Women Healers, Gendered Spiritual Space and Wahhabism: Eleanor Doumato’s “Getting God’s Ear,”

By Rula Jurdi Abisaab

Getting God’s Ear:

Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

By Eleanor Abdella Doumato.

New York:  Columbia University Press, 2000, 312 pp.

From the documents and correspondence of the Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church in America, which was established in 1889, and from British ethnographies and travel accounts, Eleanor Abdella Doumato weaves a narrative about women, religion, and healing practices in Najd and the Gulf Region during the first half of the 20th century. With the scarcity of studies on Saudi women, “Getting God’s Ear,” brings a wealth of data about Arabian women’s urge to sanctify their own space, to heal and be healed, and to be close enough to God’s ear in this masculinized niche of religious ritual. Navigating through “the culture of Wahhabi Islam,” Doumato aims to discover the ways women restructure their spiritual lives on the margins, and the reasons for their exceptional absence of overt resistence to repression. The author is sure that in Wahhabism she will find explanations for the marginalization and separation of women from orthodox centers of worship, mainly because Wahhabism was the single most unique facet of Saudi Arabian life sanctioned and reinforced by public policy.

The book starts and ends with Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, but the five chapters between the introduction and the prologue focus on the women of Najd and the Gulf during the early 1900s. The author underscores the disparity between social validation of learning for boys and for girls and women’s limited access to religious and medical knowledge; these trends were most prominent following the implementation of Wahhabi methods of worship. Furthermore, she highlights the implications and consequences of women’s espousal of unorthodox healing techniques based on exorcising, appeasing, or communicating with spirits. Even though “Getting God’s Ear” comes full circle, attending to the questions raised in the introduction, not all of its sections are effectively integrated into the central motifs of women’s religious ritual and healing.      

One obstacle was the presence of ideological undercurrents in the missionary sources on which this study was based.  At times these undercurrents prevented the reader from tapping the exact context of the sources’ ethnography or the way women’s shamanistic practices were received by Najdi society prior to the resurgence of Wahhabism. To be sure, the missionary women found entrée through medical service the penetration of society at large and to the religious conversion of the Gulf women. What they found lacking in Arabian domestic science, became a further justification for the mission’s neocolonial goals of converting and civilizing Arabian women. Notwithstanding, by using these sources carefully and judiciously, they reflected change over time in women’s exclusion from the mosques and its subsequent effect on their access to the best medicines. This section has illuminating asides about the women missionaries for whom “educated motherhood” in American society of the late 1890s was a “prevailing cultural paradigm for ideal womanhood.” The female missionary discourse on Muslim women around the turn of the century was informed by their experiences with both the Arab-Muslim ‘Other’ and the American man.

The militant resurgence of the Wahhabi movement in Najd culminated in Ibn Saud’s conquest of the Arabian peninsula between 1902 and 1926. One would argue that the literal and scripturalist nature of the movement was selective, rather than an accurate reproduction of the early century of Islam. “Learning, as Arabia understands it,” wrote Hafiz Wahba, Ibn Saud’s minister of education in the late 1920s, “consists of interpretation of the Qur’an, familiarity with the Hadith,... Muslim law, the principles of theology, the Arabic language, and Islamic history.”  Wahhabism became ideologically tied to the Saudi state apparatus, and despite Doumato’s belief to the contrary, it continued to be subject to interpretation, but from above rather than below. The Saudi ambivalence toward women’s literacy echoes parallel views in Syrian and Egyptian societies at the time. Wahhabi society was not alone in fearing women’s mastery of the magical and dangerous skill of writing, for then who would be able to control women’s free and uncharted communication with the other sex through writing? These patriarchal, pre-industrial views on women’s literacy became state law in Saudi Arabia whereas in countries like Turkey or Tunisia they became one of several competing viewpoints.

The rich and lively sections of “Getting God’s Ear” capture the way in which women became both intellectually and physically marginal to congregational rituals and public religious space. Unlike women in al-Hijaz, the women of Najd and the surrounding Gulf areas were pushed to the margins of the mosque, forced to remain outside the location where men learn their religion and build social networks. The mosque gradually transformed into a man’s space, becoming an extension of his newly-defined image, his relationship to the new Saudi polity, and his relationship to God. The mosque was  “purified” and “rescued” from women, who the men could still see veiled outside its sacred precincts, possibly in silent protest. The disparities between boys and girls were evident in the highly publicized commencement of the khatma that marked the celebration of a young boy’s completion of the recital of the Qur’an and its more private female counterpart, the zaffah. In fact, the zaffah coincided with puberty, and therefore with the onset of veiling and seclusion practices.

