A Study in Scandals. Cultural Change in 21st-Century Saudi Arabia
My PhD project investigates recent transformations in Saudi culture and scrutinizes its reach, sustainability and contribution to the development of a public sphere. Until now, there has been no significant political change in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, the country is often seen as leading the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring uprisings. And yet, Saudi Arabia has had in recent years a revolution of its own, albeit an aesthetic rather than a political one. This thawra adabiyya (literary revolution) has ushered in the era of the novel, a genre with no longstanding tradition in Saudi Arabia. But change is not limited to literature. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a growing number of writers, filmmakers, and artists, many of them young women with no previous artistic credentials, have set off to explore various aesthetic forms and challenge tradition, taboo and censorship with their literature, film, and art. Considering the authoritarian nature of the Saudi state and the hegemony of purist Wahhabi Islam that have for the longest time severely hampered artistic expression, the current cultural boom (al-tafra al-thaqafiyya) is all the more surprising.
Much of what is being produced by Saudi creative artists talks about things that have remained unsaid in Saudi Arabia until now. Most of it deals, in one way or another, with sex, religion, and politics, the ‘Prohibited Trinity’ (al-thaluth al-muharram) not to be transgressed by any Saudi artist. Topics hitherto relegated to the Saudi collective unconscious because they were considered too sensitive, like discrimination against women, homosexuality, and religious extremism are now discussed with surprising candor. It is this very frankness in transgressing taboos that makes Saudi contemporary culture so offensive to many. Thus, there is an intense assault on aesthetic production, rejected by critics as scandalous, shocking, or downright un-Islamic.
So far, Western research on Saudi Arabia has focused on the oil industry and the Kingdom’s role in promoting Islamic extremism. My project will instead look at agents of cultural change and their position in Saudi society while simultaneously taking into account the widespread resistance to change, in terms of institutional as much as individual forms of censorship. More generally, the study intends to shed light on the role of aesthetic counter-narratives in creating new public spheres.
First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag
Second Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Nadja-Christina Schneider