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Saudi-Islamic feminism, in its early stages, is probably best described as a women's rights movement. Many women themselves would be hesitant to describe themselves as feminists.

Life for women under Islamic law in Saudi Arabia

The term feminist carries with it a Western connotation that is likely to draw disdain among the Saudi political elite. Unlike feminist movements elsewhere, their calls are not revolutionary, but are instead rooted in discourses of religious righteousness. Iman is one of three crucial dimensions of a Muslim's practice. The first, Islam , means to submit. Second, iman , means adherence to religious law and practice. The final dimension, ishan denotes applying iman to obtain excellence in worship. In the Saudi blogosphere observed on Nafjan's Saudiwoman.

To be identified as "western" or "liberal" were second in offense only to charges of 'atheism' or 'kafir'. Saudi women seeking change recognize that their message must first resonate domestically. While blog posts reveal high levels of international support for Saudi women's issues, Saudi voices resist coalitions with international advocates and position religion as central to deliberation. This deliberative tactic has the effect of positioning Islamic theology and interpretation at the center of deliberation. Further, it ensures that Saudi women's voices are not coopted or misrepresented by other feminist discourses.

Comments that ignore challenges of religious legitimacy are ignored or negated and contested. Those that engage religious texts often fill several printed pages of text, with users acting as religious scholars to demonstrate their Islamic knowledge. Instead, Nafjan and several of her supporters suggest that the histories be re-read. By examining Islamic theology and texts from multiple perspectives new readings may impact how old questions are answered.

One of the largest debates that played out in Nafjan's "Manal Al Sherif post, concerned not whether Manal and the June 17th Drive-In were necessary, but whether they were conducted Islamically. User's defensiveness in regard to Islam, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, signal a movement that seeks approval from these forces. This deliberative process introduces historical and religious meanings to critique in the public sphere, and in doing so, may threaten "Muslims' sense of their past and thus also of themselves" Barlas Nafjan's "get it straight from the source" attitude fosters a community of open deliberation and encourages new contributors to the social, religious, and political deliberations.

The posts and their associated comments create a new space for deliberation that is discursive, performative, and participative, and unlike any offered in the tangible Saudi public sphere.

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Voices previously silenced now have a forum to organize and deliberate and researchers as well as the international public should be listening. While a Saudi women's movement is early in its formation, Nafjan's posts concerning women's mobility rights reveal a movement steadfast in seeking progress.

In a June 11, post Nafjan submits her translation of a petition titled "My Right To Dignity" seeking signatories. The petition discourages protest and pledges to work within the Kingdom's avenues for political change. This campaign does not seek to disrupt the government or to violate any national laws or regulations.

Here it is important to point out that there is no explicit law banning women from driving. We are not in cooperation with any foreign organizations or bodies nor do we represent a political party or opposition. We do not intend to start a public protest Our hope is now hanging on the generosity of your response and support for this campaign. We hope that your majesty will instruct all those who have in their capacity to support us to do so, such as the regional princes, the police and the Commission for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue.

We hope that you will command them to enable women who have valid licenses to drive their own cars when running their basic daily errands and thus lift the financial and social burden on some families that has lasted far too long. Translation of My Right to Dignity petition By pledging to work within the existing political structure and discouraging protest the movement seeks political influence.

This appeal effectively seeks to use the double-discourse described by Al-Rasheed to the movement's advantage.


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Instead, the political efficacy of such movements is "a function of the work they perform in the ethical realm" Mahmood As Saudi women organize online they identify new strategies of persuasion. Exploiting the double-discourse of Wahhabi rhetoric, Saudi women are able to forge ethical claims against the political.

This emerging public sphere promotes new and varied challenges to laws, interpretations, and practice which open the existing public sphere to multiple opportunities for religious and political opposition. First by positing their support of Islam, secondly by shifting the religious debate into territory where it may be more easily contested, and finally by reshaping and restorying Saudi Arabian history and values, Saudi women in the blogosphere are actively 'taking back' discourses previously controlled by ruling elites.

Saudi men and ruling parties are held accountable for their deviations from the original values and scriptures of Islam. In many cases men who are protective of the status quo are described as weak and fearful of women's power and roles within society. Saudi women describe the necessity of male participation in the movement and seek to offer them a history whereby they are justified in their supportive efforts.

