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Fatema Mernissi

Digital Scheherazade

The Rise of Women as Key Players in the Arab Gulf Communication Strategies
by Fatema Mernissi
  • Excerpts from the longer English manuscript, Rabat, September 2005

  • In May 2005, I listened attentively to the questions of the 30 journalists my Spanish publisher scheduled in Madrid to promote the translation of my book "Les Sindbads Morocains". From their questions, which all dealt with the veil and terrorism, it was clear that they had no clue about the strategic issue mobilizing the Arab World : al-fitna raqmiya (digital chaos), the destruction of space frontiers by the new Information Technologies (IT). The key problem giving anxiety fits to elites and masses, to heads of states and street-vendors, to men and women in the Arab world today is the digital chaos induced by IT such as the internet and the satellite which has destroyed the hudud, the space frontier which divided the universe into a sheltered private arena where women and children were supposed to be protected, and a public one where adult males exercised their presumed problem-solving authority.(1)

    1. Digital Chaos: It is no longer "to be or not to be" but "to navigate or not to navigate"


    It is this kind of mind-blowing civilizational shift happening in the Arab world where men are finally embarking on becoming skilled digital nomads instead of crying about the frontiers' collapse and dreaming of harems for their wives - that I tried to share with the Spanish journalists obsessed by the veil and terrorism during my Madrid encounter in May 2005. Although the Spanish city of Gibraltar is just 13 km away from the Moroccan port of Tangiers, I realized that Spaniards had no idea about the revolution the information technologies have produced in our part of the world. And one reason for that is the fact that in Madrid's plush hotel which advertised itself as satellite-connected, I could not connect to my favorite Al-Jazeera or to any one of the 200 pan-Arab satellite channels beaming now in the Mediterranean.

    At one point, I tried to illustrate this change by sharing with them the extraordinary emergence of women I saw in the Arab Gulf during a visit to Bahrain in March 2005. I tried to describe to them Mai Al-Khalifa, a historian who in less than a decade, has created modern spaces such as museums and cultural centers that encourage dialogues between the sexes and the generations. I tried to explain that focusing on this unexpected emergence of women in the oil-rich Arab Gulf is more significant an indicator than the veils of the Moslem migrant community, but the Spanish journalists were trapped in their own veil and terror. (...)

    2. Arab Café TV: Female Historians Replace Belly-Dancers

    The café near my University Mohamed V in Rabat was full of young students and teachers when Mai Al-Khalifa appeared on Al-Arabia, a new rival of Al-Jazeera, financed by the Saudis. The manager of the café automatically turned up the volume of the TV because he was a fan of Turki Ad-Dakhil, the show's anchor, a very electrifying young man who appears on the screen dressed in the Gulf region's traditional white robe, just to surprise you by his insolent remarks towards all kinds of authorities. You have to remember that when I was a child, the only women you could see in my hometown Fez, in movies or on television when it made its appearance in Morocco in the 1960s, were belly-dancers and singers. Intellectual women had no chance. Now, I noticed a striking change in the Rabat café : conversations slowed down although Mai Al-Khalifa was dressed like a professional woman in a white suit and looked very much on guard, unlike belly dancers who blinked their eyes, and swayed hands and buttocks non-stop. What happened in the dynamics of my Rabat café was as important for me as what was going on on the television screen.

    It was by chance that I was in the café, because I am rather a home-bound creature. I was invited there by Kamal, one of my favorite colleagues and a "1001 Nights" expert. He was intrigued by what I had told him about my Bahrain trip, because there is very little cultural exchange between North Africa and the Gulf. One of Mai Al-Khalifa best known books is the one dealing with the Qarmates, a controversial group of Shi'a who rebelled in the 10th century against the Sunni Abbassid Caliphs, described as terrorists by some historians and as the founders of the first republic in Islam by others. I thought that would be the topic Turki, the Al-Arabia show host, would start with. But he did not, he choose another topic.


    3: Mai Al-Khalifa's Daring Message: "The Arab World Needs Visionaries not Bureaucrats."

