’an. If Saudi Arabia afforded all women the rights we are entitled to and not be governed by tribal or cultural customs and traditions, then Saudi women will achieve their ultimate goal. The obvious example is that that driving an automobile is not prohibited in the Qur’an. Everyone knows this. It’s not rocket science. This is a cultural issue. Naturally, women should be permitted to drive because there is no religious restriction. But keep in mind that most Saudi women do not see driving a car as an important human rights issue, just like we don’t see the requirement of wearing the abaya, or burqa, whatever you want to call it, an important issue. We view education and employment as vital to our basic rights as women. Well meaning human rights activists and Western politicians mistakenly believe that banning the burqa and demanding that Saudi Arabia allow women to drive are somehow vital rights issues. They are not. In fact, I agree that the burqa has no place in Western society. It defeats the purpose of the burqa as a tool to protect women from unwanted or inappropriate attention. In the West, all it does is attract attention from the wrong people. But having said that I believe it’s a woman’s right to choose. Common sense tells you, though, that an article of clothing or getting behind the wheel of a Lexus pales in comparison to getting a high school certificate or university degree, and then using that education to get a job that pays a good wage. And by the way, most of the Saudi women do get a good education. Six in 10 Saudi university students are women. The challenge is getting a job based on that education. I think somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of Saudi women are employed inside Saudi Arabia. That’s terrible, but significantly better than the 5 percent about eight years ago. Things are improving. Not fast enough for many women, but improvements nonetheless. Another example is male guardianship. This is a religious issue for Muslims, but is very narrowly defined in the Holy Qur’an and applies to the protection of women, such as a father or brother protecting an unmarried daughter or sister. Male guardianship does not apply to education and employment and I shouldn’t have to ask permission to get an education or a job. So guardianship is here to stay in Saudi Arabia, but its definition should not be abused by authorities to deny women the right to go to school or to work.
RW: Okay, so driving and throwing away the abaya are not important, why do people get it so wrong about Saudi Arabia?
SJ: The same prejudices that have plagued man since the dawn of time? I don’t know. I admit that Saudis haven’t helped their cause much. 9/11 was a traumatic blow for Saudis. The terrible loss of life involved 15 Saudis. Osama bin Laden was Saudi. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula caused a lot of damage in Saudi Arabia, so we have been victims of terrorism as well. I think the myth of Wahhabism has something to do with it. Wahhabism is an invention of the West. It’s the new communism, the new threat to Western civilization. Wahhabism is defined by the Western media as this austere form of Islam that leads to extremisms and fuels terrorism. There is no such thing as an austere form of Islam. It is just Islam. Anybody can read about it in the Holy Qur’an. There are no revisions of the Qur’an. There is no so-called modern Islam. It is only Islam. Yes, there are secular Muslims, liberals, moderates and extremists. It all depends on how you interpret the Qur’an. Each person has their own interpretation. Islam is not a buffet, but many people treat it as a buffet. They pick and choose aspects of Islam that are comfortable to them. That’s human nature. Even to the Western extremists who perceive Islam as a threat pick and choose aspects of the Qur’an that fit their agenda. I, for one, consider myself a moderate Muslim, but at the end of the day I try to stick as closely to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as possible. Just like most Muslims. But you know what? Muslims don’t think of themselves as Wahhabists. We never use the term and we never think in those terms. There is no Saudi government edict that makes us a Wahhabist nation and we don’t export a Wahhabist ideology. The West projects is own religious history on Muslims. A Christian may say “I’m a Baptist or I’m a Methodist” because there are many different branches in Christianity. But there are only Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Muslims don’t walk around saying “I’m a Wahhabist.” There’s no such thing. If you examine the media reports of so-called Wahhabism literature found in mosques throughout the West, you will never find the term Wahhabism or the definition of Wahhabism. The only definition of Wahhabism you will find comes from Western media. I agree that some literature found in mosques before 9/11 can be considered offensive, but it’s not Wahhabism, as the West puts it. And what’s been ignored is the reform efforts by King Abdullah to eliminate the fundamentalist interpretations of the Holy Qur’an in Saudi textbooks and religious textbooks.
RW: You say the West has this preconceived idea about Saudis and Islam, but what is your experience with the West on a personal level?
SJ: I’ve lived in England for three years now. I’ve have visited the United States twice and I am a frequent panelist or guest at many conferences or symposiums in Europe, including Sweden and Germany. I get out. Americans are warm and friendly. I, of course, wear the hijab, but I have never felt threatened or signaled out. Americans, at least in my experience, seem so non-judgmental on a personal level. My experience in England has largely been the same, although I was once accosted by some teenagers who asked me if I was carrying a bomb under my hijab. They were persistent, loud and scary, but I know it’s an anomaly. My professors, and especially my mentor, at Newcastle University are incredibly supportive. They go out of their way to be friendly and provide whatever help I need. I couldn’t have chosen a better academic environment than Newcastle. I will be sorry to leave Newcastle once I am finished with my studies.