Before the resurgence of Wahhabism, rites of passage and occasions of illness, tragedy, or infertility drew women, particularly the Shi’ite, to perform vowing rituals during regular visitations to shrines and tombs. Meccan women made a strong appearance at the mawlid ceremonies, designated for celebrating the Prophet’s birth, and partook in a procession to his birthplace where a reading about his life was delivered. Doumato’s sources, however, do not allow us to discern the extent to which demonstrative mourning, engagement in the mawlid celebrations, or offering vows to saints had been practiced during the late 19th century, or what aspects of these rituals were actually suppressed or took different forms.

Although Wahhabi authority deemed as fraudulent several shamanistic medical practices, divination, and amulet wearing by women and men alike, it gave much theological support for experimentation with missionary medicine and all other forms of medicine available to Najdis and Arabians.  As such  several forms of healing/science coexisted without one necessarily supplanting the other. One can only guess that the American missionary science posed little political threat, and was deemed religiously neutral. Other methods of healing were not treated so kindly; Doumato points to rare but significant accounts of witch-hunts which led to the execution of at least two women during the late 1920s at the behest of the Riyadhulama and the Ikhwan. The women were accused of practicing cautery, a wide-spread healing technique aimed at chasing malevolent spirits away and at curing madness and possession by jin (evil spirits).

Driven out of the central loci of worship, namely, the mosques, yet enjoined by the Wahhabi proselytes to make a public, vocal manifestation of faith, how did women reestablish their public relationship with the sacred? Doumato closely investigates this question. How were women to perform worship comparable to that performed in the precincts of the mosque? As long as women prayed at home, surrounded by domestic distractions, noise, and children’s crying, the Wahhabi ideal of worship remains out of reach, Doumato argues.

One questions, however, whether women would go to great lengths to continue this public puritanical profession of faith, an ideal centered around the now-masculinized mosque.  It would avail little sense of personal empowerment or spiritual fulfillment when practiced in the home.  Since they were viewed as unholy and unclean, some women may have been relieved to find their own centers of worship even though they were not guaranteed to be a safe spiritual or political passage to the community of the Wahhabis. Thus, with the rise of the Wahhabis, women moved out of a fluid, relatively gender-neutral spiritual community to one that was gender-segregated, excluded them from leadership roles, and marginalized their experiences of orthopraxy.

As women redrew the religious boundaries, their experiences of the sacred took new form. The Zar cult, for instance, was not evident in Najd but was revived in Kuwait, and possibly Mecca. Doumato tells us that in Kuwait, most of the participants in the new Zar cult were asil, or “pure-blooded tribal people,” who had gradually lost the high status they had been accorded in the late 19th century as part of the tribal aristocracy. Today,  education, money, full Kuwaiti citizenship, careers (even for women), political influence, and the ability to speak foreign languages has become far more important in determining status. As such, the Zar becomes more than an experience of the sacred; this particular and renewed experience of the sacred is at heart gendered and class-defined.

Even though the general definition of women’s modesty was determined in the Hanbali school of law and its Wahhabi renderings, it is important to understand how this definition functioned over different periods of time. In several areas where the state has seen fit to change what was generally perceived as fixed law, it has done so with little hesitation and with much legal creativity and reworking.

In the same vein, Wahhabist tradition, however scripture-based, has changed its many faces over time, though it has remained consistent in its coercive and oppressive measures against women. Like Doumato, many of us are struggling to understand how thousands of Saudi women who achieved high levels of university education, wrested important employment sectors, and owned and invested in business, live within a system that isolates them and control their sexuality, personhood, and labor.  As they move  daily in and out of their particular secluded niche of the workplace where their expertise is valuable and where they demand respect, women are perceived to be constantly in need of ‘discipline’ by the mutawi’in, the patrolmen of the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and of Prevention of Vice (Hay’at al-Amr bi’l-Ma’ruf wa’l-Nahi ‘an al-Munkar).  The mutawi’in guide them to ‘proper’ body language and ‘womanly’ behavior.

