By Laila Makboul, PhD Candidate, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).
“Do female preachers exist in Saudi Arabia?” This is a common question I get when I talk about my research, sometimes even from those who are generally well-read on the country. Actually, I didn’t know much about these women, referred to as dāʿiyāt, before I started to explore the subject myself. I´ve come to realize that the oblivion of their existence is not necessarily due to a lack of insight into the country. Rather, the female preachers seem to have fallen between the two stools of literature on Saudi Arabia dealing with Islamism and gender.
Whereas the research on the trajectory of the Islamist Awakening, known as Ṣaḥwa, has had the male counterparts as their focal point, gender studies on Saudi Arabia seem to have taken little notice on these women (a couple of exceptions exist however, such as the works of Amelie Le Renard (2012, 2014b) and Madawi al-Rasheed (2013). The practical reasons may be many, such as the difficulties in gaining access to these women. After all, they are not the first to be seen publicly commenting on issues concerning the society in Saudi Arabia to the world perceived as the West. Furthermore, and as noted by Le Renard (2014a), the official promotion of the unveiled successful Saudi woman in media outlets intended to a western audience has had the consequence of ignoring the existence of women with other social, political or religious orientations and thus portraying an uneven representation of who the successful Saudi woman is based on her dress code.
Moving beyond the fixation of how Saudi women dress as a measurement of their agency, there also lies a deep-entrenched notion that regards the religious establishment as a deterrent force for women´s empowerment (see for example the works of Doumato (2003) and al-Rasheed (2013)). According to al-Rasheed (2013), the perception of women’s exclusion from the public space is due to a governing system that is dependent on upholding its religious legitimacy based on a specific interpretation of Wahhabism that regards the religious piety of its female subjects as a symbol of the nation’s authenticity. For al-Rasheed, it is the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding evil (al-amr bil-maʿrūf wa al-nahī ʿan al-munkar) and its transformation under the auspices of the state that is most important for understanding the historical subordination of women and their persistent exclusion from the public sphere in Saudi Arabia. Following this paradigm, the female preachers, who not only uphold this doctrine but are the fan bearers of it, must be the human embodiment of how women can be their worst enemies. Nevertheless, the case is not that simple.
On a theoretical level, and according to anthropologist Saba Mahmood (2012) who has studied female preachers in Egypt, the hegemonic feminist tradition understands agency as being the same as resistance of domination and the following conception of freedom as a social ideal. The result of such a discourse is that dimensions of human actions that do not map into this logic of desiring freedom are at best ignored. The view of Saudi Arabia as a misogynist country upheld by a religious nationalism has thus led to a binary understanding of women´s agency in which acts considered as transgressing ultraconservative religious norms are seen as resistance while conformists as being subjugated to these norms. One troubling result of such a discourse is the foreclosure it entails of women´s practices such as those of the female preachers. Another is the easiness of omitting human behavior that does not map into this paradigm. This awareness is crucial in order to understand the field of operation of the dāʿiyāt, as many of their practices fall outside this understanding of agency.
The main concern for female preachers is to cultivate pious subjects who submit to an envisioned God’s Will. Just like Mahmood´s Egyptian female preachers (2012), the prominent dāʿiyāt in Saudi Arabia, such as Ruqayya al-Muharib and Nawal al-Eid, uphold a discursive tradition that regards subordination to a transcendent will as its goal. The cultivation of a pious subject is developed through the teachings of Islamic scriptures in both religious and social gatherings, and outer practices such as voluntary fasting and the donning of an ultraconservative dress code that includes the face-cover, niqāb, and abaya resting on the head in order to fully hide the shape of the body. Yet, these women´s activism is not confined to female-only religious circles in mosques, nor do they lack the credentials of religious expertise, such as the case of the preachers in Mahmood´s work. In fact, they are among the most followed women on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, many of them hold PhDs in religious studies and have professional careers in higher educational institutions.
Although there are no formal requirements to become a preacher, some common features are expected of a dāʿiya, such as having a concern for the society and being appointed by ”the people”, as explained by Noura al-Omar, head of Global League of Islamic Women´s Organization (GLIWO) (Al-Omar, 2016). Dāʿiyāt can also obtain official credentials from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs attesting to their qualifications as female preachers (Al-Saadoun, 2016). Qualifications that include having religious knowledge and the capability of giving sincere advice to others. By possessing these qualities, daʿwa becomes an individual obligation (farḍ ʿayn) and encompass everything from sharing your religious knowledge with your nearest ones, to holding lectures for the wider public (ibid.). In Saudi Arabia, the most prominent figures belong to the latter type of preaching and are often called dāʿiyāt muthaqqafāt, intellectual preachers, attesting to their religious expertise.
Contrary to the perception that the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding evil has led to the exclusion of women from the public sphere, prominent intellectual female preachers such as Ruqayya al-Muharib and Nawal al-Eid has proven otherwise for these women. For them, it is exactly this notion that anticipated their appearance in the religious, social and political scene. Al-Muharib is among the first women to be active in preaching since the 80´s following the Islamic Awakening. Regarded as a muftiyya among her students and described as a an “ocean of knowledge” (Al Faleh, 2016), she was authorized by the former grand mufti Abdulaziz bin Baz to issue independent fatwa. The charismatic figure of Nawal al-Eid represents the younger generation of female preachers holding lectures in both religious and non-religious topics but with an Islamified substance. With over one million followers on Twitter, she has the most popular female account followed only by the international figure of Ameerah al Taweel. As a testimony to her broad popularity in Saudi Arabia, she is followed by both men and women and is a frequent contributor in news columns, radio programs, TV shows and conferences. Al-Eid is also present in other popular social media outlets such as YouTube, Instagram, Telegram and Snapchat and even has a mobile application in her name.
Female preachers such as al-Muharib and al-Eid are generally in conformity with their male counterparts and often refer to known traditional Salafi scholars such as bin Baz, al Uthaymeen and Albani. At the same time, their presence in the public sphere create new outlets for women who choose to live an ultraconservative life and still wish to be an active participant in the society. In al Eid´s words; “be careful to even think that veiling your face covers your thoughts and mind (Al-Eid, 2016).
Al Faleh, I. (2016, 02.02.2016) Interview/Interviewer: L. Makboul.
Al-Eid, N. (2016). Mubtaʿitha. Qiyam wa ʿimārat arḍ [lecture]. Riyadh: Ethraa. [02.01.2016]
Al-Omar, N. (2016, 30.12.2015) Interview/Interviewer: L. Makboul.
Al-Rasheed, M. (2013). A most Masculine State. Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Al-Saadoun, I. (2016, 28.02.2016) Female Preachers/Interviewer: L. Makboul.
Doumato, E. A. (2003). Education in Saudi Arabia: gender, jobs, and the price of religion. Women and Globalization in the Arab Middle East, 239-258.
Le Renard, A. (2012). From Qur’anic Circles to the Internet: Gender Segragation and the Rise of Female Preachers in Saudi Arabia. In M. Bano & H. Kalmbach (Eds.), Women, leadership, and mosques : changes in contemporary Islamic authority. Leiden: Brill.
Le Renard, A. (2014a). The Politics of “Unveiling Saudi Women”: Between Postcolonial Fantasies and the Surveillance State. Retrieved from http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/20259/the-politics-of-unveiling-saudi-women_between-post
Le Renard, A. (2014b). A society of young women: opportunities of place, power, and reform in Saudi Arabia: Stanford University Press.
Mahmood, S. (2012). Politics of piety : the Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.