Arab Women and the Attack of September 11, 2001
By Ghada Talhami
Major political upheavals always affected women, though changes in their lives are rarely linked to the primary cause. This was true of women’s status in the Arab World where foreign policy issues, militarization, the spreading threat of war, and any such destabilizing factors inevitably affected women’s lives and attitudes. Although not commonly viewed as political actors, Arab women nevertheless influence public opinion in their own countries directly through the expression of their own views and indirectly through their involvement in protest movements. Women also have an enormous impact on public opinion through their own suffering which dramatizes their role as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, or simply as the weakest members of society. Clearly, the success of the Israeli military in disrupting the security of the Palestinian family and thereby inflicting pain on women and children have influenced Palestinian public opinion. Moreover, the deterioration of a country’s standing in the worldwide global community of states, such as what Saudi Arabia experienced as a result of its citizens’ involvement in the attacks on the US on September 11, was bound to have a serious impact on all sectors of Saudi women. Thus, political passivity which has historically characterized women’s roles in the traditional states of the Arab World, such as Saudi Arabia, has been shattered forever. To measure the subtle mobilization of this traditional segment of Arab women is not difficult, since they are currently involved as the secondary supporters of a variety of protest movements targeting their own government and that of the US. What is a challenging task, however, is to identify the nature of these public protests in a secretive political environment that was always hostile to any expression of mass political nature. Sometimes, as in the case of the women’s reaction to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Arab coalition against Iraq during the Gulf War identifying the signs of this protest was difficult. For intstance, only some observers were able to link the short-lived women’s attempt to drive cars in the Kingdom as the tip of the subsequent general reform movement which demanded changes from a government that suddenly welcomed foreign troops to its soil. The reform movement which resulted from the severe shock of witnessing Saudi willingness to bend its rules in order to accommodate the American military build-up in the region apparently spanned all sectors of Saudi society. At first, no one anticipated the creative way in which women sought to express their utter dissatisfaction with the rules and regulations governing their lives in this strict Muslim society.
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