One of the most vivid depictions of the complex life of Saudi women is the comparison Doumato makes between the old suqs (markets) and the modern Saudi shopping mall. From the “charted territory” of the suq, as Doumato calls it, to the “uncharted territory” of the mall, the policing of women continues but in a new form, and invites experimentation of gender space where Saudi, European, and Asian men and women coexist without commingling in definite zones. The patrolmen find a way to redraw these zone boundaries with every new social and architectural challenge.

The death of women’s resistance occurred alongside the promotion of women as patriotic subjects.  By accommodating the state’s position and program of their place in the nation, women are elevated to representing one of its unique cultural anchors. On the other hand, female activists who have struggled for a greater scope of freedom in pursuit of education and employment have done so largely in the language of male society, thus upholding sexual segregation more methodically than their male counterparts.

This phenomenon was not, as Doumato argues, the outcome of women’s repression becoming favorably and positively articulated in popular culture, unless we agree that women have no role in the creation of popular culture. Rather, we need to discern how these images were woven, in what context, and whom they served. In my opinion, the women were convinced that they were the beneficiaries of the Saudi system however repressive it may be. They seem to accommodate the control over the domestic domain and their powerlessness within its confines—at least for the time being—in exchange for more control over the university and the workplace, however their control in those environments limited may be.

Indeed, what may cause historical changes in favor of women’s empowerment—now that education and employment have become accessible to women—are decisive demographic and socio-economic developments, as the last few pages of Doumato’s work suggested. The decline in prices of oil, the expansion and diversification of the Saudi economy, and the fact that many more women are seeking employment out of economic need rather than boredom or pursuit of adventure, are all expected to have an important impact on women’s conditions. This impact may be repressive in the short-term but liberating in the long-run.

Ultimately, “Getting God’s Ear” is trying to do two things simultaneously: to understand the transformation of spiritual practices and domestic science carried by women healers before and after the Wahhabi truimph, and to comment on the present state of Saudi women. At times, Doumato seems to suggest that religious marginalization was symptomatic of political marginalization, but mostly she suggests that both were the outcome of a marriage between tribalism, public policy, and Wahhabi Islam, with the last as the core engine of change.

She argues that the extensive system of sexual segregation is perfectly compatible with Najdi tribal culture and reinforced by religion and daily practice, but adds that even when incorporated in religious law “tribal values are unevenly applied and subject to personal discretion.”

 Despite the author’s sincere search for the connection of all these variables, her final conclusions remain somewhat confused, mostly because she continues to focus on “Wahhabi culture.”

Doumato found through Wahhabism “one part of a larger matrix that helps to clarify the tenacity of cultural constraints” on women in contemporary Saudi society compared, for instance, with women in Bahrain and Kuwait.  I am convinced that social process should be made the investigative tool in this study rather than culture. While the Wahhabi movement is undoubtedly a crucial factor, neither Wahhabi theological texts nor its official rulings lend us insight into the social processes nurturing the “invention” of women and the negotiation of gender roles. Could it be that both the Wahhabi movement and its gender project were the outcome of a completely different social process:  the formation of the Saudi state which disrupted the old tribal formula; gained its legitimacy first from within a particular social class in northern Arabia, and later from without by truce agreements with the British; and the discovery of oil.

I suggest that the project of Saudi citizen-subject formation be given more weight. This project, emerging out of the historical conditions of the Wahhabi movement, informed the process by which Wahhabi beliefs and edicts became law. At the heart of this project was the thrust to firmly hold the reigns of disruptive imaginations of the family and the domestic that contradict it. In this context comes the exclusion of domestic science produced and practiced by women from nationalistic programs that make up a Saudi citizen. The state, and thus the duties of citizenship, draw the boundaries between the private and the public, and renegotiate gender relations and women’s position. It is true that women’s public invisibility came to “act as a visible symbol of the monarch’s piety,” but we still need to know how to go, analytically, from the first to the second.

“Getting God’s Ear” was informative and enjoyable to read. Despite the criticisms and the questions I raised, I consider this work to be a valuable addition to the field of Middle Eastern women’s history and anthropology.

This review  appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 30 (Winter 2000)


Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid