Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed finally landed in Canada this week. Met at the airport by supporters and well-wishers, she smiled and waved, sporting a Canada hoodie and UN baseball cap as cameras flashed around her. Allegedly escaping abuse by her parents, the teen’s request for asylum was advanced by Canadian authorities, after days of international media coverage.
Rahaf’s story could not be more different to the thousands of other women from the Middle East seeking to come to Canada. Flying first class, she snapped photos of her enjoying wine and cigarettes on the plane. Flanked by officials as she arrived in Toronto, she was escorted to her new home, where a private security firm has reportedly been hired to ensure her safety.
Her journey, luxurious and welcoming, resembles nothing of those of the thousands of refugee women fleeing war and poverty, who face life threatening journeys, long waiting times and endless discrimination in the hope of finding safety abroad.
But the reason for Rahaf’s special treatment is clear. Her position as a Saudi woman who has denounced her Islamic belief bequeaths her a special status and use. The story of an oppressed Muslim woman, restricted by her family, culture and government, fleeing to the liberal, secular West and rejecting her faith is the perfect orientalist trope, that has been recycled time and again, but has perhaps never appeared in such a concentrated form.
And over the past week, international media has been taking full advantage of their fantasy tale being handed to them on a plate.
From headlines celebrating Rahaf eating bacon and a wearing knee length dress, to her declarations that Saudi women were treated like slaves, every minute detail that could frame Saudi Arabia, and consequently certain Islamic practices, in a negative light made the front page. Now at just 18, with no previous experience in activism, she has been hailed a revolutionary, with plans to campaign for the Saudi women “left behind”, applauded by Westerners everywhere she turns.
Rahaf’s case is just the latest in a series of stories about Saudi women that have been instrumentalised by the global media machine in recent months. The minor administrative change in Saudi law that would see women notified of their divorce by text made a provocative headline at the BBC and CNN, despite the law actually being suggested by female lawyers in the country to ensure women were fully aware of their marital status and rights, and to simply lessen their paperwork.
Read more: The Saudi Arabia crisis explained
The case of 11 feminist activists who have been imprisoned and reportedly tortured in the Kingdom has also sparked international outrage, with the UK governments requesting Saudi authorities allow a British delegation to visit the women in prison to ascertain their health.
Although this case has warranted numerous condemnations on the state of human rights in the country, foreign governments have remained silent on the continued detention of hundreds of senior religious scholars, including Sheikh Salman Al-Oudah, Sheikh Abdul Aziz At-Tarefe, Sheikh Safar Al-Hawali and Sheikh Muhammad Al-Munajjid.
Denied medical treatment and also facing abuse in jail, their plight has been ignored, in an attempt to preserve the age-old media slant on Saudi Arabia – pitting the religious, autocratic government against the freedom-seeking people. News that the government is also arresting scores of preachers would significantly dampen that image.
Recognising this hypocrisy is not a defence of Saudi Arabia or a denial of Rahaf’s case. As it stands, her family have rejected the allegations of abuse, making Rahaf’s testimony the only evidence of her treatment. Yet even assuming her accusations are true, one can condemn the cruelty she faced while acknowledging the blatant propaganda once again spread about Saudi women and Islam.
Firstly, Rahaf’s implication that all women in Saudi Arabia are entirely robbed of their agency is simply false. Saudi women are more highly educated than their male counterparts; the numbers of Gulf women pursuing STEM subjects also outnumbers those in the West. Whilst they undoubtedly face numerous cultural and political obstacles, to insinuate they are “slaves” and have been stripped of all purpose is an insult to their achievements.
Yet this portrayal of Saudi women also serves another agenda – to equate the country’s harsh treatment of women with Islam. Whilst Muslims across the world recognise that the kingdom’s isolated implementation of some sharia rulings does not make it a truly Islamic country, this is a fact perpetually ignored by the media.
Instead, citing Saudi’s guardianship laws, loosely derived from the Islamic principle of a mahram, commentaries blame traditional interpretations of Islam for the oppression of women, reinforcing their position that only secular, liberal values can lead to liberation. Conservative dress standards and a culture that sees men and women separated in social sphere of life have also been attacked, but whilst Saudi undeniably takes these principles further, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater and allow these traditions to be blanketly dismissed as backward.
As Muslims, we must reinstate nuance into this conversation, by first separating the actions of Saudi Arabia from Islam.
The kingdom is not a representative Islamic state comparable to that which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established in Madina and existed for hundreds of years thereafter, nor does it aspire to be. It is better described as a nation state that has institutionalised religion, and attempts to regulate the religiosity of its citizens through certain laws. Whilst some of these regulations may be inspired by Islamic principles, many, including the country’s infamous ban on women driving and voting, have no relevance to Islamic texts, and have been rejected by the majority of scholars worldwide.
Consequently, it is the government’s cherry-picking of Islamic laws, that has resulted in the country’s bias towards women – not Islam in its entirety. Whilst a holistic application of the Islamic tradition would see the rights of both men and women fulfilled, this is unfortunately not a reality that we see in any country in the world today. Saudi Arabia does not embody the Islamic principles of productive cooperative between the two genders, as Allah (swt) clearly ordains in Surah Tawba verse 71:
وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ بَعْضٍ ۚ يَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَيُطِيعُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ سَيَرْحَمُهُمُ اللَّهُ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.”
Instead the Kingdom co-opts religious laws and traditional cultures within a secular legal framework, creating a legislative cocktail aimed more at societal and political repression, than staying true to the objectives of Islam.
Yet it cannot be denied that the West is exploiting the public’s lack of knowledge on this issue to once again portray Islam as a religion of backwardness. Rahaf Mohammad, knowingly or unknowingly, has become the latest pawn in an ideological battle over Muslim women that spans centuries.
Since the earliest exposure to the Islamic world, orientalists have depicted Muslim women as inscrutable, yet exotic objects, frustratingly out of reach, primarily due to their veiled nature.
The struggle to define Muslim women as such, and subsequently rescue her from such oppression continues today. From US President George Bush justifying the invasion of Afghanistan with the idea that Afghan women needed saving, to UK Prime Minister David Cameron declaring British Muslim women to be “traditionally submissive”, Canada now takes the stage to literally and figuratively save a Saudi woman, at a time of contentious bilateral relations between the two countries.
As observers to this media performance, we must be conscious of the broader agendas at stake. Although our sympathy goes out to women across the world who face abuse, we cannot allow such cases to be used to misrepresent Islam. Because Rahaf Mohammad may be the latest Muslim woman manipulated for the Western gaze, but she wont be the last.