    Why, wondered Turki, was Mai Al-Khalifa producing so much controversy in Bahrain about the projects she promoted as one of the first women to hold an official position? She was the first woman to be appointed in Bahrain as Assistant Under-Secretary for Culture and National Heritage, a position which has more to do with innovative strategic planning than with routine management. Was it because she was a woman or because she was incompetent, coming from an academic background and being thus unfit for pragmatic action? Some people at the Ministry of Culture, Turki argued, were saying that intellectuals are too isolated in their ivory towers to be effective cultural operators. That is when Mai Al-Khalifa came out with a short but explosive statement: "That intellectuals are unable to invent effective cultural strategies is a totally wrong assumption," she said while brushing her lustrous black hair away from her face. Such statements, she added, are typical of bureaucrats who are in fact totally unfit to design the dynamic cultural strategies the Arab World needs to face the new technologies challenge, and this for the simple reason that they lack vision. "I am an intellectual who has both a clear vision (ru'ya) of the future and the capacity to go ahead and act by undertaking successful innovative projects." Only intellectuals, she stressed, have ru'ya, that precious gift so important in today's global chaos.


    The absence of a clear vision of the future is one of the tragic issues Arab intellectuals are identifying as contributing to the dangerous political disengagement of the youth and their confusion, which makes them extremely vulnerable to the violence spread on the internet. To stop terrorism, Arab leaders have to provide the youth with a ru'ya, a clear vision of the future where they have a role to play as defenders of an ethical planet, explains Egyptian expert Nabil Abdel-Fattah, assistant to the director of the Al Ahram Center for political and strategic studies and the editor of the annual report, 'Religion in Egypt', in his comments on the July 2005 Sharm El-Sheikh terrorist attack which left 64 dead and 200 injured. The frustration of Arab youth is due to the elite's failure to articulate a clear ethical vision of a future where every individual has a mission and a purpose.(2) And it is this emergence of the ru'ya, the vision issue as the anti-dote to terrorism which explains why the café crowd reacted so strongly to Mai Al-Khalifa's defiant answer to her television host. Her ru'ya is the likely reason some Bahrain government bureaucrats were angered by her audacious cultural projects, such as school-targeting museums and cultural centers which teach kids to understand that diversity is the root of their identity.

    4. To Build the Future, Arabs Have to Travel in the Past : Democratization of the Museum Industry

    One way to help young people get over their political disengagement and confusion is to give them access to the past by building museums for the masses. The tragedy is that museums and art production and collection were monopolies of the Caliphs who kept them as their most distinctive luxury. As Ibn Khaldun explains in his analysis of "Teraz" houses where rulers controlled creativity, be it book writing, architecture, ceramics or textile weaving. 'Teraz' was the name of the houses within their palaces they equipped to weave their textiles. The man in charge of them was called Teraz-master (Çahib at-Teraz). He controlled color dies and weaving instruments and the weavers as well. He provided them with salaries, facilitated their task and supervised their production."(3) It is this despotic appropriation of the past and all innovative domains from arts to domestic crafts by the rulers which explains why the issue of museums and time navigation are such sensitive topics in the Arab media today.

    Add to that that national museums, like the one in Bahrain, teach tolerance by explaining that to understand Islamic culture one has to know about pre-Islamic ones and be proud of them as well, if one remembers that the common problem for all humans remains to invent adequate technology: "For at least two thousand years, from 5.000 to 3.000 BC, before the initiation of a local copper-trade, fishermen and hunters roamed Bahrain. During this stone-age period tools and weapons were made of local materials : flint and other stone, bone, horn and wood. The technology was so simple that every man was able to make his own tools."(4) The new Bahrain National Museum stirred critics because it enhanced the pre-Islamic era by delving into "the Sumerian, Dilmun, Greek, and Islamic Arab civilizations".(5) Youth always was the target of that museum which started, explains the Bahrain Minister of Information, "as a collection of artifacts displayed at a temporary exhibition and has grown to become the largest collection of its kind in the world, housed since 1988 in a modern $ 27 million complex constructed on a unique sea-front site of 123.000 square meters of reclaimed land."(6)

    Because Arabs in general and the youth in particular are fed up with fanaticism and censorship, neighborhood cafes are turning, thanks to the new culture-focused satellite-TV such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia, to debates over ru'ya, visions of the future as key to empowerment. Many men in the café followed the rough exchange between Turki and his guest with beaming smiles, including my colleague Kamal. I asked him why he was smiling and he said because Al-Khalifa's quick response to Turki was full of fresh spontaneity: "Fatema, I think Arab intellectuals should create a financial fund to support this lady, because she is making fantastic publicity for us. If she continues appearing on television shows making such statements, we, the poor marginalized intellectuals will soon be receiving well-paid job offers to replace our vision-blind bureaucrats in the 22 Arab States!".

