Excellent Daughters, Katherine Zoepf [Review]

I’ve written before about my interest in the gendered resource curse–the notion endorsed by eminent scholar Michael Ross and (in a different version) by my co-author Yu-Ming Liou and me that “petroleum perpetuates patriarchy”. In our theory, oil rents have promoted the Saudi government’s (and other conservative oil-rich governments’) ability to promote policies that affirm gender segregation. This process has reached its apex in Saudi Arabia, with massive oil rents, a longstanding clerico-monarchical alliance, and a conservative social tradition.

As part of our article in International Studies Quarterly exploring this thesis, we found that we needed to turn to journalists to help us flesh out some of the “soft tissue” that was being lost in the regressions and data points we were spending much of our time with. (We also consulted scholarly works, especially Madawi al-Rasheed’s A Most Masculine State.) One of the journalists who seemed to consistently produce interesting material was Katherine Zoepf, whose examination of the politics of lingerie shop employments–a skirmish in a broader three-way argument among male traditionalists, female reformers, and Westernizers about the degree to which women should be kept secluded–proved invaluable to helping us trace out the dynamics of this system.

Zoepf has now published a very good book about her experiences as a journalist interacting with women throughout the Arab world, from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Much of her book reads like a combination of journalism and informal social science, but the details she has unearthed are fascinating and will be of interest to anyone who cares about ordinary lived experiences, the politics of women’s status, and the ways that “modernity” can manifest. Zoepf maps how women create their own spaces as both members of the liberaliyeen and as sisters within secretive, conservative religious networks to the manner in which male expectations circumscribe their freedoms and the state violates their hard-won freedoms–and, sometimes, their very bodies.

Zoepf does not particularly inquire into the deeper structural reasons why institutions have developed differently in Lebanon and Dubai compared to ordinary authoritarian states like Syria (pre-war) and Egypt or the extreme case of Saudi Arabia. (Obviously, I think that the interaction of oil rents and elite ideologies play a major role.) Nevertheless, the variation that she uncovers makes me all the more frustrated in both the way that “women’s issues” continue to be marginalized within social science (instead of treated as a mainstream issue like war or taxes) and in the ways that the very institutions that we want to investigate limit our ability to study them. I also continue to wonder just how seriously we should take cross-national regressions when even the frames of reference we bring to interpreting the data–and collecting it!–rule out deeper inquiry into history and culture as causal or constitutive factors.

Introducing her sojourn in Riyadh, Zoepf writes:

Saudi Arabia devotes enormous resources to maintaining a strict separation between the sexes. This separation is the most noticeable feature of Saudi life, so extreme that it is almost impossible to overstate. Saudi women may not drive, and they must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times. They are spirited around in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments, and eat in special “family” sections of cafes and restaurants, which are carefully partitioned off from the sections used by male diners. There are bank branches, travel agencies, and sections of government offices that serve only women. Even fast-food chain restaurants, like McDonald’s and KFC, have separate counter lines for men and for women.

I sometimes think that discussions of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia move past these particulars just a bit too quickly. Young people are isolated from the opposite sex from adolescence onward. For the most part, adult Saudi men and women have almost no contact with the opposite sex beyond their own immediate families….

I agree that this form of segregation (and others prevalent throughout the Gulf, from the vertical sorting of nationalities and professions and the more general distance between a substantial fraction of the citizenry and the productive economy) is amazingly underrated. The plasticity of human culture so obvious that it is taken for granted, and yet when one stops to think of it one can think of nothing else. Ascribing such manifestations to “culture” explains too much–almost every culture has precedents that could be used to justify such segregation; The Handmaid’s Tale owes as much to Puritan precedents as to the Iranian Revolution. But it also seems apparent that oil by itself cannot create such structures–even Qatar, next door and similarly Wahhabi, is not Saudi Arabia.

I also wish that political scientists took “the body” more seriously as a subject of inquiry–from clothing to sexual practices, Zoepf demonstrates the ways that intimate choices are not absent from political overtones or intrusions. (The advertising during Oprah episodes in Saudi Arabia bespeaks consumption as rebellion.) Perhaps one upside of the current moment is that we will re-open the fields of our inquiry even as we bring more rigorous methods to their study.

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