In some cases, faith is positioned in support of the effort and religious texts are quoted to support their movement. In other cases, examples of the Prophet's fair treatment of women are presented. Often men are reminded of their role as fathers, and of the need to protect and defend their mothers, sisters, and daughters. This recognition of separate roles is paramount to a Saudi women's rights movement that seeks restoration of the egalitarian modes of Islam rather than following more secular and demanding women's movements as seen in Egypt or Malaysia.

For those navigating the Saudi Islamic blogosphere, the communication exchanges encountered are significantly more open than those found in communal markets, news outlets, and business or academic conferences. The discursive deliberations on Saudiwoman. Posts like Nafjan's "Saudi Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and the resulting comments argue for a view of Saudi women that incorporates their autonomy and resists depictions of victimization.

One user comments on Nafjan's critique of veiled Saudi women's as either "victimized and brainwashed or surprisingly educated and powerful. I am happy to be a voice for all the women who feel that the burqa is a source of oppression. Just as I am happy to stand by the women for whom it is the biggest sign of their faith, the very backbone of their beliefs.

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I am happy to do both because my say doesn't count unless I am the one wearing the burqa. The West has a misplaced notion of being the freedom-giver of all the world's oppressed. Just as Islamic nations have a misplaced notion that only tradition without innovation and change will carry them into the future. What we need is the best of both worlds.

Nobody is above anyone else, however different the view on the other side may be. This response wonderfully typifies the necessary compromise between accommodation and confrontation and provides each perspective a role in the dialogue. This user confirms Nafjan's restoryed depiction of Saudi women and suggests that victimized portrayals stem from a western superiority complex.

Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic voices from a new generation

It is awareness of this complex that drives Saudi reform to distance itself from western feminism while simultaneously advocating for modernization of the public sphere and women's place within it. Those who restory western visions of Saudi women often detail rampant drug and alcohol abuse or unwed pregnancy. Adherence and submission to Islam are supreme in any vision of Saudi women's reform.

Second to Islam is nationalism and pride in being Saudi. Reconciled between the two are women's issues. By restorying Saudi feminist identity women's issues become about nationalism, religion, and society from their standpoint and intersections. By creating Saudi-Islamic feminist discourses they uniquely resist the restraints of victimizing labels and promote empowerment.

While revolutions elsewhere have called for the establishment or removal of a secular regime there are no such calls in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia dissent is framed from within a revivalist Wahhabiyyaa framework.


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In this framework, Islam and interpretations of it, become the center point for contestation. Islam in Saudi Arabia is therefore a subject of contention, primarily between the regime and the Islamists, but also among the Islamists themselves because of the multiplicity of visions that motivate them" Lacroix The women deliberating on Saudiwomen.

As users interact with oneanother they refine their social, religious, and political worldviews. The dissenting discourses that emerge from these deliberations challenge the state, not at the political or legislative level, but at the very root of what it means to be an authentically Islamic state. From women's varied perspectives it is possible to imagine a Saudi Islamic state that encourages women's active deliberation in the public sphere.

In attempting to address whether the public sphere can be reconstituted to promote increased deliberation, scholars must address socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors that influence the development and maintenance of public and counter public spheres. This multidisciplinary approach contributes to a wide range of disciplines and promotes a flexible and varied approach to identifying the emergence of women's discourses in publics where they were previously discouraged or prohibited.

While this research highlights existing forms of feminism as they have appeared in the Middle East, it makes no attempt to provide a framework for future Middle Eastern feminist study.

Outrage Overdue: Saudi Arabia's Long History of Dictatorship and Opposition

Instead, political, religious, and cultural knowledge should be combined with a knowledge and respect for previous women's movements within the region to allow for the recognition of intersectional identities and relevant tensions. Research should be guided by an awareness that Saudi women's standpoint is unique and largely resists Western frameworks of feminist theory. Continued development and awareness of Islamic feminist theory offers researchers ever increasing opportunities to study the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and faith as they affect public sphere deliberations. As Saudi women continue to organize for social change, scholars should examine how their messages are constructed and interpreted in the public.