    Kamal was right, because very few Arab male intellectuals would have dared to declare with so much self-confidence, as Al-Khalifa did on television, that they are visionaries and that only far-sighted intellectuals can invent futuristic strategies for an Arab world doubly assaulted by both the new Information Technologies and the powerful American military. And one of the positive changes initiated by these new assaults is that people have stopped complaining and are going one step further towards identifying concrete solutions : to defeat the bureaucrats who have monopolized power for decades, Arab intellectuals have to be included, especially those who were jailed or forced into exile because of their leftist visions.

    The amazing thing about this new breed of Arab women in the Arab Gulf like Mai Al-Khalifa is that she does not limit herself to writing, but manages to jump into action as well. "She, like Shaikha Hussa Al-Sabah from Kuwait, build museums and cultural centers like other women turn out couscous tagines!" remarked Kamal who always condemned my decision not to get involved in politics.(7) For Kamal who, unlike me, got involved in politics and paid for it by having trouble with the Moroccan police, it is clear that now only intellectuals can help rulers to engineer power. Because the challenge for the intellectuals is to help rulers equip the youth to surf responsibly on the internet by inventing futuristic solutions which equip them to navigate not in space only but also in time. Mastering time is the secret of graceful navigation in a globalized planet where meeting strangers daily is the only way to make a living. To travel in the past, that is to navigate in time, is the best way to teach oneself tolerance, and respect for diversity.

    5. Stop Crying about the Frontiers' Collapse : Use your Brain to Navigate in both Time and Space!
    6. Alexander Did not Conquer Bahrain in 331 BC because its People were Navigators!
    7. Digital Scheherazades: Emergence of Women as Smart Players in an Arab Gulf Investing in Economic Nomadism
    7.1. Who are "The 50 Most Powerful Arab Women"?
    7.2. Shaikha Lubna al Qasimi of Dubai
    7.3. Maha al Ghunaim, a 'Digital Scheherazade' from Kuwait
    7.4. Shaikha Hanadi Nasser Bin Khalid al Tani of Qatar
    7.5.The Saudi writer and poet Nimah Ismail Nawwab:"Try freedom!"
    8. Why is the poet Adonis' celebration of women's power catching up with Arab media?
    9. Conclusion : When Caliph Harun Er-Rachid turned to communication, his wife Zubaida helped design roads and water pumps.


    (1) On the importance of hudud, the space frontiers which block women in the private sphere, see my books "Beyond the Veil" (Indiana University Press, 1987) and "Le Harem Politique" (Albin Michel, 1987) translated into English as "The Veil and the Male Elite" (Perseus,1981).
    (2) Nabil Abdel-Fattah: "Look Below the Surface", in Al Ahram weekly, issue N°753, July/August, 2005, page 14. The exact quote is: "While terrorists formed dormant cells and began using the internet extensively, our security measures remained unchanged ... our ruling elite wouldn't acknowledge that political reform is a good defence against terrorism ... a more active political life would offer the young a chance to vent their anger more productively."
    (3) Ibn Khaldun on "Tents and Wall Spreads" in his "Introduction to History" (The Muqaddimah), Al Maktaba al Açriya, Beyrouth, the 2003 edition commented by Prof. Darwish al-Juwaydi, page 244
    (4) See the chapter on "The Stone Age and Dilmun Era" in "Bahrain National Museum", State of Bahrain, Ministry of Information, Directorate of Museums and Heritage, IMMEL Publishing, London, 1993, reprinted in 2001, page 13
    (5) See the introduction to the book "Bahrain National Museum", op. cit., page IX
    (6) Foreword of the Minister of Information, Tariq Almoayed, "Bahrain National Museum", op. cit., page IX
    (7) Shaikha Hussa Al Sabbah is famous in the Arab world for having forced Saddam Hussein to give back the heritage treasures which were stolen from the museums after his invasion of Kuwait.

    © Fatema Merissi
    If you are interested in publishing the article, partly or completely, please, contact the literary agent Edite Kroll.

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