News media take heed: Tunisia, not Saudi Arabia, is where Arab Muslim women are truly advancing

So the Saudi monarchy has indicated it will allow the kingdom’s women to drive. And the international media has mostly applauded (with notable exceptions) what elsewhere around the globe has long been a given.

As “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che joked on “Saturday Night Live,” Saudi Arabia’s announcement barely beat out allowing vehicles to drive themselves.

Understand that I'm not dismissing the Saudi decision as entirely meaningless, because it's not. For now, however, it amounts to little more than a Band-Aid. I'll say more about this below.

But first, let's take a look at what's been happening in Tunisia, where the news about Muslim women has received less coverage than the Saudi story — even though its of potentially far greater significance for women in the Arab Muslim world.

Events in Tunisia sparked the 2011 Arab Spring, which largely failed elsewhere — disastrously so in Syria and Yemen — but did succeed in Tunisia. What’s happening there now led one New York Times op-ed writer to wonder optimistically whether a second Arab Spring focused on women’s rights just might be in the wind.

If so, let’s hope it ends far better than the first one.

The latest bit of underplayed Tunisian news is the North African nation’s decision to allow its Muslim women to legally marry non-Muslim men without the grooms having to convert to Islam ahead of the wedding.

That's huge in the Arab world because it speaks to the core of Islam’s self-understanding, whereas the Saudi driving story is more about local cultural and political arrangements.

Here’s how the BBC covered the story. The following graphs get to the meat of the issue.

Many Tunisians see the removal of the marriage restriction as another landmark in guaranteeing women's freedom in the country.
It sets apart Tunisia as the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to remove the legal hurdles to marrying outside the official state religion.
It is an important milestone in a region where religion in marital ties can be at the heart of many a family feud, and long struggles against state laws.
Unlike Muslim women, men can marry non-Muslim women without providing any religious documents.
Tunisia is also home to a Jewish, as well as a small Christian, minority and it is not entirely clear how the marriage restriction applied to them.
Scrapping the decree may not do away with the cultural and traditional obstacles women face with their families in cases of inter-faith marriage, but it now offers Tunisian women greater freedom of choice from a legal perspective.

I've posted here before about the short-shrift that relatively progressive Tunisia (given its Arab Muslim context) seems to get from international media, particularly those anchored in the West.

Perhaps it's because Tunisia — compared to Saudi Arabia, for example — is small potatoes in the West’s understanding of the Arab world’s movers and shakers. Certainly that's the case when considering fossil fuel reserves and the ongoing conflict with Iran.

But given the influence to trigger attempts at change that Tunisia seems to have in the internal Arab Muslim dynamic, Western-oriented international media would do well to pay closer attention to the nation — and to give it greater play.

Now back to Saudi Arabia.

As noted above, not all that's been said about its decision to allow women to drive has been entirely starry-eyed. This is particularly the case with follow up analysis and opinion pieces that have provided needed context to the Saudi decision.

I get it that Saudi women are delighted by the news. For them, its been a long time coming.

But why now? What about Riyadh’s current economic and political needs have allowed this to happen? Secondly, is this just a bone or the start of monumental change in the famously super-conservative, religiously repressive monarchy?

This skeptical piece posted on The Atlantic website explains what going on as well as any of the several I've read.

Because The Atlantic is generally viewed as liberal, in the interest of intellectual fairness I’ll also provide this essay from the right-of-center The American Interest.

What strikes me about those pieces is how much they're in agreement. This piece from The New York Times also is in general agreement.

There’s much to the Saudi story and I urge you to read one or two of these background-rich analysis/opinion pieces in full to better understand what's going on. But in case you haven't the time right now, I’ll end with this excerpt from the Times that I think provides a broad outline of the Saudi dynamics without getting into the weeds.

"Built on an alliance between a royal family and the descendants of an ultraconservative Muslim cleric, Saudi Arabia has struggled throughout its history with how to reconcile modernization with loyalty to religious heritage," my excerpt begins.

That debate heated up as oil wealth enriched the state, bringing in unfamiliar customs and technologies like television, public education and automobiles.
Over time, competing camps dug in around women and the right to drive.
For liberals, the driving ban was a blot on the national brand that was hampering modernization and weakening the economy
Conservatives, including powerful clerics employed by the state, thought that allowing women to drive would be a crack in the dam that would allow secularism to flood in, washing away the kingdom’s unique Islamic identity.
The royal decree announced on Tuesday handed victory in that battle to the reformers, who had gained an advantage in recent years because of demographics, economics and the country’s young leadership, analysts said.

That's it in a nutshell. Again, I urge you to learn more about what's happening in Saudi Arabia -- as well as Tunisia.

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