RW: When you go back to Saudi Arabia for school breaks, what differences do you see between Saudi Arabia and the West? What do you like and not like about the West?
SJ: England and the U.S. are incredibly open and for a Saudi that is very exciting but also a little disturbing. Public displays of affection, sexually-oriented advertising and behavior are troubling to us. But the transparency of government, the quality of municipal infrastructure, wide choices of entertainment, the friendliness of the people I encounter and simply the way people behave in public is exciting. I accept and adopt some Western values in my daily living. One must just to survive in an alien culture, but I do this because I want to. It’s part of being a citizen of the world. But I will never adopt Western values that conflict with my religious, although Western culture is very compatible to Islam. Saudis love Western culture. We love American movies and TV shows. My brother loves “Friends” and if I have to see one more episode I will probably be driven insane, but the point is that Saudis love this type of entertainment. It doesn’t mean we all will go out and set up house with three unmarried guys and three unmarried girls, but we still can have fun observing it. I’ve been accused of being corrupted by the West, but the fact is you must be part of the international community to survive and be successful. I can chose to live in Saudi Arabia and never venture beyond is borders. Many Saudis prefer this, but I don’t. I like seeing what the world has to offer and I want to be part of it. On the other hand, when I am in England I get homesick for Saudi Arabia and I especially get homesick for my mom. When I am home in Saudi Arabia I feel comfortable with distinct moral lines between right and wrong and the proper way we all conduct ourselves as Muslims. Such lines in the West are too fuzzy and is confusing, especially to young people. In Saudi Arabia the family is everything. We are always preoccupied with our family’s safety and happiness. I’d say we love each other too much and it can be suffocating. Yet it’s better than having a weak family structure. In the West, many of these things are missing and that’s why, in my opinion, England has a difficult time dealing with hooliganism and excessive drinking. There are a lot of lost young people there. That’s not to say Saudi Arabia is paradise. Many young single men have little to do but drive fast cars, sip coffee and smoke sheesha (hookah). Unemployment among Saudi men is high. But like I said, both cultures can be compatible. There is enough common ground among Westerners and Muslims to get along fine.
RW: It’s one thing to say that West and Islam are compatible, but the perception in the West is that Islam is responsible for terrorism today and much of the killing of civilians is perpetrated in the name of Islam.
SJ: Yes, it is. Violence is often committed in the name of Islam. It doesn’t make the perpetrators Muslims, though. How can they be true Muslims when they twist the teachings of the Prophet to suit their own warped vision of the world? Muslims, and no more so than Saudis, are sickened by extremist violence. But using simplistic logic that terrorism committed in the name of Islam is representative of beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims is ridiculous. That’s like saying Timothy McVeigh and the Christian militia members in Michigan plotting attacks against U.S. law enforcement are representative of Christians. Or that the Irish Republic Army, or the group that calls itself the Real IRA, represent all Irish citizens who want Ireland reunited as a republic. There’s a reason there have been so few terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, despite two American and British wars in Muslim countries, and the few attacks that have occurred originate from the same group of people. It’s because so few Muslims identify with that kind of cause.
RW: You are an Arab Muslim reaching out to a Western non-Muslim audience trying to dispel what you see as the myth about Muslims and Arabs. Isn’t a little like sticking your finger in a dike that is about to burst?
SJ: Maybe so, but what’s the alternative? Quit writing? Give up and go home? I am one of the few female Saudi writers trying to reach the West. Maybe the only one with a wide reach. Imagine if there were a dozen or two dozen female Saudi writers trying to set the record straight about the lives of Saudi women. A few years ago a female writer, Rajaa Alsanea, wrote “The Girls of Riyadh,” which I understand was part fiction and part non-fiction. It got a lot of attention in the West. Maybe for the wrong reasons because the book’s content had the titillation value of focusing partly on the sex lives of young Saudi women. But at least the Western reader got an idea that Saudi women were not robotic black moving objects under the abaya and veil. Other Muslim female writers are popular in the West because their stories tell of women who somehow overcame oppression and fought for an independent life. That’s all fine, but it seems Western publishers only want stories of tortured Muslim women who ultimately triumph over their evil oppressors. These books give a skewed view of Muslim women and Islam. There are only so many Muslim women oppressed and behind-the-veil stories that can be written. If enough Saudis, or simply Muslim, women write their opinions about Islam and the countries they live in, the perception can slowly change.
Rob Wagner is a California-base journalist and author who covered Arab and Muslim issues in Saudi Arabia from 2004 to 2007. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to conduct this interview and write a series of articles on Saudi women’s rights and the changes occurring today in Saudi society.