Progress for Islamic women

Saudi Arabian women are enjoying new freedoms. Reuters recently reported that, “Saudi authorities, breaking with religious codes that require women to be accompanied by a male guardian, have decided to allow women to stay in hotels on their own.”

This is not the type of freedom that Western women would regard as progress since going out in public without a male guardian hasn’t been a requirement, legal or otherwise, here in recent times. But this advancement is still noteworthy from the Western perspective for several reasons. First, Saudi women’s newfound freedom to stay alone at hotels is widely reported as probable precedent to an even greater freedom, the freedom to drive. The British newspaper the Guardian reports, “Saudi Arabia is to lift its ban on women drivers in an attempt to stem a rising suffragette-style movement in the deeply conservative state. Government officials have confirmed the landmark decision and plan to issue a decree by the end of the year.”

The second reason why we should take note of progress for Saudi Arabia women is contained in the above quote from the Guardian: conservative Saudi women organizing a suffragette-style movement? The very thought would have been cause for a public stoning several decades ago.

OK, so I hyperbolize. But the fact is, a decade or two ago Saudi women were not seen mobilizing for western-style rights in a big way.

This is noteworthy, too. While Saudi women are pressing for progress, Islamic women who have moved to western nations or who live in Islamic countries that are trying to modernize, seem to be doing the exact opposite.

In recent years, I have noticed a large increase in the number of women wearing headscarves nationwide. Clearly there has been an increase in the number of lawsuits over headscarf use. Such lawsuits were unheard of decades ago. Last month, a Muslim woman arrested for riding a California commuter train without a valid ticket filed a federal lawsuit there, claiming her religious freedom was violated when she was forced to remove her headscarf while being taken to jail.

Why would women in strict Islamic societies be pressing for more freedom, while their religious sisters in Western nations are retreating to more conservative habits (to wit, wearing headscarves when they are not required to do so?)

National Public Radio European reporter Silvia Poggioli notes on the network’s Web site that the increasing numbers of Islamic women who, “…cover their heads is a topic of fierce and emotional debate in Europe: some non-Muslims see it as a sign of rejection of modernity and even of radicalization — and many believe it is a sign of women’s submission to male power.”

Several points before we answer the question on Islamic women and legal rights. First, many Islamic women would argue that wearing a headscarf is not a “submission to male power” but a freely chosen decision to observe Sharia or Islamic law. They would also argue that wearing the headscarf is hardly a public statement that they are less liberated than Western women. But the fact is many Western women surely see it that way.

Second, it’s very hard if not impossible to tell whether Muslims in America (who are wearing headscarves) are majority immigrants, or women born here. Those two groups would have very different reasons for adopting strict religious dress codes.

But it is interesting that in general, where Islamic women have fewer freedoms they press for more. And where they enjoy greater legal rights they give up some of those rights. Perhaps more Muslim American women are adopting religious dress codes because after leaving countries where they are in the majority for one where they are in the minority, they feel more comfortable observing home-country customs. Perhaps it is, as it seems to be in Europe, a sign of increased radicalization in view of deteriorating Christian-Islamic relations. Let us hope it is the former or we have bigger problems on our hands than we understand.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)